Beside the Zuiderzee

Posted 9 October, 2009 13:04 by Karla Baker

You would seldom have found a Bartholomew map in the Geographical Journal of the Royal Geographical Society in the late nineteenth century. Understandably, Bartholomew were focused on producing maps for the publication of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, a Society which John George Bartholomew had been a founder member of. However, there were times when a map required a certain technical touch and as today’s map demonstrates, this was when Bartholomew were turned to.

Although deceptively simple in appearance, this map is actually full of fine and intricate detail and relies upon the masterful use of colour in order to convey that very sense of simplicity.

The map itself is a representation of the dream of Dutch engineers and business entrepreneurs to massively increase the scale of their small nation through reclaiming land from the sea. That this was done is no secret but just how it was done and the people involved is perhaps something given less thought.

The map accompanies a very brief article in the March 1893 edition of the Geographical Journal which was written by Pieter Hendrik Schoute. Schoute was Professor of Mathematics at Groningen but had done his first degree in civil engineering. With his interest in Euclidean geometry and regular polytopes, quite how he came to author this article is unclear, however, it reveals something of the history of the project and the processes undertaken which culminated in the ability to produce the map.

A committee was established in 1886, tasked with considering the possibilities of extending the land mass. A massive eight volume tome resulted with each volume concentrating on a specific problem and postulating the potential solution. The focus of each ranged from commercial and strategic issues to engineering and geology. To a modern eye the one area which appears to be conspicuously lacking is the environmental impact.

The project sought to reclaim 500,000 acres of fertile land, and a further 30,000 for non-agricultural purposes, from the Zeiderzee. This would be achieved through the construction of numerous dykes including the main seclusion dyke designed to cut the Zeiderzee off from open water and causing it to become a great lake. Sluices in this dyke would compensate for the waterways which drained into the lake thereby maintaining a constant water level and eventually polders, or low lying tracts of land, could be established. The lake would gradually change from salt to freshwater and a whole new ecosystem would be created. Shipping links would be maintained, of exceptional importance to a port such as Amsterdam which was visited by 52,000 ships approaching from the Zeiderzee per year, via a series of canals. The projected timescale was 32 years at a cost of £16,000,000. It was estimated that it would take 16 years to pay for itself with suggested income generation coming from renting the land at a rate of £2 per acre per year. However, it was predicted that ancillary benefits such as the resultant increase in employment and the profits from the products produced would potentially see this boosted by the resultant increase in GDP.

In the end it wasn’t until the 1930’s that the work was eventually initiated with some of the land reclamation shown on the map only completed as recently as 1986. Not all of the proposed extensions happened but the estimated 530,000 acres has proven accurate with an area of around 407,700 having been reclaimed, this represents one fifth of the total land mass of the Netherlands.

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