The shipworm epidemic in the Austrian Netherlands in the 1730s. The social effects of an environmental crisis on a coastal and maritime society

Activiteit: Talk or presentation at a conference


Like many other European harbours, the port of Ostend (Belgium) had to face the devastating effects of the shipworm epidemic of the 1730s. Shipworms, despite their name, are actually not worms, but voracious wood scavenging molluscs. These animals, up to 60 cm long, use their shells to dig holes and eat their way into submerged wood. Although shipworms were known by the Europeans since Antiquity, they only appeared occasionally in North Western European waters. But due to changing environmental conditions (temperature, salinity, …) the shipworm population exploded along the West-European coast in the 1730s. Within a few years numerous harbour infrastructure, like quays, docks, bridges, locks, but also dikes were damaged beyond repair. The impact of the shipworm’s destruction was wide-ranged and the Low Countries (both the Dutch Republic and the Southern Netherlands) were particularly hard hit by this ecological disaster, as the shipworm attacked the wooden dikes and locks that protected these low-lying lands. In recent years, the shipworm epidemic has been well covered in Dutch literature, although little information has been given on how harbours and port cities dealt with this crisis. In this paper we propose to look how a medium-sized harbour along the North Sea, in casu Ostend, coped with the shipworm infestation. In the proposed paper we will focus consecutively on the shipworm, the outlook of the port of Ostend, how the environmental conditions favoured the shipworm infestation and how the different authorities tried first to remedy, and later to counter further epidemics. In doing so, many changes (political, technological, management) were implemented that had a profound impact on the outlook of the port of Ostend in the second half of the eighteenth century.
Periode30 jun 2022
Evenementstitel8th International Congress of Maritime History: Old and new uses of the oceans
LocatiePorto, Portugal
Mate van erkenningInternational