The role of Duchy of Courland and Semigallia in the Latvian history

 Duchy of Courland and Semigallia

The plan of the Rundale Palace

History of Latvia has seen a lot of struggle and painful periods. As an independent state, it has been relatively quiet on the European and World stage. There were some memorable years under the president Kārlis Ulmanis in the 1930s when Latvia saw an economic blooming and many witnesses of that era remembered that period with a good nostalgic feeling. Nevertheless, similar examples of prosperity and novel-like success stories remain a rarity. Latvian territory has been historically divided as a piece of cake in the hands of hungry European powers. There were periods of German rule, Vidzeme region was a part of Sweden, Latgale was a part of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and eventually, the whole territory of Latvia was incorporated into the Russian Empire in the 18th century.

The era of Duke Jacob might be the most famous in Latvian history. This is despite the fact that Duke himself was German and local Latvians were just kind of a tool in achieving all his mercantilist goals. Cheap and reliable labor for Duke’s manufactures. Although Jacob knew the Latvian language, most of the local peasants remained serfs under the strict control of nobility without any real freedom or rights. The only exception was the Curonian Kings. However, Duke had strained relationships with the local nobility and this led to some new opportunities for the Latvian people.

Most of the manufactures in Duchy largely relied on the foreign, mostly Dutch, masters – in its manufactures and shipyards. However, since Latvians were physically strong and hard-working people, under the rule of Duke Jacob, local artisans had a chance to learn from foreign masters and eventually earn their own salaries. It was a beneficial situation for both sides. Jacob got a cheap and reliable workforce, while Latvians slowly gained respect and opportunities to serve Duchy not only as peasants but also as skilled craftsmen, soldiers, and sailors.

Of course, this does not mean that locals automatically gained some extra rights or avoided the harsh reality under the serfdom. They still had to suffer a lot, but the prosperity of Duchy and Duke’s policy was more appealing than life under his predecessors. Neutrality policy of Jacob and avoidance of war for almost two decades also played some part in the creation of a positive legacy. Prosperous periods always overshadow many negative or unfair historical nuances thanks to folk tales and literary works.

Latvian writer Aleksandrs Grīns (1895-1941) deserves a lot of credit for that. He wrote two popular and polarizing novels that included stories about Duchy of Courland and Semigallia. One is «Nameja Gredzens» – a novel about the legendary Semigallian leader Namejs ring and his successor’s rise against the local Dukes. However, do not get confused if you look up more about Namejs ring on the internet. The 2018 movie «The Pagan King» is a completely different story and it has dozens of historical inaccuracies.

Other Grīns fiction work involving Duchy is «Tobago». As you might guess from its title, this novel is about the colonization period of Tobago Island. The main protagonist of this story is one of the Curonian sailors, who gets involved in Duke’s ambitious colonial journeys to the Gambia and Tobago Island. Jacob is portrayed as a well-respected ruler by the local Latvians. He is kind of a caring father figure that eventually is caught in war and destruction. This novel strengthened the perception that Duke Jacob era was a positive one for Latvians and he was the greatest ruler that Latvian lands had ever seen.

The later history of Duchy of Courland and Semigallia is not surrounded by the same amount of nostalgia and patriotic feelings. There is a simple reason for that. Under the relatively short rule of Biron dynasty, Duchy was never at the same economic and political heights as in Duke Jacob’s era. It had a less adventurous path, mostly involving intrigues around the Russian court. However, Biron’s managed to leave something for the upcoming generations. Some beautiful architectural works from the Biron period still can be found in Latvia. The most popular example is the majestic Rundāle Palace that was projected by the well-known Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli in 1736. Aside from that, Biron’s could not resist against the rising influence of the Russian Empire and Duchy slowly ended its existence in 1795.

Overall, the question of national pride and its components is always highly subjective and individual. In the case of Latvia, it is fair to say that Duchy of Courland and Semigallia was one of the turning points in the formation of the Latvian national identity. You cannot disassociate these two. Latvians as a nation, not just separate tribes of Curonians and Semigallians, made their impact in the success of the Duchy. They helped Duke Jacob to leave an inspiring example for the next generations of a small nation that managed to find its place in the cruel reality of the 17th century. Without a sword, but with smart ideas and hard work.

Sources | Edgars Andersons. Senie kurzemnieki Amerikā un Tobāgo kolonizācija (1970) | Jānis Juškēvičs. Kurzemes hercogi un viņu laikmets (1993) | Alexander Valdonis Berkis. The history of the Duchy of Courland (1561-1795) (1960) | Aleksandrs Grīns. Trīs gadsimti un trīs vadoņi (1937)


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