Competition between Dutch Skippers, German Ship-owners, and the Transition to Steam


  • Hein A.M. Klemann Erasmus University Rotterdam



Rhine, Steam, Rivertrade


In the nineteenth century, Rhine skippers faced new competition. Firstly, in 1830, the Mainz Act abolished the monopolies on part of the Rhine for skippers from certain states. This created competition between skippers and also gave steam navigation more of a change on the river. The traditional skippers who had their ships towed upstream by teams of up to ten horses, but sailed downstream, now had to become more efficient. To this end, the horse stations were reorganized. However, from 1843 a train also ran from Antwerp to Cologne. This form of transport also posed a threat to the skipper. Moreover, the railways needed fixed bridges, meaning that a ferry or a pontoon bridge was no longer sufficient for traffic across the Rhine. This was probably the reason that small skippers gave up towing with horses around 1860 and started to use a steam tug in upstream direction. Downstream they continued sailing on the wind and current. Only at the end of the nineteenth century, after a huge process of normalization of the river, did the scale of Rhine navigation increase substantially. It made Rhine navigation competitive again against the railways. German Rhine shipowners, often connected to large German industrial companies from the Ruhr area, began a process of increasingly longer tugs, with increasingly powerful tugboats and barges with increasing loading capacity. In doing so they threatened the position of the small, independent, mostly Dutch Rhine skippers. From now on, those skippers also had to be tugged both upstream and downstream and had to purchase increasingly larger iron or steel barges. Such investments did not result in more revenue per trip but kept the trip at least somewhat rewarding enough to continue. However, to finance the investments in new barges, many Rhine skippers were forced to give up their homes on shore and take their families on board. This not only limited the costs of their household, but also allowed savings by having the wife and children do the work of the skipper's servant. In this way they stayed in business, but not without becoming impoverished.


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Author Biography

  • Hein A.M. Klemann, Erasmus University Rotterdam

    Hein Klemann (1957) studied history at the Free University Amsterdam (VU) and economics at this university and the University of Amsterdam, and obtained his PhD from the VU. He then worked at various universities and institutes and published on Economics and the Second World War, Dutch-German economic relations, Rhine navigation and on the City of Haarlem. Since 2005, Klemann has been professor of economic history at Erasmus University Rotterdam.




How to Cite

Competition between Dutch Skippers, German Ship-owners, and the Transition to Steam. (2024). TSEG - The Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History, 21(1), 81-108.