Silver Seekers Print E-mail
Monday, 24 January 2005

Some say England’s periods of maritime supremacy were based on wool and France’s on wine. If that’s true, Holland’s days of glory must be down to the humble herring!

There was herring fishing in Roman times but the first accounts of large scale activities are around 880 A.D. with references to “prodigious quantities of herring taken near the island of Helgeland for the English needs” and “herring from Scandinavia feeding almost all countries of Europe.” The Dutch were the first to recognize the vast potential of this silver harvest and, in 1160, organized their catchers into a cohesive fleet. This laid the foundations for a centuries long domination of the continental herring market.

We aren’t sure what boats those early Dutch fishermen used, but we can guess – the flat bottomed visserpink (Dutch smack) didn’t change much between 1400 and 1800, so it’s probable that the same boat was used earlier. It seems incredible that men sailed from Holland to the Shetlands, in 10 metre open double-enders, lay to their drift nets for hours, gutting and salting their catch on board, then sailed home again. That return journey must have been especially hazardous, for the laden pinks could not have had much freeboard!

One glance at a visserpink model will tell anyone that Holland’s continued mastery of the mediaeval herring industry wasn’t due to innovative boat design for, by the 15 th century, the French were drift net fishing from much bigger, and more seaworthy, high castled nefs.


It was a man called Beukelzoon who kept the Dutch firmly in the front when, in 1397, he developed much improved preservation techniques.

There was nothing new about preserving fish by salting – eight hundred years before Christ, the Phoenicians were supplying salted fish to the Hebrews – but Beukelzoon’s methods, which involved on-board gutting, gave Dutch processed fish an almost indefinite life. The French must have quickly discovered the secret for, in January 1418, Boulogne-sur-Mer recorded a delivery of 8000 herrings to the abbey of Notre Dame du Gard – a very long journey by horse drawn barge.

At that time, English entrepreneurs were encouraging herring boat masters to bribe Dutchmen with liquor, in order to discover “ their secret in gypping, salting, packing and curing of herrings”.

The humble pink continued in coastal fishing until the 19 th century but was gradually replaced in the North Sea grounds by two other vessels. One of these – the buis (rhymes with house) – was quite advanced, when it made it’s appearance in the 16th century. The other – the bomschuit (pronounced bombs kraut) – ranks among the most box like vessels ever made! The best way to appreciate how ‘unboatlike’ they were,compared to the attractive buis or even the humble pink, is by studying the superb series of 1/20 th scale models in the Dutch National Fisheries Museum, at Vlaardingen near Rotterdam.

Paintings don’t help, for few artists have been able to resist ‘improving’ bomschuiten lines and endowing them with a degree of elegance. English artist, Edward William Cooke R. A., even succeeded in giving a false impression of both types of Dutch herring boats by depicting idealised bomschuiten and titling his work ‘Busses at Scheveningen’!

To set the record straight – the square rigged buis was a keel boat of around 21 metres long for a beam of 4.5 metres and the fortunes of several river Maas ports – Vlaardingen, Maasluis and Delfhaven – were founded on building, provisioning and sailing the great buizen fleet. In coastal fishing villages, like Scheveningen, Katwyk and Zandvoort, with no deep water harbour, bomschuiten replaced the pinks as herring drifters. They were flat bottomed, fore and aft rigged vessels – around 14 metres – with a characteristic length/beam of exactly 2:1!

The Anglo-Dutch wars are often blamed for the decline of Dutch supremacy in the drift net trade but in many ways buis owners were responsible for their own demise. Even in the 17 th century, they relied on privileges to maintain profit margins and, as they were a powerful lobby, successive Dutch Governments issued decrees, paid subsidies and fixed prices to benefit buizen owners at the expense of bomschuiten men.

The net result of government interference was dearer fish, so meat and potatoes took over from bread and herring as the Dutch staple diet. By the mid nineteenth century, many bomschuiten owners had dragged their boats over the dunes and given up fishing, the once great Dutch fleet had shrunk to a tenth of its peak size and its antiquated square riggers were unable to compete with British and French luggers. At Scheveningen, many survived on ‘one hot meal with bread’ distributed daily and, at once affluent Vlaardingen, 30% of the population was clothed by charitable organisations and fed from soup kitchens.

One man dragged the reluctant Dutch herring industry into the nineteenth century. Adrian Eugene Maas was helped by the repeal of the restrictive Fishery Laws –in 1857 – but, that apart, the credit for modernizing Holland’s driftnet fleet is his alone. Maas made his money in Scheveningen’s fledgling tourist industry, before becoming a fishing boat owner. He was a man who believed in being able to do what he employed others to do, so he went on fishing expeditions and joined in the back breaking task of hauling in heavy hemp nets. A short time later, the first English cotton nets appeared at Scheveningen, rapidly followed by Scottish net making machines. Introducing new nets was the first Maas led revolution in Dutch herring fishing, the second was also inspired by a fishing trip – when he joined a bomscchuit for an expedition, off Hartlepool. Maas’s boat had filled her barrels and was ready to leave at the same time as a Yarmouth lugger. The first part of their routes coincided and the lugger quickly outdistanced the bom, which could only make 3 knots even in the most favourable wind. Four days later, whilst anchored waiting for the tide to turn, Maas watched the lugger go past – on her way back to the fishing grounds - she’d been into harbour, unloaded and reprovisioned, and he was still only half way to Yarmouth! Maas decided, there and then, the next addition to his fleet would be a modern vessel and, after lengthy deliberation, ordered a lugger from Boulogne-sur-Mer.

The three masted Scheveningen caused a sensation when she came alongside Vlaardingen’s quay for the first time – compared to the existing fleet; she looked like a racing yacht! Maas’s experienced employees looked, muttered between themselves, and shook their heads when he asked them to crew her.

The French built boat had to make her maiden expedition with a 18 year old, Leendert Spaans, as master but, when she got back, things began to change! In those days, crews shared one third of the catch, as wages – less 1% for selling expenses. Scheveningen left port with four less crew than a square rigger, put down almost 50% more nets and came back with a catch worth 3000 florins – as much as a bomschuit took in a season!

It wasn’t long before word got about and Maas had no problem finding crews for the bigger luggers (like Hollander - left) that he had built locally.

Two years after Scheveningen’s appearance, Maarten Dirkzwageer of Maasluis commissioned the hybrid three master Govert van Wijn. Two of the masts had lug sails and the centre one had a triangular sail, which the locals called ‘a jib behind’. A year later another fleet owner, de Jager, built the Argo a gaff rigged three master and, from there, it was just a short step to the two masted logger which dominated the Dutch herring fleet for the first twenty years of the 20th century.

Pictures in this story were supplied by the Dutch National Fisheries Museum, Vlaardingen.

Last Updated ( Monday, 24 January 2005 )
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