Founded in 1389 as the official port of Delft, and like the herring fisheries which played such an important role in it’s development, Delfshaven is teeming with history. A history that is still visible as you stroll down the narrow streets amongst wonderful historic buildings, many of which were built with profits from the herring trade.
Delfshaven was one of the six ports of the Dutch East India Company, the legendary VOC, which dominated trade with the Far East for centuries; it was the birthplace of Pieter Pietersen Heyn, one of the Netherlands’ most famous sea captains, a notorious pirate he was the scourge of the Spanish fleet; it is home to Jenever, the Dutch gin responsible for the phrase ‘Dutch Courage’; and from this very same spot, some of the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for the New World of New England.
Modern-day Delfshaven sits gloriously compact in a Rotterdam suburb, home to an eclectic mix of artists, students and young families. It gives the area a bohemian feel, underlined by the numerous restaurants and bars, as well as all the houseboats.
While Rotterdam was flattened during the German blitzkrieg at the start of the Second World War, Delfshaven survived a later Allied bombing of the docks that mistakenly flattened the neighbouring Bospolder-Tussendijken district. Walking through the area early on a Sunday morning, traditional Dutch barges were moored around the beautiful inner port; the famous Delfshaven windmill stood stoically observing the tranquil scene; and sunlight struck the golden weathervane of the Pilgrims’ Church, the Pelgrimvaderskerk. History seemed to spring to life.
It was in the Pelgrimvaderskerk, and on the quay in front, that some of the Founding Fathers prayed before setting sail for the unknown.
The Netherlands had long been home to English religious dissenters, those who refused to acknowledge the control of the Church of England because they didn’t believe it had been ‘purified’ of Catholicism. In a period when Church and State were one and the same, such views were seen as traitorous and fanatical by the English authorities. Across the North Sea, Dutch religious tolerance led many Dissenters to leave England for the land of the windmill.
I came across this connection while wandering East London’s Rotherhithe earlier this year where I discovered the departure point for The Mayflower, the ship in which the Pilgrim Fathers departed for New England in 1620. Rotherhithe and The Mayflower were just one half of a bigger story though; in the Netherlands another group of religious outcasts were preparing to make the same journey. They left from Delfshaven, a 30-minute and 400-year journey from my current home in The Hague.
When the Pilgrim Fathers sailed down the Thames in July 1620 they went to Southampton to rendezvous with a second ship, the Speedwell. The Speedwell had been purchased and refitted in the Netherlands before sailing from the port of Delfshaven. Its cargo was human, English Religious Dissenters who had based themselves in the Dutch city of Leiden before seeking new horizons in North America.
The Speedwell and The Mayflower were supposed to sail the Atlantic together, but the Speedwell leaked badly and proved unseaworthy. It was destined to be left behind in England. A number of passengers from Speedwell crammed onto The Mayflower and, in horribly cramped conditions, sailed into history.