The Golden Years of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia

 Duchy of Courland and Semigallia

17th century harbour

After the death of Duke Friedrich Kettler, the new ruler of the Duchy was 32-years old and ambitious Friedrich’s nephew Jacob Kettler – the son of exiled ex-Duke Wilhelm. Since the Duchy was a vassal state of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and it saw the devastating influence of the wars, its economy was not in the best condition. Duke Jacob had his own vision on the development of his state and he instantly started to make reforms. One of his first successes was gaining control of the local customs. Previously, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth controlled it, but in 1646, Wladyslaw IV Vasa allowed Duke to increase his power and bring extra income for the Duchy.

Duke Jacob understood the importance of having a strong fleet under the circumstances of the 17th century. Countries with a strong naval presence had a great advantage against those, which were landlocked. Duchy of Courland and Semigallia had some geographical advantages and local specifics that allowed increasing its economic strength in a relatively short period. Local lands and forests provided shipyard in Ventspils with all the necessary parts for low-cost shipbuilding – timber, linen, pitch, and hemp. All these raw materials were valuable for local use and for export.

Another advantage was human resources. Duke Jacob brought many foreign (mostly Dutch) artisans to build a strong navy. They brought some expenses, however, most of the workers in the shipyards, were the local Latvians, who were cheap labor and they often were praised as a quick learning and hardworking people. All these factors came in place and Duke Jacob soon had a respectable fleet with strong military and trade ships. At its peak, Duchy of Courland and Semigallia had one of the strongest fleets in the world with 44 warships that had more than 1400 cannons in total.

Well-developed agricultural system and an increasing number of various manufacturers helped to sign contracts with foreign lands and gain solid income from exporting goods. Couronian muskets were exported to Sweden, grain, leathers, and meat were exported to the Dutch Republic and England, while linen and cloth were highly valued in Lithuania and Russia. Curonian foreign policy was all about neutrality and trade opportunities, so the image of the Duke Jacob on the European political stage was respected. With the economy on the rise, it was time for Duchy to look to the colonial opportunities and increase their positions between the European strongholds.

Duke Jacob had a massive idea about the colonization of Australia. Despite being Lutheran, he tried to convince Pope Innocent X with the help of Polish and Lithuanian bishops to support his ambitious project financially. Duke Jacob offered a fleet of 40 ships with 24 000 men to take control of Australia and convert its natives to Catholicism. The Catholic Church would get new lands, half of all the income from trades, while Duchy of Courland and Semigallia would be in excellent relationships with Pope and would get other half of the income. However, the death of Innocent X in 1655 changed everything, since his successor Alexander VII was not enthusiastic about Jacob’s ideas.

While Jacob’s intentions about Australia were on the idea level, he purchased got his first colony from English Count Warwick. In 1651, Couronian ships Der Walfish and Das Krokodil arrived at the Gambia River and founded a colony. This was the first step towards Jacob’s colonial success, however, West Indies was more appealing region to discover and soon Duchy purchased the island of Tobago. After failed attempts of settling in Tobago in 1637 & 1642, Curonian ship Das Wappen der Herzogin von Kurland led by captain Willem Mollens arrived on the island on May 20, 1654. The island was renamed to New Courland and soon it exported tobacco, coffee and various species to Europe. Curonian settlers built Fort Jacob and a small Lutheran church. In the beginning, there were 80 families of Curonian colonists and to raise this number, several expeditions brought new adventurous settlers to this tropical island. Those, who could not own anything in their homeland because of the serfdom, had a chance to start a new life in colony. Former serf got 21 hectares of land and he was allowed to own slaves that were brought from Africa.

For a short period, Duke Jacob successfully managed to fulfill the mercantilism policy in his Duchy. It had a strong naval presence, trade routes and agents around the world, as well as some colonies. Jacob dreamed about turning his Duchy into the Eastern version of the Dutch Republic and all the facts show that he succeeded. Considering fact that Duchy was a small state and it was dependent from Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, such prosperity was an impressive feat to achieve. That required a great vision, ambition and leadership.

Golden years of the Duchy did not last long, but there were several objective reasons, why it could not retain its success. You will explore the reasons of the fall of the Curonian colonization in the next chapter of this course.

Sources | Edgars Andersons. Senie kurzemnieki Amerikā un Tobāgo kolonizācija (1970) | Žanis Bundurs. Senās latvju kolonijas (1992) | Jānis Juškēvičs. Kurzemes hercogi un viņu laikmets (1993) | Alexander Valdonis Berkis. The history of the Duchy of Courland (1561-1795) (1960)

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