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Thoughts on a trip to Antwerp, and legacies of the villainy of King Leopold II

I made a very brief trip to Belgium at the end of a trip to Amsterdam last year. On that occasion I spent a day in Brussels and a day in Bruges. My great discovery on that trip was the extraordinary quality of Belgian beer. I spent a tremendous evening in ‘t Brugs Beertje in Bruges, sometimes referred to as “the best bar in Belgium”, which on that occasion was filled with English beer buffs. (The best kind, quite possibly). On that trip, I passed Antwerp in a train, and from my guide book and what people told me, I got the impression I had missed somewhere good.

And, as it happens, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link from London to Ashford opened recently, giving me the chance to travel through Kent at over 200 km/h. I was able to both try this out and see Antwerp last weekend. I had an evening in Bruges and then a day and a half in Antwerp. The drinking in Bruges section of the trip I have documented already.

But the next day I did get to Antwerp.

The first thing I discovered is that the city has one of the more beautiful railway stations I have encountered. It is a single arch train shed, not quite London St Pancras but beautiful just the same, and for similar reasons. Brussels is essentially a French city, Bruges is a medieval Hanseatic League anachronism that was sort of stranded in time when the estuary of the river Zwin silted up in the 16th century, and Antwerp is the Dutch (Flemish) city where all the traders went when this happened.

One problem though is that Antwerp Central is a terminal station, rather than an intermediate stop on a line. Trains from Brussels to Amsterdam do not come into the centre of Antwerp but stop at a station on the edge of the city. (It was apparently not properly appreciated in the 19th century that however important the city was, it was essentially an intermediate stop, or at least would become one). This is being fixed, as a rail tunnel is being built under Antwerp to take TGV trains. Through trains will stop at new platforms underneath the existing ones. Heaven knows what this is costing to build, but it will certainly improve transport to and from Antwerp. (Brussels once had the same problem, but a tunnel under the city was completed around 50 years ago).

Anyway, Antwerp itself. For historical regions I do not fully understand, the Dutch speaking world is full of Argentinian steak houses.


This is true in Amsterdam, and also true in Antwerp, even though Antwerp is in Belgium. The cultural differences are dramatic when you cross from Flanders into Wallonia, much less so than from the Netherlands to Belgium. Architecturally it looks Dutch and not French. Shopping streets are not quite fully Dutch, but things are heading that way, although you still do see more French high street shops than in Amsterdam. Quite a lot of it feels Dutch or German though. Still, though, Antwerp (unlike Brussels) feels like an economically alive city. Which is accurate. Antwerp is perhaps most famous due to the fact that the world diamond business is centred in an area just near the railway station and is run by a community of Hasidic Jews. However, this actually pales in importance compared to the city’s immense port and huge petrochemicals business.

Antwerp Cathedral is one of the most beautiful I have seen, especially on the inside. (There are four original Rubens paintings – Antwerp was his home city). This photo doesn’t come close to doing the building justice.


It feels more planned than many great cathedrals, some of which tend to be a hodge podge of styles, with the key thing being to make the building as large as possible. Not so much this one. It is pretty large, however.

Like any major port, the city has lots of ethnic colour. I wasn’t careful and thus had lunch in an Egyptian restaurant rather than the Turkish restaurant I had intended. The food was good though.


The Belgian Congo (initially the personal property of King Leopold II of Belgium, who had ironically managed to get control of it in the first place by presenting himself as a great humanitarian) was perhaps the most brutal colonial enterprise of them all. Essentially, at the end of the 19th century the colony was turned into a slave labour rubber plantation by King Leopold and his men. Over a thirty year period the population of the colony was reduced from 20 million to 10 million. The level of brutality is hard to imagine. People who are interested in the story should read this or (for the same story told in the broader context of African colonialism) this. The ships bringing back rubber and other extraordinary bounty from the Congo sailed into the port of Antwerp, up the river Scheldt. There are raised promendes on the sides of the river which were erected at the time, so that people could watch ships arriving with African bounty.


The brutality was exposed by a passionate English advocate of free trade named Henry Morel, who founded the Congo Reform Movement after observing that the ships sailing into Antwerp were full of rubber and other things of great value. The ships going out contained nothing of value, except for some firearms and ammunition. From this Morel (correctly) deduced that the only explanation was slave labour. (The practice in the Congo was truly mindblowingly barbaric. One of its more notable practices was to demand that the men enforcing the collection of rubber from Africans bring back a severed human hand for every bullet they were issued with, to demonstrate that the bullet had not been “wasted”).

