The Red Star Line in Antwerp, 1873-1934

13 July 2017

Cultural Studies | History

This post was written by guest blogger Dr Marie-Charlotte Le Bailly, researcher and digital collections manager for the Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp. Marie-Charlotte worked closely on the selection of documents from the museum for Adam Matthew resource Migration to New Worlds: The Modern Era and served on the editorial board.

In search of a better life, almost two million people emigrated to the United States and Canada on Red Star Line vessels between 1873 and 1934. They came mainly from Germany and Eastern Europe, of which an estimated 25% were Jewish. Only 10% of the emigrants travelling via Antwerp were Belgian. In the 1870s and 1880s good rail connections ensured that many emigrants from Switzerland and western and southern Germany booked their passage from Antwerp, rather than from Bremen or Hamburg.

Dans les Flancs d’un Transatlantique. Reproduit de “La Gazette” du 23 et 30 Octobre 1903. © Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection, click the image.


Red Star Line was founded in 1872 by shipping magnates from the United States and two Antwerp business partners: Jules Bernard von der Becke and William Edward Marsily. The initial plan was to carry goods from America to Europe and passengers on the return voyage. Red Star Line’s berths were located from the outset on the Rijnkaai or Rhine Quay in the northern part of the harbour. The nearby Rhine Station meant that goods could be loaded straight onto trains. The company intended to import petroleum, which the city council only permitted to be handled at that particular location. In the end, Red Star Line never actually transported oil.

Like other shipping lines, Red Star Line had agents in every corner of Europe. They sold affordable tickets for steerage passengers and produced colourful brochures and posters promising a rapid, safe and comfortable passage. Accordingly, Red Star Line spent great sums on marketing and had its promotional material designed by renowned artists such as Henri Cassiers.

Postcard from Series C launched around 1905 and designed by Henri Cassiers. © Friends of the Red Star Line, Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection, click the image.

The sea crossing was only part of the journey: emigrants first had to leave their own country, followed by a long train journey to Antwerp. After being thoroughly examined in the Red Star Line buildings, they finally set sail. They were then inspected again on arrival in America. Only if they were approved could they continue to their final destination.

The purpose of the extensive medical and administrative controls performed in Antwerp was to avoid emigrants being returned from America at the shipping line’s expense. By the early 1920s, all the shipping companies with routes from Antwerp to North America were having their passengers examined in the Red Star Line buildings, where the Red Star Line Museum has been located since 2013.

Red Star Line grew rapidly and in the 1880s, it carried some 25,000 third-class passengers annually to New York and Philadelphia. Around 1890, it carried over 50,000 passengers in steerage. After a relapse in the 1890s, that number increased further in subsequent decades.

In 1902 shipping magnates of the American Line, Red Star Line, Atlantic Transport Line, White Star Line and Leyland Line, founded the International Mercantile Marine Company. Under its influence, Red Star Line took a more aggressive approach to touting (touristic) travel and increased its scale of operations.

The peak came in 1913, when Red Star Line transported 90,000 passengers in steerage. These were not all emigrants. Several thousand people a year also made the trip from the United States back to Europe in third class. Most were former emigrants, who were now going back to Europe to visit family, either because they were fed up with life in America, or because they felt they had earned enough money to live comfortably back at home. An estimated one third of all trans-Atlantic migration in this period was temporary.

Red Star Line’s fleet also grew. Over the years, the company operated a total of 23 ships, all of which had names ending in ‘land’. They were built in Glasgow, Philadelphia and Belfast, and Red Star Line also bought or chartered vessels from other lines. From 1900 onward, postcards of the ships were provided on board for passengers.

Postcard from a series launched around 1900 with drawings of Red Star Line ships by Henri Cassiers. © Friends of the Red Star Line, Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection, click the image.

The numbers of ships grew steadily in the early twentieth century, but keeping them in activity also became more expensive. In the 1920s, the United States tightened its entry rules, which sharply reduced the number of immigrants. Red Star Line fought back in its final years by offering tourist voyages and cruises for wealthy Americans and carrying imported cars, but it was to no avail. The end was now in sight and the coup de grâce came with the Great Depression. The stock exchange crash of 1929 brought emigration from Europe to a virtual standstill. While many immigrants returned to their home countries in the early 1930s, most shipping companies were in severe financial difficulties. In the end, Red Star Line was liquidated in 1934.

Posters, postcards, photographs, objects and personal stories from Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp are available now in Migration to New Worlds: The Modern Era. Full access to this resource is restricted to authenticated institutions who have purchased a licence. For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


About the Author

Dr Marie-Charlotte Le Bailly

Marie-Charlotte Le Bailly studied history and obtained her doctorate at the University of Leiden in 2001. She has published a great deal about Dutch history in the period of c.1400-1800. Since 2012, she has been associated with the Red Star Line Museum as a researcher and digital collections manager. She was curator of the exhibition “Cruise Away. Around the World with the Red Star Line” in 2016-2017.