Zeeland’s history has been defined by its battle against the tide. It has also shaped the character of its people who are hardworking, uncomplaining and untiring. Coves, potholes or ‘kolks’ and ancient dikes, are reminders of how much of the province once belonged to the sea.
The history of man in Zeeland goes back about 150,000 years. A Stone Age axe found on the beach at Cadzand in Zeeuwsch-Vlaanderen is proof of this. The land there lies for the most part somewhat higher than the rest of Zeeland.
A long, sandy ridge runs from east to west. Many finds have been made on that sandy ridge. So, you see, people have been coming to Zeeland from very, very early times. At Nieuw- Namen, in Oost- Zeeuwsch-Vlaanderen, Stone Age arrowheads have been found. They date from about 9000 BC.
Farmers were probably already living in Zeeland from about 4500 BC on. About 1 AD, a row of sand dunes stretched along the coast, interrupted every now and again by a river mouth. Beyond were peat bogs, criss-crossed by creeks extending all the way to the sandy soil of Brabant.
Herdsmen lived on the higherlying peat moors. They made their own pottery or had it brought in from potteries in the Rhine area (around present-day Cologne) and Lotharingen (on the border of France and Germany). Many Roman artefacts have been found in Aardenburg in Zeeuwsch-Vlaanderen.
The Romans came to the Netherlands about the beginning of the 1st century AD and left about a hundred years later. At that time, Domburg on Walcheren was an important town. From Domburg, trade with towns in England and elsewhere in Western Europe was being conducted. After a severe storm in 1647, the remains of a temple dedicated to the goddess Nehalennia emerged from under the dunes. Altarpieces were also found. Sailors once dedicated the stones to the goddess in gratitude for a safe voyage. In 1970 and 1971, even more Roman relics were fished up, once more including Nehalennia altar stones.
For three centuries AD, Zeeland was largely flooded. For the time being, habitation came to an end. Perhaps some people were able to settle in the dunes. The 8th to 10th centuries AD saw another period of brisk trade with England. Once again, Domburg was the main port, only this time it was probably called “Walacria’. Later, the island of Walcheren was named after it. About 850 AD, the Vikings (Danes) had Walcheren in their possession for a while. After they left, castles were built in Oostburg, Oost-Souburg, Middelburg, Domburg and Burgh.
The castles were part of a line of defence that stretched from the coast of France to Den Burg on Texel. Slowly but surely, from the 11th c AD on, the islands were reclaimed from the sea. Flemish abbeys that owned large parts of Zeeland at the time did much of this work. Also, dike reeves regularly had dikes built. Those were enormous jobs, for the people had only simple spades and baskets as their main tools. Small islands grew into larger areas through diking-in. Sheep grazed on the salt marshes and mud flats. There was a thriving wool trade. Abbeys and cloisters, even the 12th c abbey at Middelburg, were very influential.
The monks were the ones who laid the foundation for a well-planned system of agriculture. Trade increased and brought prosperity and the population grew. This led to the growth of a large number of villages in the 12th and 13th centuries. A village was only really important if it had a church. Some villages grew into cities. Middelburg was granted city rights in 1217 from a Flemish countess and a Dutch count. In that period the water boards also came into being. The 16th century showed economic prosperity but decline, wars and floods, as well.
On November 5, 1530 (Saint Felix’s Flood), for example, Noord- Beveland, Borssele and Sint-Philipsland disappeared underwater for decades. And war — it was then the fight against Spain. In 1574, Middelburg fell into the hands of William of Orange. The monks left their Abbey after more than four centuries. Shortly after, the provincial government occupied the Abbey buildings, where it remains to this day. Social and cultural life got a great boost from the fall of Antwerp in 1585 and the arrival of many Flemish. This marked the start of a Golden Age for Zeeland as in the rest of the Netherlands. It can still be seen in the many monuments that have left their imprint on many cities such as Middelburg, Veere, Zierikzee, Tholen, Vlissingen and Brouwershaven.
The 18th century was again a time of decline in prosperity. The rule of Napoleon made it all the worse. French domination (1795-1813) brought considerable changes. Shipping on the Westerschelde came to a virtual halt and the cities of Zeeland decayed. Trade was hardly possible any longer. Only farming could hold its own. When the French left, they left it impoverished. From that period, in almost all the cities, a vast amount of buildings were demolished. The 19th century can with reason be called the century of demolition. The government tried to stimulate the economy but it was difficult.
In 1868, the railway from Bergen op Zoom to Goes was opened. Five years later, it was extended to Vlissingen. At the same time, the Canal through Walcheren and the Vlissingen harbour works were completed. Shortly afterwards, the shipbuilding company “De Schelde” in Vlissingen was established. It created many jobs. Zeeland passed quietly into the 20th century. The most important changes were the appearance of trams on Walcheren and later, also in Zeeuwsch-Vlaanderen and on Schouwen. In 1928, the island of Tholen was connected to Noord- Brabant by a bridge across De Eendracht.
The Second World War (1940-1945) left its marks in Zeeland, traces of which can still be seen. On May 17, 1940, a German bombardment destroyed a large part of the centre of Middelburg. The provincial fleet of ferries was completely destroyed. Vlissingen became the most shelled city in the Netherlands. At the end of the war only one house there had come through the war without a scratch. In October 1944, the Allies bombed Walcheren’s sea dikes. Walcheren was flooded. The Germans were pushed out and the shipping lanes to Antwerp were re-opened. Fighting left most of West-Zeeuwsch- Vlaanderen in ruins. During the winter of 1944-1945, Schouwen-Duiveland was still suffering under German terror.
Post-war reconstruction got off to a slow start due to the shortage of material and working machines. When things were finally back to about the pre-war norm, the February 1, 1953 flood disaster caused the Province another setback. This disaster caused the deaths of 1835 people in the southwest of the Netherlands and left a major part of Zeeland’s islands underwater. The construction of the Delta dikes and dams were a direct result of the flood. In 1986, the Oosterschelde Stormvloedkering was completed. From the 1960s, industry, trade and transport in Zeeland have grown considerably. They are now the most important source of income.
This a part of the article, “Everything you should know about Zeeland”at the Zeeland site. Translated in English by Nancy Koper, Middelburg, the Netherlands.
Download Zeeland, Province with Character, a short movie about the province of Zeeland. Information on, among others, accessibility, housing, employment, culture and the role of the provincial government are discussed.