The contrast between the two port cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, less than half an hour apart, could hardly be more dramatic.footnote1 One is Europe’s largest port; the other was the largest in the world three centuries ago. Amsterdam’s canals and smoky bars are a stark contrast to the glass, steel and concrete structures that make Rotterdam a capital of twentieth-century functionalism, full of masterpieces—the breathtakingly beautiful Institute of Dutch Architecture built by Jo Coenen (1993), Rem Koolhaas’s Kunsthal (1992), Ben van Berkel’s Erasmus Bridge (1996)—and some horrors, among them the 1984 skyscraper by Piet Blom, nicknamed the Pencil. While Amsterdam has been preserved down the centuries, the old city of Rotterdam was carpet-bombed by the Luftwaffe on 14 May 1940, razing it to the ground. Yet the destruction was seen in retrospect as ‘a blessing in disguise’, giving free rein to the imaginings of the most diverse architectural utopias, which made the city into the ‘Manhattan of the Meuse’.footnote2

Rotterdam and Amsterdam are living embodiments of the correspondence between a city and a particular maritime technology at its pinnacle. Amsterdam emerged as a powerful port during the first age of globalization, of ‘sail capitalism’, when great galleons sailed off from Europe in search of spices in the Moluccas and the New World. In 1774 Diderot called Amsterdam ‘the market of the universe’. The world centre of the sail-capitalist era was a scene of startling density and congestion: ‘The port is half a league long and a quarter wide. When I saw it, it was covered in vessels, whose masts formed a forest. Nothing else on earth can give the idea of such a prodigious opulence. What are Sidon or Carthage by comparison?’footnote3 In winter time, twelve hundred merchant ships could crowd into the port—brigs, caravels, pinazzas, barges, galleons; their tonnage was relatively small, ranging between 200 and 600 tonnes by the middle of the eighteenth centuryfootnote4—light enough to be rowed with oars during dead calms, as in the paintings of Guardi and Canaletto.

The crowded vessels corresponded to the density of human life in that epoch: mercantile shipping was a sector of high labour intensity and crews were huge—several hundred men—in relation to tonnage. Port activity required a multitude of hands: loading and unloading, repairing sails and stays. The harbour swarmed with people—innkeepers, waitresses, prostitutes, petty thieves, smugglers—a multitude of different races with a booming Babel of idioms; it overflowed with exotic goods, sights, sounds and smells, from the salted dried cod of Terranova to Ambon’s cloves or West Indian tobacco. Noisy and smelly, Amsterdam was for Diderot une ville infecte.footnote5 Its tree-lined canals, its inviting sixteenth-century mansions, were only the patrician face of the plebeian harbour. Under sail capitalism, the maritime city centred on its port—visibly so in Marseilles, but also in Genoa or Venice, where in Canaletto’s cityscapes one can see the masts poking up right behind St Mark’s Square. The mansions of the great merchants were never far from the port; the quaysides functioned not only for the mooring, loading and unloading of ocean-going ships, but also as urban traffic routes and promenades, ‘an inextricable part of the city’s network of streets’. It was here that the great offices, the palaces and cathedrals of trade and urban administration were most likely to be located in ‘the principal ocean superpowers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries’: Venice, with Riva degli Schiavoni, and, next to it, Piazza San Marco; Genoa, with the Piazza-Caricamento; and Amsterdam, with the Damrak and, next to it, the Dam.footnote6

A second type of port corresponds to industrial ‘steam’ capitalism, driven by coal. The transformation from sail to steam was slower than one might think. The first steamboat was built on the Hudson by Robert Fulton in 1807, but steamships only began to outnumber sailing vessels in the 1870s; up to 1900, the coaling stations on the Sunda Strait route were supplied by sail.footnote7 The steamship meant coal, and coal meant industry. The environs of the port resembled those around the train station in Coketown, Dickens’s metaphorical manufacturing city in Hard Times: the factories rose up smack against the means of transportation, and were in turn ringed by workers’ slums. For the same logistical reasons, the ‘Cokeport’ became a railway junction, surrounded by factories. The ‘tight bond’ between the city’s mercantile elite and the transport-based economy disappeared.footnote8 Socially, culturally and architecturally, the port was relegated to the margins of the city, and ‘night reigned’ over Cokeport as over Coketown: ‘Its main colour is black. Black clouds of smoke blow out of the factory chimneys and fly off the railway tracks, spreading dregs of soot everywhere.’footnote9 The rich shipowners and merchants, like the industrialists, moved their mansions away from Cokeport; the wealth of ‘steam city’ turned its back on the harbour.

