Realeneiland is the most northern of the three Western Islands, created during the first quarter of the 17th century. In 1617 the city started to sell cheap lots here to herring fishermen from outside the city, later followed by shipyards, ropewalks, tanneries and saltworks. Originally called Achtereiland (Back Island), this island was later named after the Reael merchant family, who owned land there. Jacob Reael (1590-1639), brother of Reynier Reael, was one of the aldermen who had steered the islands’ creation through the city council. The island is surrounded by Zoutkeetsgracht, Westerdok, Realengracht and Smallepadsgracht.
Reynier Reael (1588-1648)
The influential Reael family held many important functions in Amsterdam. In 1620 many lots on Realeneiland were bought by Reynier Reael, who was married to Maria Oetgens (1591-1652), daughter of an Amsterdam mayor. Oetgens had used his prior knowledge of the intended extensions to buy large swathes of land beforehand and got extremely rich selling them later. The rest of the island was owned by the city. Merchant and alderman Reynier Reael was also a member of several government committees. In 1622 he became one of the administrators of the Dutch West India Company (WIC). Around 1624 the island was named after him.
Reynier Reael was also captain of a militia company and can be seen on a famous painting by Frans Hals. Hals (who was from Haarlem) was asked to paint this militia group’s portrait, but soon found himself at odds with the guardsmen. The Amsterdam painter Pieter Codde had to step in to finish the seven figures on the right.
Streets & Bridges on Realeneiland
There are eight streets on Realeneiland:
- Realengracht – Realen Canal. The only canal in Amsterdam with two wooden drawbridges.
- Vierwindenstraat – Four Winds Street. Probably named after a gable stone on a house on the island.
- Vierwindendwarsstraat – Four Winds Traverse Street. In 1625 this street existed, but was nameless as yet.
- Jan Mensplein – Jan Mens Square. Jan Mens (1897-1967) was a Dutch writer, son of a diamond cutter, who started writing after losing his job. He is best known for his trilogy “De kleine waarheid” (The Small Truth) from 1960-1964, later made into a succesful TV-series. His mentor was writer Theo Thijssen.
- Zoutkeetsgracht – Salt Shack Canal. Named after the salt shacks which dominated this canal in the 17th and 18th century. Course salt was refined here for domestic use. There was also a flour and bread factory here since 1864, first called called “Amsterdamsche Meel- en Broodfabriek”, in 1871 renamed to “Stoommeel- en Broodfabriek Holland”. Demolished in 1961 and replaced with homes. Many gable stones here show types of fish.
- Zandhoek – Sand Corner. Sand was stored here and moved with boats, used as ballast in vessels and for raising terrains in the city. City photographer Jacob Olie (1834-1905) lived at Zandhoek 10. Dutch writer and holocaust survivor Eli Asser (1922-2019), known for his song lyrics in the Dutch series “Schaep met de 5 pooten” and “Citroentje met suiker”, lived at Zandhoek 2 from 1958.
- Taanstraat – Tan Street. Named after the tanners who made sails, nets and ropes water resistant by immerging them in the tan extract in large kettles. Because of the inherent fire hazard these tanneries were only allowed on this street. The Taanhuis (Tan House) stood here in the 17th century.
- Taandwarsstraat – Tan Traverse Street.
Bridges on Realeneiland:
- Zandhoeksbrug – Sand Corner Bridge, between Realeneiland and Bickerseiland. In the 19th century replaced by a steel version, in 2007 a replica of the original wooden bridge was put back.
- Drieharingenbrug – Three Herring Bridge, between Realeneiland and Prinseneiland. Named after a decoration on a house on Vierwindendwarsstraat.
- Petemayenbrug – Godmother Bridge, to the north from Realeneiland towards Bokkinghangen in the Zeeheldenbuurt (Sea Heroes neighborhood). The origin of the name is unknown — petemoeien was also an expression used for “old ladies”. Replaced in 1896 by a steel bridge, then in 2007 by a wooden replica of the original.
Various 17th century maps show that Prinseneiland was the first to be filled, Realeneiland remained empty the longest. The city struggled to fill the island with businesses and offered the lots at reduced prices to herring packers, shipyards, carpenters and ship builders. Already in the design phase of the island there were quays along the Zoutkeetsgracht and Realengracht. Only the western half of the island had wood storage spaces, which were basically slopes along the water were logs were stored.
