Fish and fishing have been central to the history and culture of the communities that for centuries have lived and worked along the shores of the Zuiderzee. In the 17th Century, Zuiderzee towns got rich from the trade in spice, gold and silk that flowed to these waters all the way to India, Japan, China and Indonesia. The wealth it generated was so enormous it launched the Dutch Golden Age. The towns of Hoorn and Enkhuizen were founding members of the Dutch East India Company, and trade with the East saw them flourish for a century or more.
It was fish and fishing that was the mainstay for most communities in this region though. North Sea herring, supplemented by whaling, formed the backbone of their economies until the 18th Century, by which time many harbours had silted up and ocean-going boats couldn’t reach the open sea. The Zuiderzee continued to provide a living for many communities, and eel became an important catch. It is the history of these communities that is preserved at the open air Zuiderzee Museum in Enkhuizen.
Known as the Southern Sea in English, the Zuiderzee was really a large bay of the North Sea. It was created in the 13th Century by rising sea levels that flooded the land, and a series of ferocious storms which destroyed the dunes and marshlands that formed a natural barrier to the sea. Although it extended 100km inland, had a coastline of around 300km and covered a vast 3,200 square kilometres, the water was rarely more than 4 metres deep. This gave rise to the iconic flat-bottomed boats with keels attached to their sides that remain a feature of the former Zuiderzee.
Over the centuries North Sea storms, similar to those that helped form the Zuiderzee, regularly brought death and destruction to this region. The St. Elizabeth’s Day Flood of 1421 was one of the worst; it caused massive damage and left up to 10,000 people dead across the country. There were dozens of smaller floods over the centuries, but also some much bigger natural disasters, including the Great Storm of 1703, one of the the worst ever recorded in northern Europe.
The idea of damming the Zuiderzee to prevent these disasters had first been mooted in the 17th Century, but it was the vicious floods of 1916 that finally pushed the Dutch government into action. It took nearly two decades more, but eventually the Afsluitdijk, a 32km dyke sealing the Zuiderzee off from the North Sea, was completed and the Zuiderzee became the IJsselmeer, Western Europe’s largest lake.
This was little short of a disaster for the communities of the Zuiderzee, the fishing fleet became redundant as the salt water of the Zuiderzee turned into the fresh water of the IJsselmeer. Villages and towns lost the mainstay of their livelihoods and most communities went into a spiral of decline. Centuries old traditions began to be lost and an entire part of Dutch history appeared to be on the verge of extinction.
Until, that is, the idea of the Zuiderzee Museum took shape. Recreating a traditional fishing village, original historic buildings from across the region were brought to Enkhuizen and turned into a late 19th, early 20th Century Zuiderzee fishing village. There are 130 buildings in the museum-cum-village, many of them are inhabited by people who dress in traditional clothing and continue traditional trades, such as smoking fish, to recreate the lives of typical villagers. It is a brilliant and atmospheric place to visit, and offers a unique insight into a way of life that has all but vanished.
As a footnote, the construction of the Afsluitdijk wasn’t just about preventing natural disasters; it was part of a larger plan to reclaim more land from the water. By 1968 three large areas of over 1,300 square kilometres of ‘new’ land had been created. Villages like Elburg which had once been on the coast found themselves inland, and new towns like Lelystad and Almere were constructed on the new land.
A new dam linking Enkhuizen with Lelystad was constructed in 1976 as a prelude to a fourth reclamation project, but rising environmental concerns put an end to this and any further projects to reduce the former Zuiderzee in size.