If the age of sail was picaresque, the age of steam was proletarian. In seaport towns, the areas around the docks were proletarian zones. This logic persisted as coal and the steam-driven motor were replaced by new fossil fuels like gasoline in the twentieth century; the economic reasons that kept factories centred around the port were still in play. In New York in 1956 at least 90,000 manufacturing jobs were directly connected to port activity, and if one counts shipyard workers, accountants, lawyers, bankers and insurers, the number rose to half a million.footnote10 The new port was not only surrounded by factories but organized like one: the explosion of world commerce made possible by the unthinkable new tonnages of metal hulls radically increased the volume of goods to be loaded and unloaded; dock workers multiplied until they resembled the industrial workforce. In 1951 more than 51,000 longshoremen worked in New York Harbour, while the Port of London registered 50,000. Temporary labourers, dock workers were less like hired factory workers than enlisted building workers, taken on by foremen at the opening of construction sites. For a long time, longshoremen were employed through the ‘call-up system’ in which various teams were hired by the day for loading and unloading; in Genoa, the ‘call-up hall’ was immense. Inevitably, the foreman expected a percentage of the pay.

There is the same difference between factory and dock workers as there was between the proletariat of Manchester and that of nearby Liverpool—the great port of the British Empire. The conflicts and antagonisms that divided them can still be perceived today, when in Europe both these proletarian types are virtually extinct. Nevertheless, dock workers were industrial workers, with large numbers and a capacity to bring a port to a standstill during a strike. The consolidation of the great dockers’ unions all over the world was strengthened by contractual struggles, such as the great Longshoreman’s Strike on the West Coast of the United States in the 1930s. These unions controlled the port, for better or worse and—especially in the United States—within and outside the law, as portrayed in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront.

In the 1950s the port was still an industry, though not a Taylorist one. It had no Fordist organization of labour, no assembly line—ruled out by the irreducible heterogeneity of goods, and by the types of packaging in which they were stored. Bunches of bananas alongside sacks of cement or sugar, barrels of whisky, bales of cotton or bars of copper. Automation had arrived, with conveyor belts and forklift trucks, but the vast majority of the work was still done by hand. Relatively small ships still transported an incredible variety of goods. A 1954 American study analysed the load of the Warrior, a typical cargo ship that plied between the East Coast and Europe: some 5,000 tonnes of goods, consisting of 194,529 discrete units—packages, cardboard boxes, fruit crates, cartons, balls, bobbins, sacks, tins, chests, not to mention 53 vehicles—which arrived at Brooklyn Harbour in 1,156 separate shipments from 151 different us cities, by truck, railroad or river barge.footnote11 Each of these had to be individually deposited and inventoried in a warehouse, then taken to a quay, counted again and loaded, piece by piece, onto the ship. Special techniques were necessary to avoid empty space in the hold and to balance the cargo both horizontally—stern to prow, starboard to port—and vertically, making sure the barycentre was not so high as to tip the ship over during bad weather. Furthermore, shipments destined for the first call needed to be the last to be stowed and thus the first unloaded. All this took time: in New York, loading a ship took two man hours per tonne; for the Warrior that meant 10,000 man hours—twelve eight-hour days for 100 longshoremen. Ships therefore spent more time in port than at sea. The work was not only time-consuming but dangerous, and mortality rates amongst dock workers were extremely high. It required a know-how that was passed from generation to generation, with true dock-worker dynasties.