ORB Encyclopedia: Online Essays

The Peat Canals of Brabant (English Abstract)

The Brabant peat canals as fossil traffic routes from the later middle ages to the early modern period

Around 1250 A.D. a major portion of the western part of the Dutch province North Brabant and the northwestern part of the Belgian province Antwerp were still covered with peat. The colonization and exploitation of these peat-reserves in the period 1250-1750 was accompanied by the development of an extensive network of canals. This network was mainly used for transportation of peat from the moors to the harbors on natural rivers. From there the peat was shipped to the towns of Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp. Street dung was transported back to help reclamation of the sandy soils that appeared from underneath the peat cover.

To understand the structure of the network we used the concept of the canal system. A canal-system includes the main canal, secondary canals and the technical infrastructure that is needed to transport peat from the moors to an export harbor. We found 19 canal-systems. Their main canals had a length of 320 km (200 mi). The ships on these narrow canals (4 to 6 meter or 13 to 20 feet wide) could transport 43 cubic meters (16th century) to 68 cubic meters (18th century). In years with a good peat production, one canal-system could transport 70000 cubic meters of peat to the export harbor.

Since canals that were long out of use left their marks in the landscape, we tried to identify the factors that governed the way in which these canals were preserved over the centuries. A main factor is their later importance for the drainage of the region. A canal without drainage function could be filled up without creating any problems. A second factor is the space of time between the end of the turf transport and the reclamation of the dug out area for agricultural use. During a long interval the dug out area became a wilderness without property-boundaries, where old traces strongly tended to disappear. When reclamation followed directly on the peat extraction, the infrastructure of the peat- industry (i.e. the canals, canalside-roads and the division in plots) was "frozen" into the new agricultural landscape. The third factor is the very slow alteration by agricultural processes of these "frozen" elements. In the low-laying parts of the studied area an important fourth factor was active: flooding by the sea with the associated effects of the tides. Nearly all the old landscape was erased during the century or longer that such circumstances might persist. The combined action led to a very varying way of conservation of the old canals in this region.

The peat canals are witnesses from an industry that changed the landscape profoundly and that stimulated the colonization of the region. Theirs remnants carry information about the history of the region and they are often still an important visual dominating element on the landscape.

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