The people of the Marken
The people of the Marken
At the Mercy of the Waves
A chair with only three legs left, a cracked crib, once-thick beams now splintered into matchsticks, and shreds of clothing haunting the water’s surface like dead jellyfish: it was a trail of ruined lives that the steamer from Zwolle followed when it sailed onto the Zuiderzee on the morning of 14 January 1916.
For a good half hour, all these household goods (or what was left of them) continued to bob past. With the coast of North Holland in sight, the origin of all that debris became clear: the entire island of Marken had been ravaged by a monstrous storm the night before and was now largely washed away.
Marken has always had a love/hate relationship with the sea. Of course, the water provides the islanders with a source of income; life here is unthinkable without shipping and fishing. But the sea is also a fickle mistress, giving lavishly one moment and savagely carrying everything off the next.
Even the island’s very existence is due to the waves, which swept away the swampy tract of land that once connected it to the mainland. In the 13th century, the order of monks that settled here did their utmost to resist the water, building dykes and digging ditches to make the soil suitable for farming.
But they departed, and the defences fell into poor repair: dykes crumbled, and the sea had free rein once more. Saltwater flooded the fields, causing crop failures which led to starving livestock. So the pragmatic people of Marken traded their ploughshares for fishing nets and built up a large fleet of fishing vessels called botters. In the spring, the men sailed these ships to the Shetland Islands, moving down the North Sea coast as far as Dieppe in the months thereafter. They returned laden with herring, eel, anchovies, Norwegian hats and French souvenirs.
But that same generous sea also continued to take big bites out of the island. Flooded several times a year, Marken was soon a place where trees no longer grew. One advantage of the floods was that they rendered the grass extra salty and thus more nutritious, so that the Markers could sell it on the mainland as animal feed.
Usually, the locals could predict when the waters would rise, but on that fateful night in 1916, north-westerly winds, tides and poorly maintained dykes led to a disaster from which Marken still has not recovered today. “We conquered an enemy, but lost a friend,” is how the people of Marken have described their relationship with the sea ever since.
With the construction of the Afsluitdijk, further disasters were finally averted. Yet it also instantly killed off the fishing industry. Fortunately, the water provided a new source of income: the ferry brought tourists eager to see Marken’s picturesque streets for themselves. Since 1957, they can also use the connecting dyke which has restored Marken to a peninsula.
What is in the name
Marken may have become more securely connected to the mainland, but its association with the sea lives on in the sur- names of the original inhabitants.
Many locals are named after the professions of their ancestors: Visser, Zeeman, Comman- deur or Schipper−fisher, seaman, commander or skipper−in their very names, the past lives on.’
The Horse of Marken
Marken’s lighthouse has saved thousands of lives. From the easternmost tip of the island, where the Zuiderzee pounded the coast in full force, it showed skippers the safest way between Amsterdam and the Wadden Sea.
Its light could be seen up to 19 nautical miles away, a reassuring beacon in the pitch-dark night, when shipwreck was a palpable danger.
The original lighthouse was square but was later replaced by a round metal tower with an attached house and storage shed. As the resulting shape is reminiscent of a stallion, sailors soon called it ‘the Horse of Marken’.