You can see remnants of the Congo trade today.


There are no bridges across the river at Antwerp, perhaps because of all the shipping. As I said, Antwerp is one of the busiest ports in Europe. Most of the port is downstream from the city, but a little is upstream. No doubt a larger proportion of it was once upstream. If anything, the city is a touch like Hamburg in layout.

And of course at least some of the Congo bounty (at least that portion that did not end up in the hands of Leopold’s mistress’ pimp) was used to build ornate public works throughout Belgium – museums, opera houses, and other monuments to King Leopold.


Like at most major ports, containerisation has moved the ships downstream from the city. Unfortunately I did not see most of it. But, if anything, the city is a touch like Hamburg in layout, because the river is navigable upstream further than is often the case. There is even a little container port just upstream from the main city.


I do love a container port in the evening.

10 comments to Thoughts on a trip to Antwerp, and legacies of the villainy of King Leopold II

  • Bob

    I was in Antwerp Cental Station for about five minutes and there was something about it that I will never forget. For some reason, it sticks in my mind as something beautiful or inspiring. Also, I’m on this Belgium beer kick, been drinking a lot of Hoegaarden and Stella. It’s good to be able to find these on tap in Southern California, thank god for globalisation. The train ride through Antwerp was to check out Brussels which is architecturally one of my favorite places, rolling hills and curvy streets. However, it is, perhaps, the most boring city I’ve ever been to.

  • Thanks for the very nice write-up of my former home town! It is true that we have one of the nicest cathedrals of Western Europe and surrounding areas 😉
    And that nice station? Built with money from king Leopold…

  • Hi, glad to hear you’re appreciating our national product ! Too bad you only stayed for such a short period in Belgium. We’re too complicated a country to get a good idea about it in only a couple of days.
    I see there are a couple of Belgian beer lovers around so please check out my post which encourages people to sign a petition for the preservation of one of the oldest beers in Europe. (Belgian of course ;-): http://philsplace.blogs.com/philsplace/food_and_drink/index.html

  • Andrew Duffin

    Looks like your anti-spambot thingy got hacked.

    What a waste of effort and resources. Why do these people think we’re interested in their rubbish? Do they really think that offending everyone in this way will advance their cause?


  • Andrew,

    It looks like it wasn’t spam, in the sense that it wasn’t automated. The flatulence (which I have now deleted) was posted to this post only, presumably because it was the one at the top of the Samizdata homepage. Someone presumably just entered their conspiracy theories manually, unfortunately.

  • Brian Micklethwait


    Well done giving King Leopold II the anti-write-up (write-down?) here that he so richly deserves, as one of the top half dozen or so mass murderers of the twentieth century, almost in the Hitler, Stalin, Mao class, and ahead of Pol Pot, Saddam, and many more who are far better known about, at any rate in our general political area.

    And thank goodness you put him in the title of your posting, otherwise casual passers-by might have seen the first picture and just thought this was a bit of light-hearted travel writing, about beer and buildings and nothing else.

  • Adam

    You forgot Dr. Evil, the most e-e-e-v-i-l-e of all Belgians.

  • mad dog

    Brussels is in Belgium and apparently “the devil incarnate” lives there…

    … but don’t worry, “Tin-tin” is up to the match.

  • Of course Hans-Herman Hoppe would have us believe that personal monarchical rule by white, European aristocrats is the closest thing to libertarianism that we have ever seen on earth. He spent much time in his book ‘Democracy: The God that Failed’ explaining his theory that when a monarch owns completely the territory he rules then, for time preference and other reasons culled from Austrian economics, he will not make unnecessary waste. King Leopold’s rule of the Congo seems to be about as perfect a refutation of this delusional piffle as one could wish for.

  • Locus

    [quote]Brussels is essentially a French city[/quote]

    I’m sorry (not really though), but this is incorrect. Brussels was originally a Flemish-speaking city, the frenchification started around the 1700’s, the original name for the city was Broeckzele. Also, the Grote Markt/Grand Place of Brussels (and a few more cities which are now French-speaking – Flanders used to incorporate much of Wallonia and parts of N. France) is built in the typical Flemish architectural style.

    The capital of Flanders is Brussels, while the capital of the Walloons is Namur. Brussels is also the federal capital.

    BTW you meant French-speaking city as opposed to French city. Completely different meaning. Why would the Republic of France own Brussels (a Belgian city) in this day and age..

    All mistakes aside, I’m glad you had a pleasant trip.