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The Belgians: a bi-maritime people. Belgian maritime identity and its representation in everyday life

Boekbijdrage - Boekhoofdstuk Conferentiebijdrage

Geopolitics, or géohistoire as Braudel calls it, is the science or the discipline which explores the link between geography on the one side, and the past and present political, economic, cultural, religious, etc. relations on the other. Most geopolitical studies have treated the military or international aspects of great powers. Little attention has been given to the geopolitical aspects of smaller nations. Nevertheless geopolitics of smaller countries can give us some very interesting information on how those countries perceive their role in their geographic environment. The relation of a nation, a people or a country with the sea, in other words its maritime identity, can thus be described and explained in geopolitical terms.
By using geopolitical methods the odd relation of Belgium with the sea can be clarified. On the one hand Belgium offers major world ports, like Antwerp, while on the other hand a sense of maritime identity, as compared to its seafaring neighbours, is completely missing. To solve this paradox we must go back to the partition of the Low Countries after the Dutch Revolt in the sixteenth century. As a result of this partition, a new border not only cut off the major port of Antwerp from the North Sea, it also shaped a new geopolitical configuration for the Southern Netherlands, nowadays Belgium, that is still visible today. In this configuration Belgium can be perceived as a bimaritime state, or a state with two separate coasts, in this case the North Sea coast in the west, and the Scheldt estuary near Antwerp. Great powers, like France or the United States, have always had to make choices between their two - very visible - coasts. But like these great powers, a small country like Belgium has also had to make strategic choices between these two coasts.
By choosing Antwerp as their main focal point, the Belgians opted for a landlocked maritime hub and thus created a continental identity with little regard for the vast possibilities the sea has to offer. Antwerp is a place where foreign ships come to load and unload goods, it is in other words perceived as the 'economic' coast. The North Sea coast, Belgium's second coast, has largely remained devoid of important maritime activities. In the Belgians' minds the North Sea coast is the 'romantic' coast, where the natural elements rule, the traditional (as in an old-fashioned or bygone way) maritime activities as fishing still exist and where you would go on holiday.
In the proposed presentation we would briefly like to show the existence of Belgium's bimaritime status, but also how this status is perceived by its population. This perception, economic coast versus romantic coast, can be seen on numerous engravings in school book manuals (geography, history, etc.), murals in for instance railway stations, statues and national monuments. These works of art are tokens indicating this rather unknown aspect of the country's geographical features. It also gives an insight into how the Belgians perceive their country's maritime identity and destiny.
Boek: Maritime people. The 9th North Sea History Conference. 5-7 September 2008 Stavanger, Norway
Pagina's: 117-138
Aantal pagina's: 22
ISBN:978-82-90054-76-7
Jaar van publicatie:2011
Trefwoorden:Belgium, Antwerp, Ostend, Bruges, identity, bi-maritime