URSABLOG: In Antwerp

I was invited last week to give a talk to the Antwerp Chartering Club, and I was  honoured by the invitation, excited and I must admit a bit scared by the prospect. A lot of the time I am teaching students, mostly for the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers, but also as a guest lecturer at universities, but this was an altogether different challenge. The Antwerp Chartering Club is a unique organization, because it does what it says on the tin: all the members are in the business of shipbroking, on a daily basis.

Such a presentation may sound like an easy task, but the challenge was increased by the fact that apart from having the attention span of your average goldfish, chartering brokers are a lively lot; there was a bar at hand, and far more interesting conversation to be had with each other than listening to me, a simple sale and purchase broker.

The topic of the talk was how shipping needs cycles to survive, but during my research I became so immersed in the subject that the speech became more of a users guide for brokers. I find that in planning lectures and talks, I end up educating myself in the process. This talk was no exception: there is so much material, and so much to consider.

I am pleased to report that despite the obvious temptations, they remained interested in what I was saying until I had finished. I got back to the hotel flush with the glow of a successful evening, although I am not discounting the fact that the famously strong Belgian beer also had something to do with my red cheeks and my unsteady legs..

I spent the rest of the weekend in Antwerp, and I can honestly say it was a revelation. When I was telling people in Greece I was going to Antwerp many had never heard of the place, well those outside shipping at least. Indeed it is a small city tucked in a corner of Belgium, hemmed up against the Dutch border. It is not a hub of global diplomatic activity, like Brussels, or a chocolate box tourist city, like Bruges, but an important port, with historical and cultural roots at the birth of both capitalism and global trade, roots the city is not only proud of but remain very important to the life and identity of the city today.

As followers of my Instagram and Facebook accounts found to their tedium I was also inspired by the cultural highlights of the city. I spent the Saturday visiting many of the museums and art galleries of the city, and I finished the afternoon mesmerised by Saint Carolus, Ruben’s church. The art was concentrated around Rubens, naturally enough, but there was space for Goya, Munch and others too, a wonderfully diverse legacy. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts was shut for renovation; considering the embarrassment of riches I had seen in the “minor” museums I would have needed two more days had it been open.

It wasn’t just the museums and churches that had me enthralled. Apart from the excellent food, just wandering around the streets with a mixture of medieval and modern architecture shoved up against each other was fascinating, combining history with the experience of being in a real and living city, driven by many different factors.

The history of Antwerp is long, but I was unaware that the city was so important in trade. By the 14th century it had become the sugar centre of Europe, importing raw materials and exporting the refined product to Italy and Germany amongst other places. Moneylenders and bankers set up there, and Antwerp has some claim to have housed the first modernbourse¸ or stock exchange. In the mid 1500s it was the centre of the entire international economy, and the richest city in Europe. At that time, Antwerp was a Spanish possession and was earning the crown seven times more in revenues than their American colonies. Portuguese ships unloaded their pepper and cinnamon cargoes there, cargoes of great value and importance, especially considering that they were a lot easier to ship than gold. Because at that time because the city had no deepsea merchant fleet, and because the oligarchal rulers of the city, mainly bankers, were forbidden to engage in trade, the economy was controlled by foreigners. It was therefore a tolerant and cosmopolitan place. There was a sizeable Jewish population, a legacy still felt today as Antwerp is one, if not the main, centre of diamond trading in the world, a trade developed and maintained by the diaspora.

As with most cities, Antwerp’s dominance faded and for a time became almost irrelevant as Amsterdam and others had their place in the limelight. But wander around the streets and you will still catch a whiff of trade and commerce, and the sea of course, wafting in the air.

The sea is still hugely important to Antwerp. By volume of total freight loaded or unloaded, it is the second largest port in Europe after Rotterdam. It is the second largest container port in Europe, and the 15th largest in the world (Le Havre, Felixstowe and Piraeus don’t even make the cut). It is the largest port in Europe for breakbulk cargo, the third for cars, the second largest for liquid bulk, and sixth for dry bulk. I didn’t know this before I went – I do now.

On the Sunday morning, I went to MAS, the Museum aan de Stroom. This very striking building has different floors with different themes including one devoted to the Display of Power, and one to Life and (particularly) Death.

The programme notes say:

Power exists in many forms. It is incredibly fascinating to see how power appears in a different way depending on the situation and the local colour. In most places wealth is the pinnacle of power, but beauty and high birth cannot be forgotten. The exhibition Display of Power allows you to look inside the world of the smartest, the richest, the strongest or the most authoritarian. You probably have a preference or have become used to a certain aspect. You can discover that aspect in this exhibition.

And indeed I did. It was educational and thought provoking. Fittingly enough Life and Death, Gods and Mankind was three floors up (separated ironically enough by Shipping and Trade where, nerd that I am, I lingered long):

Enter the underworld with its grisly gods, listen to the various myths that have attempted to explain death and interpret the different philosophical ideas about life and death. Scientists and philosophers, gods and humans all consider our great questions about life and try to explain the numerous myths.
I was very thoughtful after all this:

Do I aspire to power? Do I have power already? If so, how do I use it? Do I want more? Why?

What is death? What is the point of life? What is the point of my life?

I wandered back through the streets, had lunch, picked up my bags, and headed to the station, which is spectacular in itself, built almost as a cathedral to trains. As I started my journey back to Athens, the thoughts of the past few days started to form some patterns in my mind.

The power I have is limited by my knowledge, my communication skills, my efforts and my integrity. Because these are things of value to me, if I try to replace them with other things I become false, and therefore literally devalued.

Death is another matter altogether. I don’t believe that death is the point of life, even though it is the end. How I use the gifts I have been given is up to me. However as I explained to the Antwerp Chartering Club, I think that trying to solve life before we live it is unproductive, or worse counterproductive.

There is one important point. I was invited by the Club to speak because they had read these blogs. They called a colleague of mine to check whether I would be amenable (and suitable) before addressing me directly. By going to speak in Antwerp I broadened my mind (at the same time as killing a few brain cells in the process) both in shipping and in life. It turns out shipping is not just about relationships, but the spread of information and knowledge.

15th and 16th century art in Antwerp was catalysed by trade and shipping. The money that economic activity brought was able to pay for creation, the ideas that it brought stimulated creativity. Life does not exist in a bubble - of history, of lifestyle, of study, of sector. Going to Antwerp educated me and inspired me, and I am very grateful for  the kind hospitality of the shipping community in Antwerp that allowed me to take this opportunity. Everything in life has consequences: the trip allowed me to make a different journey of exploration, and it is for that I am most grateful to the Antwerp Chartering Club.

Simon Ward