The ‘vaartkapoen,’ an icon belonging to Molenbeek

Johan Leman, 2 May 2024

In the 19th century, the Brussels canal did not follow its current course. The Charleroi – Brussels canal stopped at the Place Sainctelette. Since the 16th century, there was indeed a port in Brussels, but it was located at the Sainte-Catherine Square and was connected to the sea by the narrower and shallower Willebroek canal. At the Place Sainctelette, a connection was made between the new Charleroi canal and the Willebroek canal. The young men who pulled the boats around the bend were the ‘vaartkapoenen.’ They lived in ‘Little Manchester’ (Molenbeek). The extension of the canal along the Avenue du Port was only completed around 1914.

For several decades, a statue in their honor has stood on the Place Sainctelette, precisely where the bend was taken and where the young men did their work and lived. The link between the statue and Molenbeek is historically evident. Its location could not be better chosen. Where it stands, with its lantern beside it, as that’s how Tom Frantzen designed it. Anyone considering moving the statue to another side of the Place Sainctelette in the direction of what was then bourgeois Brussels-city has a mistaken historical view.