Rotterdam, located in the Maas estuary in the southern part of the province of South Holland, was founded c. 1270. The river Rotte, from which Rotterdam derives its name, was dammed near the place where it joins the river Maas. Medieval Rotterdam did not play a leading role in international trade and shipping. This situation changed from the 1550s when the herring trade and related traffic industries accumulated enough capital to enlarge international shipping and maritime activities. From the 1590s Rotterdam began to develop long-distance colonial traffic—it housed a Chamber of the East and West India Company—and took a considerable share in the high-value trades such as spices, sugar, silks, tobacco, and so on. On a European scale, England, Scotland, and France were the most important trading partners. Around 1650 Rotterdam had become the second-most important commercial port and shipping center, after Amsterdam. Both cities dominated the urban landscape in the Dutch Republic.
However, it was not until the third part of the nineteenth century that Rotterdam dethroned Amsterdam as the leading maritime and shipping center of the Netherlands. By then, the more dynamic trading network of the Industrial Revolution had replaced the rather passive organization of the Dutch staple trade. The international growth in trade and technological changes in deep-sea and Rhine shipping strengthened Rotterdam's position. From the1860s onwards, Rotterdam built a transitport infrastructure. The Nieuwe Waterweg (1866) provided Rotterdam a direct connection to the North Sea. New ports were constructed with open access from the river, speeding up the handling of bulk goods because trans-shipment could take place onstream. The port metropolis serviced the German hinterland and became the most important Rhine-traffic and transit port for coal, ore, grain, and oil. Of particular importance were the founding of new shipping lines such as the Holland-America Line and the Rotterdam Lloyd, a shipping firm that specialized in the general cargo trade with the East Indies.
The world economic crisis of 1929 ended Rotterdam's temporary revival in the second half of the 1920s. Rotterdam hoped to lessen its dependence on Germany's Rhine economy. However, the city did not successfully develop new nonmaritime-based industries. The port economy recovered at the end of the 1930s; however, the outbreak of World War II and the bombardment of the inner city put an abrupt end to a period a new optimism.
After World War II Rotterdam developed modern industrial and petrochemical port areas (Botlek, Europoort, and Maasvlakte) stretching over 40 kilometers from the old city center to Hook of Holland. In 1962 Rotterdam became the biggest port of the world and discharged more than 300 millions tons of cargo. The mainport was based on large-scale mass production and transhipment of bulk goods, and to a lesser extent on high value-added production processes. The share of the Rotterdam economy in GDP diminished from 12 percent in 1970 to 9 percent in 1985 and has fallen further since. Although container shipping created new growth opportunities in the 1970s and 1980s, Rotterdam was less successful in attracting international high-value-added business.
Van de Laar, Paul Thomas. Stad van formaat: Geschiedenis van Rotterdam in de negentiende en twintigste eeuw. Waanders, Zwolle, 2000.
Van de Laar, Paul Thomas. "Port traffic in Rotterdam: The Competitive Edge of a Rhine-Port." In Struggling for Leadership: Antwerp–Rotterdam: Port Competition Between 1870–2000, ed. Reginald Loyen, Erik Buyst, and Greta De Vos. Heidelberg, Germany, and New York: Physica Verlag, 2003.
Van Driel, Hugo, and van Ferry de Goey, Hugo. Rotterdam Cargo Handling Technology, 1870–2000. Walburg Pers, Zutphen, 2000.
Paul van de Laar