The history of Hamburg Port

The history of Hamburg Port


From the charter to the Hanse and Germany’s largest seaport

A small harbour was first mentioned in the 9th century – Hamburg, a town with 200 residents, used the 120 metre long wooden jetty for long-distance trade. Archbishop Adaldag granted the citizens of Hamburg the right to hold markets in 937. Parallel to this the Hamma-burg (Hamma Fortress), destroyed 100 years previously by Danish Vikings, was rebuilt.

There were harbour facilities in the Nikolaifleet area as early as 1188; the official birth of Hamburg Port took place, however, on 7th May 1189, when Emperor Frederick Barbarossa guaranteed Hamburg privileges such as customs-free travel along the lower Elbe to the North Sea and the right to hold markets in an imperial charter.

The Hanse League

The next crucial milestone in the Port’s history was in 1321, when Hamburg joined the Hanse League. The Hanse League was the most important economic federation run according to merchant principles in the Early and High Middle Ages.

Hamburg was an exception in this league of cities, since its trading activities were not focused to the east or Scandinavia but, due to its geographical position, rather to the west and the North Sea region. The city thus procured itself privileges in England and Flanders and established trading posts in London, Bruges, Amsterdam, in the north of Scandinavia and in the German hinterland.

Störtebecker & Co.

Piracy presented a serious problem and its most prominent representative was Klaus Störtebeker, who was beheaded at Grasbrook on 20th October 1400. At this time Germany had no maritime power and Hamburg protected itself from pirates by means of so-called convoy ships. These ships, sailing under Hamburg’s flag, were commanded by Admiral Karpfanger and ensured that city was accorded the necessary respect on the high seas.

A growing trading city

Thanks to the favourable economic situation the population quickly grew from 8 000 in 1375 to 16 000 in 1450. The discovery of the Americas at the end of the 15th century gave a further impetus to Hamburg’s foreign trade and thus to the port. The Baltic trading regions no longer played such a predominant role. Hamburg profited from the rise of the states bordering the Atlantic. Against Hanseatic principles the city engaged in close economic ties to foreign countries.

Altona – the Danish competitor

Hamburg Port saw itself confronted with a strong local competitor from 1664 onwards, when Altona, at that time in Danish hands, was granted civic rights. For the following two centuries Altona was at the mercy of overall Danish interests. Altona Port experienced a major boom in the mid-18th century, with three shipyards and numerous rope makers, sail makers and anchor smiths. The Continental System embargo against England adopted by Napoleon in 1806 hit Hamburg Port hard and resulted in many Hamburg companies relocating to Danish Altona, which was not affected by the embargo until 1807.

The influence of Columbus and Napoleon

Trade with America began in 1782. In 1783 the “Elise Katharina” was the first Hamburg ship to cross the Atlantic to Charleston and Philadelphia. By 1788 Hamburg Port was already home to 150 ships. In 1799, just 11 years later, this number had increased to 280. Following the Continental System embargo in 1806 the port suffered a serious slump and it was not until after the city’s liberation in 1814 that rebuilding could begin. 1816 saw the arrival of the first steamship, the British “Lady of the Lake”, in Hamburg Port. From 1850 onwards the Hamburg flag could be encountered on all the world’s oceans!

Planning of the modern port

In 1862 the debate concerning whether to build a dock or tidal harbour was decided in favour of a tidal harbour and Water Building Director Johannes Dalmann began planning a modern port. The expansion of the old port around 1840 (Sandtorhafen) and of the Niederhafen in 1855 were no longer sufficient. For this reason Dalmann commenced building of docks and sheds on both banks of the Elbe in 1866, thus becoming the “creator” of the Norderelbe port area. The first transfer of goods from a ship to a railway took place at Kaiserkai (Imperial Dock) in 1872. The famous Blohm + Voss shipyard, which recently celebrated its 125th anniversary, also originated in this period, in 1877.

 The Freeport and the Speicherstadt

The Freeport and the Speicherstadt (Warehouse City) were built between 1881 and 1888. The Speicherstadt remains the world’s largest single warehouse complex even today. In 1881 Bismarck pressured Hamburg into entering the German Customs Union. The city was only permitted to retain a small customs enclave – the Freeport with the Speicherstadt. This ensured that the long-term storage and customs-free handling of foreign goods remained possible. The area around the Speicherstadt retained its freeport status until 1.1.2003, when it was rescinded to enable realisation of the plans for the HafenCity (PortCity) quarter, thus ending a 114-year old tradition.

The Port at the turn of the century

Construction of the St. Pauli Landungsbrücken (jetties) commenced in 1840, with the official dedication ceremony taking place in 1910. Following their total destruction during the Second World War the jetties were rebuilt in a modern style. The St. Pauli Elbe Tunnel was opened in 1911.

In 1913 Hamburg had a million residents; the Port was the most important on the Continent; and the third-largest in the world after London and New York. The Second World War was not only a major setback for the city but also for the Port, with over 80% of its facilities destroyed.

Rebuilding after the WWII

Rebuilding of the Port, the Free and Hanseatic City’s economic lifeline, after the war was swift since Hamburg’s wealth had always depended on its port. By 1953 the city had already invested 115 m Euros in the Port and by 1955 the annual handling volume had reached pre-war levels. A new law punished any ships polluting the Harbour.

1967 saw the dawn of an era described as the “industrialisation of shipping”: the Port’s container era. Today around 70 percent of the total goods handled in the Port are shipped in standard containers. The opening of the Köhlbrand Bridge in 1974 provided a link from the eastern to the western Port areas. The new Elbe Tunnel was also opened in the same year, with three separate tunnels for vehicles.

Hamburg – international port

The Port celebrated its 800th “birthday” in 1989 and is today not only the largest German seaport, with a total handling volume of 140 m tonnes, but also the ninth-largest container port worldwide, handling 9,9 m TEU of containers (20 foot standard containers)! The world’s currently most modern container terminal – the Container Terminal Altenwerder (CTA) – commenced operations in 2002.

HafenCity project

The HafenCity project (PortCity) is currently in development between Kehrwiederspitze and the Elbe bridges – one of Europe’s largest urban planning projects with a total area of 160 hectares. The quarter with its maritime flair will eventually become home to numerous corporate headquarters; 5 500 apartments and 20 000 jobs. A new terminal is also planned to make Hamburg more attractive for cruise liners.