A Brief History
On October 12, 1654, the Dutch city of Delft was the scene of a spectacular tragedy when a large gunpowder storehouse exploded, destroying much of the city and killing over 100 people. Another 1000+ people were injured. The incident is remembered as “The Delft Explosion” or “The Delft Thunderclap,” and was certainly not a unique accident concerning gunpowder.
The Delft Explosion was precipitated by the caretaker of the gunpowder magazine (the term used for a powder storehouse), Cornelis Soetens, went to test a sample of the gunpowder. Exactly what the ill fated man did is unknown. Black powder, just as its successor, smokeless powder, can degrade over time and with humidity or a lack thereof, sometimes becoming more volatile or even exploding spontaneously. Over 30 tons of the explosive powder were stored at the facility located in a former convent, a Clarissen facility that once housed nuns of the Order of St. Clare, also known as The Poor Clares.
As bad as the Delft tragedy was, it could have been worse. It seems many residents were out of the city at the time of the blast, visiting a market or fair in other cities. Alas, one of the casualties was a noted artist, Carel Pietersz. Fabritius, the best of the pupils of the master, Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1606-1669). Not only was the artist killed, but most of his works were also destroyed.
Delft today is a thriving city of just over 100,000 people, located in South Holland between The Hague and Rotterdam. The city is famous for its Delft Blue Pottery, its rich artistic heritage, and its academic status as a center of technology. Tourists are particularly fond of Delft.
Other cities that have had the sad experience of major explosions of gunpowder or munitions include the Naval Magazine explosion of Port Chicago, California in 1944, during World War II, set off by an ammunition ship exploding while being loaded, killing over 300 Black sailors working on loading ammunition on ships (resulting in a “mutiny” by the African American sailors about the safety or lack thereof at the port) and a 1947 incident in Texas City, Texas, a port in Galveston Bay in which a ship carrying 2100 (metric) tons of ammonium nitrate exploded, setting off other explosions and fires and claiming nearly 600 lives. (Ammonium nitrate is commonly used as fertilizer but is also used in military and homemade or terrorist made bombs.) In 1945, another ammunition and explosives catastrophe occurred in the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, when a storage depot exploded, triggering a night of successive explosions! Incredibly, though an enormous blast, only 1 person was killed with relatively few injured. Some of the munitions that had rolled into the harbor were not recovered until the 1990’s. Halifax had been the scene of a more deadly giant explosion of munitions during World War I in 1917, when a French and a Norwegian ship collided, starting shipboard fires and detonating the munitions carried on the French ship. This time, casualties were horrific, with over 2000 people killed and as many as 9000 or more injured! Many building were leveled, including over 1600 houses. The blast was so tremendous, perhaps around the equivalent of 2.9 kilotons of TNT, that it was the largest man-made blast in history to that point. In Sweden in 1864, the brother of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of Dynamite and some forms of nitrocellulose gun powder (aka, smokeless powder) and the origin of the famous Nobel Prizes, was killed in an explosion at a Nobel owned factory that produced nitroglycerine, an extremely powerful though highly volatile explosive. That factory explosion led to the invention of Dynamite, a much safer form of high explosive than either nitroglycerine or black powder.
Many other cities have suffered from the accidental (or sometimes possibly intentional) explosion of munitions and explosives, sometimes in massive events far eclipsing the Delft Explosion. Such events have occurred on multiple continents at different times. What massive accidental explosions come to your mind?
Question for students (and subscribers): Were you aware of the Port Chicago Mutiny of African American US Navy personnel due to the terrible explosion? Please let us know in the contents section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Kelley, Jack. Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics : The History of the Explosive That Changed the World. Basic Books, 2005.
Kennedy, James. A Concise History of the Netherlands. Cambridge University Press, 2017.
Sheinkin, Steve. The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights. Square Fish, 2017.
The featured image in this article, Egbert van der Poel‘s A View of Delft after the Explosion of 1654, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1924.