Question of the Scheldt


In preparation for the peace conference that was expected to follow World War I, in the spring of 1917 the British Foreign Office established a special section responsible for preparing background information for use by British delegates to the conference. Question of the Scheldt is Number 28 in a series of more than 160 studies produced by the section, most of which were published after the conclusion of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. The study provides a history of the international legal arrangements governing the Western Scheldt, the waterway giving the port of Antwerp access to the sea. In the Treaty of Münster (1648) recognizing the independence from Spain of the seven United Provinces of the Netherlands (also known as the Dutch Republic), the southern shore of the Western Scheldt was ceded to the Dutch. The Dutch used control of the river to deny Antwerp access to the sea, which served both their commercial and strategic interests. This arrangement lasted until the 1790s, when France invaded the Netherlands and later opened the river to commerce. The Dutch regained exclusive control of the river in 1815, following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The separation of Belgium from the Netherlands in 1831 again raised the question of control of the river. Under arrangements brokered by the Great Powers in 1839, the Netherlands retained sovereignty over both banks of the Western Scheldt, but the river itself was declared an international waterway and free commerce guaranteed. These arrangements remained in effect until 1914 and the outbreak of World War I. Three supplementary notes deal with international treaties governing fortification of Antwerp and of the Dutch port of Flushing and the rights of the Dutch to police maritime traffic on the Western Scheldt.

Last updated: November 14, 2017