The story of Lodewijk Pincoffs is a tragic one. But without him, Rotterdam would not have been what it is today. He “invented” modern Rotterdam, as he established the Rotterdamsche Handelsvereeniging (RHV), a public-private venture avant la lettre that started building the first big harbours in the city.
Pincoffs was born in 1827, in a wealthy Jewish family. At the time, Jews were not welcome in society, to put it mildly. Driven by relentless ambition, Pincoffs became member of the city council at the age of 28, and member of parliament at the age of 30 – the first Jew in the Netherlands to do so! He was offered a post as a Finance Minister, which he declined. The man was even knighted. Pincoffs had it all.
But there was a dark side to Pincoffs as well. He established another company, for dealing with Africa (that was also involved in slave labour). The company was unsuccessful. Very unsuccessful. To hide the losses, Pincoffs funneled funds from the RHV to his failing African business. In 1879 his fraud was exposed and he fled the country, ending up running a cigar store in Chicago. Rotterdam took over the RHV and developed it to become the largest harbour in the world.
A century later, Pincoffs’ contribution to Rotterdam was recognized, and a street, a square, a bridge and a hotel at the Kop van Zuid are named after him. His statue is also there, looking at the Poortgebouw, the headquarters he built for the RHV but never got to inhabit.