Ropewalks, Tanneries, Carpenters, Saltworks & More
The northern part of the island was designated as an area for saltworks and salt storage. Saltworks heated a concentrated brine solution to make the salt crystallize, to be later refined for domestic use. It was stored in shacks, which stood on both sides of the Zoutkeetsgracht in the 17th and 18th century.
There were several shipyards on the island as well. Reael handed out many terrains to ships carpenters, free of rent for the first 12 years, provided they gave him a ship in return. Against the city’s wishes he also had homes built here. In 1664 the Tar Company of Joseph Deutz — a descendant of one of the richest Amsterdam families — created a large wharf on the island. Around 1860 the shipyards on this island were replaced with sugar refineries and in 1890 the last ship was built here.
In 1625 the city allowed some herring smokers to settle near the Blaauwhooft bastion at the edge of the IJ, north of Realeneiland, where the current Barentszplein is now. The Reael family built a herring packing plant on Zandhoek in 1648, on the side of the island along the (then still open) water.
Tanneries were needed to make sails, nets and ropes weatherproof and moisture resistant. This was done by cooking them in big kettles in a mixture of oak bark, quebracho (axe-breaker, a hard tannin rich wood) and betel palm — this is what gave the yellow-brown color to old sails and nets. Sometimes iron sulfate (koperrood) was added to obtain a more red-brown effect. The word tan comes from the Latin word tannum, itself derived from the Celtic word tanno (oak).
Until 1673 there was also a peat market on the island. Near the Drieharingenbrug (from Prinseneiland to Realeneiland) was a brandy distillery in 1676, named De Drie Gecroonde Haringen (The Three Crowned Herring). Distiller Jan Verwey had bought the house on the corner of Vierwindenstraat in 1740. In 1779 he sold the house and warehouse to well-to-do ship carpenter Haring Booy, who had it torn down in 1780 and had it rebuilt as a kind of second home, modeled more like a country home from the era than as a traditonal city dwelling.
The activities on the islands were to be located here, at the edge of the city, because of the fire hazard they presented. There were regular fires in the warehouses, wharfs and shacks, and in 1670 a fire on Realeneiland lasted for three entire days and destroyed much capital. Because of this painter and inventor Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712) was asked by the city council to develop a mechanical firehose pump, which he presented in 1672.
On Zandhoek was a Santmarckt (sand market) where sand was stored and traded. Reynier Reael had a row of thirteen captain’s houses built here between 1645 and 1646, the numbers 2 to 14. Once these houses looked out over the open water of the IJ, until in 1832 the Westerdoksdijk closed this body of water off. These were simple but well-built homes — cellars and upper floor were rented out separately. Some have old-fashioned farmer’s doors (Dutch doors), where the top and bottom half can be opened separately.
In the 18th and 19th century these houses were remodeled according to what was then trending, but during the 19th century they were badly maintained. After WW2 these houses were derelict and declared uninhabitable. In 1943 they were placed on a municipal monuments list to prevent demolition by the British American Tobacco Company (BATCO). They were located just behind these houses since 1906 and wanted to expand. The BATCO-factory closed in 1973 and moved to Deccaweg in the Sloterdijk Business Area. The city bought the entire factory terrain on Realeneiland in 1981, the polluted soil was sanitized in 1986 and homes were built here between 1990 and 1995.
In the 1960s the first part of the captain’s houses was fully restored, including gable stones, followed by numbers 13 and 14 in 1978. Zandhoek 10 was the home of the family of city photographer Jacob Olie (1834-1905). The gable stone on that building — created by Hans ‘t Mannetje — is in honor of Jaap Oranje of the Diogenes restoration foundation. It features a quote from Cicero: “Amicus Certus In Re Incerta”, translated “Unsure times show you your true friends”.
The Gouden Reael at Zandhoek 14
At Zandhoek 14 is a house with a gable stone of a Golden Reaal. This was a Spanish and Portuguese coin, which could be used throughout the world at the start of the 17th century. From the 16th to the 18th century these coins also circulated in the Netherlands. A version of these coins, minted during the reign of Charles V (1500-1558), was called the Imperiale or Golden Reaal, showing a bust of the emperor. Today it is a famous restaurant run by the Caron family. Website Gouden Reael (NL only): https://www.goudenreael.nl
Toon Yland Plantsoen
Of note is also the Toon Yland Plantsoen in the northwest corner, a community-supported public garden. Gardener Toon Yland transformed this once barren terrain over the last 30 years into a bulb-rich garden, wonderful in spring.
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