Philippine, once a strong harbour fortress

To visitors of the small town of Philippine in the middle of Zeeuwsch-Vlaanderen (a part of the province of Zeeland) harbours or seas won’t come immediately to mind. With the exception of the Philippine canal there is hardly any water around. Yet for a long period of time, Philippine was a strategic harbour fortress. Old maps, such as this fortification plan from 1751 drawn by hand, bring the past of Philippine to life. The more so if the document – part of the digital exhibition of Fortress Europe has been georeferenced and can be compared with the present situation.

Strenghtening the fortification

The manuscript map of the Philippine fortress was probably made by a military engineer. Only his initials are known: ‘B.I.B.’. The document is intended as a plan for strengthening a part of the local fortification. That is why the title at the top of the map reads: Philippine met de geprojecteerde werken (‘Philippine with the planned works’). Remarkable is the way in which these planned works are represented: collapsible papers, the so-called overlays at the left and right side show the desired fortification improvements, while the present situation is found underneath. In this way the policymakers could simply test their decisions against the real situation.

Situated at an estuary

Not so long ago, the small town of Philippine was situated south of the Braakman, a large arm of the Westerschelde. The Braakman came into being during the 1375 storm tide. As a consequence of still more dikes collapsing in the following decades, the tidal inlet had reached its maximum size by the end of the 15th century. After that great efforts were made to reclaim the land by means of building dikes. That is why the Flemish count Philip the Fair gave permission to Jeronymus Lauereijn in 1505 to impolder a piece of land at the south side of the Braakman. Also the founding of a fortified town with the name of Philippine was part of this agreement. In 1506 the reclamation of the Philippine polder followed, but it was flooded during a storm tide in 1506. Only in 1566 did the polder get new dikes. A real town would never be built. Instead Parma had a sconce built bearing the name Sint Philip.

Construction of a harbour

After almost seventy years of Spanish rule, the sconce fell into the hands of the States of Holland in 1633. Because of its strategic position – as operating base and outpost in Flanders – the States authorities greatly expanded the fortification. Besides a garrison, more and more civilians came to live at the fortress. The original name of Philippine returned. Now the town became part of the States of Flanders. From that time on, the impoldering works were resumed and the Sint-Pieterspolder was reclaimed at the east side. Considering the favourable situation at the Braakman, constructing a harbour was the next logical step. From this spot the States controlled the shipping traffic on the waterway.

From triangle to quadrangle

In those days the necessary defences were part of strategically situated places. Over time, various fortifications were built in Philippine, each time geared to the latest military insights and requirements. For instance in the Spanish era the original idea was to build a triangular fortress with bastions. At that time Philippine was part of a Spanish defence line along the northern coast of Flanders, to protect this area against the invasion of the States. In the end the sconce got a quadrangular shape and it was this construction that count Willem van Nassau (1592-1642) succeeded in conquering in 1633.

Trapezium shaped

As said before the fortress was expanded after the conquest of the States. The extra land needed for the expansion became available after diking the Sint-Pieterpolder. Now the fortress had the shape of a trapezium with two complete bastions and a ravelin at the south side and at the north side two demi-bastions. At the north side also a gate was built which gave access to the harbour situated outside the dikes. Next to it was the original Spanish sconce which was fully integrated into the new fortress and was called ‘castle’ or ‘Hoog-Philippine’. All new works were called ‘Laag-Philippine’. The fortress was surrounded by a wet moat. To defend the south side of Philippine an inundation system was constructed, with ‘accesses’ or defendable entrances to the fortification.

Capture by the French

After the Peace of Munster in 1648, Philippine remained free from acts of war. Not until a century later, in 1747, did the fortress again become the scene of fights. French troops under the command of Von Löwenthal conquered Philippine without too much resistance during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). After The Peace of Aachen in 1748, the place became part of the Republic again in January 1749.

Improvement of the fortress

The French conquest of Philippine in 1747 was the immediate cause of the production of the map presented here. The represented reinforcements were necessary because it had proven difficult to defend the fortress properly in these spots during the French siege. Particularly the demi-bastion Meijland at the north side turned out to be a weak spot. That is why the map proposes to improve the defence works at this location. Some structures resembling bastions and ravelins had to be added here. Also the west side of the fortress needed this kind of reinforcement, to defend the local access.

Rigourous modernisation?

In the end the modernisation of Philippine was not as rigorous as proposed on this map. Off the demi-bastion Meijland the north wall at the east side was indeed placed more outward, but less far as the map suggests. The same goes for the reinforcement of the access off the demi-bastion Meijland. At the west side of the Philippine fortress the adjustments were even smaller. Here only the fleche – a small defence work which is open to one side – was strengthened at the south side of the access. This map probably played a role in the decision making as to the reinforcement of the fortress but never made it to implementation map.

Past glory

How did the story of Philippine end? In 1795 Philippine fell into French hands and eventually the fortress lost its military function. Only during the Belgian Revolt in 1830 a small garrison was quartered in Philippine for a short while. Nowadays there is not much left of the original fortress. However, several outlines of particularly the south part of the former fortification are still visible on aerial photos and satellite images. Also several street names such as Bastionstraat and Ravelijnstraat remind us of the former glory of the fortified town.


Of course, memories of times past are also evoked by old maps. Especially if you link them to geographical information systems such as Google Earth. This is called georeferencing. Also this map of Philippine has been georeferenced. To georeference this map the internet application Georeferencer was used. With the help of this application, coordinates and reference points can be fairly easily added to scanned maps. Next the georeferenced maps can be consulted via a kml link in Google Earth or in Georeferencer’s own viewer. It is also possible to assess the accuracy of the georeferenced map in Georeferencer.

Past and present united

The map of the Philippine fortress is part of the digital exhibition Fortress Europe, a collection of over 100 engineers' maps, fortification plans, and siege maps. For each map the university library gives access to the scan, both in Google Earth and in Georeferencer. By clicking on a map in the digital exhibition it is shown in the library’s viewer. In the left menu you will find links to the scan in Google Earth (‘Document in Google Earth’) and to Georeferencer (‘Georeferences’). In both applications it is possible to zoom in on the map. The map can also be made transparent making it possible to make comparisons with the current situation. Past and present shake hands as it were. And specifically for Philippine: find the more than ten differences!

Further reading

    MvE, November 2014
    Manuscript plan of the fortification of Philippine, 1751
    Manuscript plan of the fortification of Philippine, 1751 (detail)
    Manuscript plan of the fortification of Philippine, 1751 (detail)
    Manuscript plan of the fortification of Philippine, 1751 (detail, with open overlay)
    Manuscript plan of the fortification of Philippine, 1751 (detail, with open overlay)

    Plan van Philippine met het nieuwe project / B.I.B., [S.l.: s.n., 1751] (Utrecht UB, Kaart: Moll 665).

    Digitizing and georeferencing the collection of engineers' maps, fortification plans and siege maps was possible thanks to a generous grant of the K.F. Hein Fonds and the Fentener van Vlissingen Fonds SHV.