3 - The Zuiderzee: a thoroughfare, battlefield and fish hold

Storm surges led to Almere connecting to the North Sea in the twelfth century. Peat barriers between North Holland and Friesland were flushed away. Almere became the Zuiderzee. Being situated at the Zuiderzee, settlements at the east and western banks could easily partake in international trade. The Zuiderzee marked the location of a very important naval battle during the Eighty Years’ War. But more importantly, for centuries the Zuiderzee was one of the major thoroughfares and fishing spots in the Netherlands.

Creation of the Zuiderzee

The Zuiderzee was physically created in the twelfth century. Dutch agricultural activities in the northern moors caused the soil to drop. The peat settled and storm surges led to floods. More and more land was lost. The lakes in Holland and Friesland grew and the area north of West Friesland gradually turned into a large sea. Various floods engulfed villages like Ruthne, Marcnesse, Nagele and Espelo. Their names are still visible today in the town names of the Noordoostpolder.

The Zuiderzee, first called the 'Suder See' in the thirteenth century, gained its final form around 1250 and 140 when Schokland became an island. This is partly due to the construction of large circular dikes like the ones of Westergo and Oostergo in Friesland and the West-Friesian circular dike in Holland. During that time, the Zuiderzee area was still subject to regular floods, like the ones in 1776, 1825 and 1916. 

 The floods at Schellingwoude in 1916. On January 13 and 14, the Netherlands suffered a flood disaster around the Zuiderzee.

At Schokland, too, the water rose to unprecedented levels. The high water marks (1825 and 1916) on the wall of the Middelbuurt church stand testimony to this.

When passing through the locks, an important thing to look out for was to let as little salty seawater pass into the rivers as possible. 

City seal of Harderwijk from 1280 showing a cog of Hanseatic merchants.

Important 'thoroughfare'

Since its inception in the twelfth century, the Zuiderzee was an important 'traffic hub'. Nearly all domestic transport of fuels, foodstuffs and persons was done across water.  Since the thirteenth century, the Zuiderzee was the foremost hub for the cogs of the Hanseatic fleet and in the 17th century for VOC ships that sailed for the oceans via Texel. 

The dangers and the bustling activity of the Zuiderzee became clear after the draining of the polders, when more than four hundred cogs, water ships, broad ships, barges and smacks were uncovered. What remained of their contents showed they engaged in peat shipping and ox, butter, cheese and egg transport, but also the transport of seasonal workers from Germany who helped with peat cutting, the construction of dikes and channels, and with the harvest.

A 500 year old ship is dug out from the drained land of the Noordoostpolder.

Sailing the Zuiderzee was a treacherous affair. This inland sea had shallow depths to navigate around (Enkhuizerzand, Vrouwenzand and Pampus) while the tides could change the course of the channels. Buoying was installed and the fires at Urk and Ens on the south-most tip of Schokland, which later turned into lighthouses, were important landmarks for sailors.

To pay for the construction and maintenance of the 'vuurboet' [early lighthouse] at the Southern tip of Schokland (Ens) and to protect its coast, the cities in Overijssel began to levy so-called Enser fees from sailors as of 1634 as they passed Ens during arrival or departure. The leeward east side of Schokland offered shelter for many ships during a storm. Sailors hauling a deck cargo of peat from Drenthe or Overijssel were especially glad to make use of this. Since the 18th century, the Zuiderzee suffered from shipworms that inflicted serious damage to the wooden shoring and ships. To prevent flood disasters, stone constructions were becoming more popular.

Zuiderzee fishery

The Zuiderzee fishery is as old as the Zuiderzee itself. Extensive fishing already took place in the Middle Ages. Initially, most places along the sea had their own fishing area at the mouth of local rivers. By the sixteenth century, the Dutch moved east as the south-western and northern part of the Zuiderzee became brackish. Pot fishery was the most commonly used fishing technique, but the elger (new fishing technique late nineteenth century) and silk fishing nets were seeing increased use.


Around 1800, the size of the fishing fleet on the Zuiderzee was a modest one. Many fishers from Urk, Volendam and Huizen were also fishing on the North Sea. This required the construction of somewhat larger ships, 'Schokkers' and 'Botters', at shipyards in Kuinre and Blokzijl. After the malaise of the French Period, when commerce and shipping were seriously hampered, the Zuiderzee fishery blossomed.

Zuiderzee botter MK63

Up to the mid-nineteenth century, catches of herring in the Zuiderzee were excellent and anchovy fishing became more important. Not least because of the use of the 'miracle pit' (nets intertwined between two barges). During this period, the Zuiderzee fleet grew to around seven hundred ships. This expansion again occurred until circa 1880: the number of ships doubled, prices stayed high and new transport options by rail and the use of ice as a refrigerant enabled export of the Zuiderzee fish to new markets. Stagnation hit around the year 1880: after a series of poor catches and growth of commercial fishing operations came to a halt. At that time, the fishing fleet comprised some sixteen-hundred vessels and would expand once more around the year 1900 to over three thousand vessels carrying around seven thousand persons on board. After that, the boom years for the Zuiderzee fishery were over and a long-lasting malaise set in that persisted until World War 1. A fish auction was founded on Emmeloord in 1915, making the fishermen less dependent on traders. Harmen Smit, ‘the Grand Old Man of the Zuiderzee', was in control until 1932.

Eel and zander

The plans for closing off and partially reclaiming the Zuiderzee kept the Zuiderzee fishers from making investments and renewing their ships and equipment. 

When the Zuiderzee Works started in 1920, Zuiderzee fishing was pretty much done for. The completion of the Afsluitdijk had the consequence that a salt and brackish water environment, rich in flora and fauna, would disappear in a few years to make room for a shrinking freshwater lake with much less vegetative and animal variation. The original fish species, herring, anchovy, flounder, shrimp etc disappeared and the only profitable ventures were eel and zander fishing.

Battle of the Zuiderzee

During the Eighty Years' War (1568-1648), in which the Dutch fought the Spanish, the Zuiderzee was the stage for a massive sea battle. The 'Sea Beggars' managed to block off Amsterdam, which by then was still under Spanish rule. A Spanish fleet, commanded by general Bossu, attempted to lift this blockade of 24 lightly armed ships and this culminated on October 11, 1573, in the Battle of the Zuiderzee. Bossu was forced to admit defeat. The Spanish supreme commander Alva (don Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, nicknamed the Iron Duke) left the Netherlands in part due to the defeat on the Zuiderzee. Painter: Abraham de Verwer. Haarlem circa 1585 - Amsterdam 1650).

By the early 21st century, only a few dozen commercial fishers remain in the Markermeer (south of the Lelystad-Enkhuizen dike) and the IJsselmeer lake. The large fleet of olden times has been reduced to a marginal economic activity that has some touristic appeal. The only auction for the freshwater fish is found in Urk, which is also open to tourists. Tourists can also visit the maritime archaeology museum of the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands in Lelystad, which exhibits old ships that were dug out from the drained lands.