Willemstad

Article and pictures by Jeroen van der Werf, all rights reserved.

Driving to Willesmtad across the green flat landscape, it is hard to imagine that all this land used to be a muddy marshland which was often flooded by the sea, but until the 16th century this was the case. It was used by shepherds who lived on artificial dwelling mounds to protect them from high water.

The land was owned by a marquis who decided to turn the area into a polder in 1564 after several other areas in the region had been reclaimed. This resulted in a piece of land called Ruigenhil and in 1565 a town of the same name was built there. The town consisted of three parallel streets with a big square graveyard at the end of the middle street. This pattern is still visible today.

In 1583 the Spanish took the town of Steenbergen situated just south of the new land. According to William I of Orange'this formed a threat for the rest of the Netherlands and he decided to fortify the village of Ruigenhil.

William came into possession of the town after the new marquis took sides with the Spanish in 1567 and was discharged of his possession. As a dispensation for all the costs of the war William was declared the new marquis by the Dutch state.

The position of Ruigenhil was a very strategic one; right on the border between the southern and northern Netherlands along one of the most important Dutch rivers - the Maas. Abraham Andriesz (an prolific military engineer in the Netherlands at that time) designed the fortications in 1583.

In 1584, the same year William I of Orange died, the city was renamed Willemstad in his honour. In 1609 a twelve year long truce was signed between Spain and the Netherlands.

As a consequence of this the discharge of the old marquis in 1567 was declared illegal and the lands had to be returned. Willemstad remained in the hands of Maurits (William's son) because William fortified the town (according to the treaty the parties had the right to keep the towns they fortified).

From that time on Willemstad has always been an estate of the crown, giving it special rights and a certain amount of independence. The fortifications have changed over the years in accordance with updated fortification theories and the overall form of the current fortress dates from the 1680s.

The fortifications were designed according to the Old Dutch System, only here the flanks of the bastions'are not perpendicular to the curtain walls but have a retreated curved shape (the use of these arrow-headed bastions'suggests an Italian influence) and are quite short.

In later years some of these flanks were modified to make them perpendicular to the curtain wall. Apart from the walls facing the sea, which were revetted in brick, all the ramparts were unrevetted earthworks.

The seaward front of the town consists of two bastions with water in front of them. Between this water and the river (which in the past was part of the sea) there is a glacis, which prevented ships from coming too close to the walls and gave extra protection against enemy fire.

A small canal connects the harbour inside the city with the river. The water in the ditch'is cut of from the river by a dam.

The dike surrounding the polder is connected to the town by two dams. To regulate the water level in front of the two seaward bastions there are sluices in the western dam and near the harbour on the eastern side. On the harbour side a second sluice is made to flood the ditch inside the town.

This was a small ditch running along the inside of the ramparts as an extra obstacle for the enemy once they got inside.

To regulate the water level in the ditch surrounding the town and the covered way'as well as a means to flood the polder a third sluice was made near the only landward gate to the town. Protecting this gate is the only demi-lune'in the fortress.

In later centuries buildings like powder magazines, bombshelters and, in WW II, blockhouses have been added. These mainly 19th century later additions to the fortress are quite extensive and very well preserved.

Visiting Willemstad

The fortress officially lost its military status in 1926. The population of Willemstad asked for the preservation of the fortifications and today the town and its surroundings are a monument.

According to me the beauty of this fortress lies in two things: the waterworks with the harbour and the surrounding lands. The harbour is still right near the water and is used intensively, this also adds to the historic atmosphere.

As for the surrounding lands, not only the city but also the surrounding countryside preserved. This means that building around the town is mostly forbidden. This makes it possible for the visitor to get a good impression of how things must have looked centuries ago.

The town can be reached by car easily and you are free to visit the fortifications. There are signs along the paths explaining the various features of the fortress.

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