May 20, 2007

Courland — A Colonial Power of Latvia

Courland — A Colonial Power of Latvia

In 1651, Duke Jacob Kettler (1610–1681) conquered the delta of the Gambia river as a colony of Courland, Latvia's predecessor country. In 1654 the Caribbean island of Tobago was also conquered. The Duke even planned to conquer Australia.

The small Duchy of Courland had only 200,000 inhabitants, despite ambitious plans for expansion. Its area covered most of the southern part of modern day Latvia. Instead of occupying colonies in neighbouring regions, Duke Jacob Kettler set his eyes for exotic lands which could produce valuable imports.

Duke Jacob (or James) Kettler of Courland was the godson of James I, the king of England. He was well educated and travelled extensively in Western Europe. Being a qualified politician and merchant he managed to make the strategically important Duchy one of the leading maritime states, which boasted a great 17th century fleet.

The primary destination for the Duke was Africa. The Courlanders built a fortress on the island of St. Andrews on the mouth of the river Gambia. The northern colonialists acquired gold, fur, spices and ivory. These exotic products were shipped to Europe as expensive luxuries.

In 1661, the English conquered the Courlanders' fortress, ending their short period as one of Africa’s colonial powers.

The island of Tobago and the British West Indies were the next stop for Courland's expansion. Tobago was conquered in 1654. The impressive Ventspils based doubledecker ship Das Wappen der Herzogin von Kurland, was armed with 45 cannons and used to conquer the island. The ship carried 25 officials, 124 of Courland’s soldiers and 80 families of colonists, all sent by the ambitious duke. Some sources claim the occupation took place a couple of years earlier.

The new colony was named New Courland. Even today, names reminiscent of the previous colonists appear in Tobago, such as Great Courland Bay and James Bay.

During Jacob's rule the Duchy of Courland was an economic power with plenty of exports going abroad to countries such as England, France, the Netherlands and Portugal.

The traditional exports of Courland were timber, hardware, glassware, flour, grain, salted meat, fish and amber. After the occupation of Tobago this list grew, adding sugar, spices, tobacco, cocoa, coffee, cotton and tropical birds.

The Duke managed to occupy the island in 1656 while Jacob was busy fighting the Swedes and the Poles back in Europe. Once the Swedish-Polish war ended the Courlanders quickly reoccupied Tobago and rebuilt their grand merchant fleet and factories.

Courland lost its last colony in 1689, when Friedrich, Duke Jacob's son who was notorious for his glamorous partylifestyle, sold Tobago to the English. It has been claimed that Duke Jacob also had plans to colonialise Australia in the early 1650s. Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon had discovered the new continent in 1606 and had named it New Holland. Jacob, who was already fighting against the Dutch in Tobago, wanted to send at least 40 ships carrying 24,000 soldiers to Australia.

Duke Jacob got holy help for his brave plan. Pope Innocent X blessed the idea, since Jacob claimed the new continent would be useful for the Catholic Church. Unfortunately for Jacob, Pope Innocent X died in 1654 and his successor Pope Alexander VII was not interested in Jacob’s grand idea.

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1 comment:

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