Cultural Landscapes Natural Heritage

An Island on Dry Land

Artwork to commemorate the evacuation of the island in 1859

In 1825 another huge storm raged over the tiny Dutch island of Schokland. The small fishing community had been fortified with wooden poles, but the devastating strength of the wind ripped out most of them. Houses and people were swept out to sea. It was not the first time the dire population of this secluded isle was in trouble.

They started a campaign to collect money for the poor people of Schokland, but the rest of the Netherlands was growing tired of rescuing the Schokkers – as the islanders were called – again and again.

The ruins of an old church

The ruins of an old church

In 1854 there was a great fire and an extremely cold winter. Children died. The government had to do something. A decision was reached to evacuate the island permanently. In 1859 the last Schokkers voluntarily moved to the mainland. They received a small compensation. But nobody was interested in welcoming the Schokkers in their midst. They had a very bad reputation. The islanders had a legendary talent for living each day as it came and worrying little about tomorrow. Ownership was difficult concept and cargoes would disappear from visiting ships. The houses on the island were levelled, as the government was afraid that the Schokkers would return after they had spent their money. The island was however not completely deserted after the evacuation: there was a skeleton crew of lighthouse keepers and emergency facilities. Life was hard and lonely. It would get to you after a while. People usually did not stay long.

The restored church of Schokland island

The restored church of Schokland island

Schokland is one of the most fascinating natural and cultural treasures of the Netherlands, an island on dry land. It is now part of a large polder. The dry-land island is a magnificent place, rising not even a few meters from the surrounding farmland. Once, less than 70 years ago, we would have seen nothing but sea from here. It is not difficult to imagine how close and threatening the water must have been and how fragile this close-knit and remote community must have felt.

Old gravestone found during the restoration of the former island

Old gravestone found during the restoration of the former island

I am strolling on what are essentially three man-made mounds. It is a quiet, slightly melancholy place. Ruins of a 13th century church and the foundation of a lighthouse can be seen, the twittering of birds can be heard and a slight breeze can be felt, that blows over what were once medieval dikes. Archaeological sites showed that humans already lived here 10,000 years ago.

The lines of trees mark the island in the modern-day polder

The lines of trees mark the island in the modern-day polder

The government, the local authorities, the old Schokker families, the new Schokkers, the farmers, the nature lovers all worked towards its status as UNESCO World Heritage. Some of the buildings are now restored, a museum was created and the original harbour on the north side of the island was re-constructed. Schokland is now thriving more than ever. It is a wonderful, magical place.

The original shape of the island in the Schokland Museum

The original shape of the island in the Schokland Museum

Old gravestone found during the restoration of the former island

Old gravestone found during the restoration of the former island

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