Ostend: Developing a Habsburg window upon the World

  • Michael Serruys (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentationTalk or presentation at a conference


After the War of Spanish Succession the converging interests of the Irish Jacobite refugees (with maritime know-how), the Austrian Netherlands’ aristocratic and financial elite (prone to invest) and emperor Charles VI (in search of an overseas empire to bolster his Spanish claims) allowed for the creation of the General Indian Company (GIC) in Ostend (1723). By focussing on some niche products, the GIC played a significant and innovative role in the European-Asian trade relations. The Habsburg Monarchy’s first maritime global expansion was also a huge commercial success with a net profit of ca. 150%. But because of mounting Dutch, British and French pressure Charles VI had to put an end to the GIC’s activities in 1731. Labelled as one of the country’s greatest maritime achievements, Belgian historiography has nevertheless siloed this whole episode. A second maritime expansion occurred during the American War of Independence in the 1780s, when the port of Ostend became Western Europe’s global gateway. Although traditional historiography has described this as a short-lived and factitious development, this view is now more and more contested, for instance by maritime and global historians like Parmentier and Ressel. As a matter of fact, the development of the port of Ostend, which allowed for the global maritime expansion in the 1780s, could never have taken place without the relentless support of Habsburg state actors in both Vienna and Brussels, as well as non-state actors, such as the GIC’s former investors. Immediately after the GIC’s downfall, Charles VI set out to redress Ostend’s position as a Habsburg window upon the world. His plans were sanctioned just before his death (1740) and actively pursued after the Aachen peace treaty (1748). This shows the Habsburg Monarchy’s desire to connect with the world is far more coherent than what has been hitherto believed.
Period3 Jun 2022
Event titleGlobal approaches to habsburg History: Perspectives, potentials, payoffs and pathways
Event typeConference
LocationInnsbruck, Austria
Degree of RecognitionInternational