Irina Ridzuan

A warehouse ablaze

Fire of 1791


Fire of 1971 - 's Lands Zeemagazijn, in Amsterdam, on fire 6 July 1791. Prins Hendrikkade and IJgracht with 's Lands Zeemagazijn on fire in the background. Image taken from Amsterdam Archive. Item no.  010097003974.

It is true that many of the scents that infected the Amsterdam air was by way of the VOC/WIC ships coming to and from the harbour. In a way, a major import – albeit unintentional- from these companies were the aromas and sapors from their cargoes. But that is not to say that there weren’t any local smells. In other words, the docks also had other internal events that left some smelly trails. And what is pungent if not the smell of a burning naval warehouse?

‘s Lands Zeemagazijn, as it’s called, was built in 1656. The project was initiated by a boom in population in 1590, and by 1650, there were already three new islands built for the purpose shipbuilding, storage, and also homes: Rapenburg, Uilenburg, and Valkenburg (ARCAM, 2019).  But the Admiralty of Amsterdam had an island to themselves at one point, to use for a shipyard and an arsenal, on Kattenburg by 1655. The arsenal being the Zeemagazijn.

The Admiralty hired city architect, Daniel Stalpert to design the warehouse. The result was a square, and strictly utilitarian building in the style of Dutch Classicist. It has been noted as “sparing and reticent” yet the building itself exudes a sense of charismatic authority (ARCAM, 2019). And from its earliest days, the building was a focal point upon the water. The square plan surrounded by water was to facilitate smoother loading and unloading of cargoes. It even attracted tourists for its rooftop view over the city, which is an incredible feat for a purpose-built naval warehouse (Het Scheepvaartmuseum, 2019). But this bustling architectural feat came to halt in August of 1791.

On the evening of the August 5th 1791, the Zeemagazijn caught on fire. The aftermath is not captured through various print that depict a spectacular, roaring fire, engulfing the entire building. By the time the flames were put out, the only thing left were some buttresses added to the building a year prior. In other words, all of Stalpert’s original work were consumed by the inferno. What is a point of note for us is the smell of this warehouse ablaze. It is not only the actual architecture (i.e. bricks, wooden foundation, paint etc.) that caught on fire but the stored items as well. A person-account was written by Johann Jakob Wilhelm Heinse, a German writer, noted a list of materials in the Zeemagazijn: “wood, coils of rope of 150 fathoms in length and as thick as a woman's leg, all sorts of sails, bullets, anchors, cannon, muskets and guns, lamps, compasses and hourglasses” (Heinse, 1784). Specifically, it was all the gunpowder that encouraged the seemingly unquenchable flames.

Imagine the smell of smoke wafting into the city centre: the pungent smell of melted metals, burnt cloth, and charred wood. If we take an aromatic snippet of Amsterdam’s port on the 6th of August 1791, we’d imagine a completely different palate to the everyday life.