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Changing Patterns in the East

(Baltic Sea Trade, part 6)

The Baltic trade, which had suffered under the Swedish occupation of Poland and the blockade of Danzig in the late 1620s, revived almost as soon as the invaders had retreated. Merchants from the Low Countries even extended their grip on sectors of the Baltic market formerly dominated by the English. From about 1600 onwards, Dutch trade in spices and high-quality cloth to Poland and Eastern Prussia increased to such an extent that it had almost replaced the English by around 1640. Especially in the cloth trade, the balance was almost completely inversed to the advantage of the Dutch: between 1580 and 1650, the English share in the Baltic markets declined from 91 per cent to 32 per cent, whilst the Dutch share rose from 40 per cent to 54 per cent in the same period. The 1640s witnessed an unprecedented rise in grain exports, which led to a shortage of the boats that shuttled between the big ships and the warehouses on Amsterdam's canals.

The dominance of the Dutch bulk trade in the eastern Baltic started to wane in the subsequent decades. Divergent explanations for this have been put forward. Maria Bogucka advanced the thesis that the competitiveness of Baltic grain on the western markets stared to decline already in the seventeenth century as a result of a lack of efficiency on Polish farms. Others have pointed to the devastating results of the wars against the Cossacks (1648-1651) and the Swedes (1655-1660), or to a declining demand as a result of demographic stagnation in western Europe. Also the English Navigation Acts of 1660 and 1662 — which were designed to, amongst others things, limit English dependence on Dutch shipping from the Baltic — contributed to the demise. By 1700, the Dutch had been largely excluded from the carrying trade between the Baltic and English harbours, with ships from Sweden and Livonia taking their place. Contraction continued until 1750, when the average volume of grain shipped on Dutch vessels was only 50 per cent of the figure one hundred years earlier.

The decline of eastern Prussian exports is clearly expressed in the Sound dues. Whilst about 40 per cent of westward shipping had left from Danzig in the first decade of the seventeenth century, the figure was less than 20 per cent at the end of the century. The changing position of the main Prussian harbour was also reflected in the tendency of western European vessels to sail to the Livonian ports, where abundant quantities of flax, hemp, timber, naval stores, pitch and tar were available. Rising prices, growing foreign competition, high tariffs and the exhaustion of timber supplies in the Vistula hinterland obliged traders to look for more favourable markets further east. Accounts kept by Lübeck's customs indicate, for example, that during the last quarter of the seventeenth century, exports from Riga were almost double those from Danzig. Smaller ports — like Königsberg, Elbing, Pernau and Narva — also benefited from the changing patterns of trade. Already in the decades around 1600, Elbing had become Prussia's main seller of industrial raw materials; it established itself as a regional cloth staple and benefited from a stable demand for naval stores. Just before 1650, Königsberg's direct access to the Lithuanian hinterlands transformed the city into Prussia's main flax and hemp exporter. Trade moved, however, mostly to Riga, which started to challenge Danzig's predominant export status in the region around 1700. Like Danzig's exports, Riga's depended heavily on grain, hemp and flax as well as on the local production of naval requisites, like masts, boards and deals. A sawmill and linseed-oil mill were set up with Dutch capital and labour, whilst Riga merchants invested in tanneries, rope-walks, foundries and shipbuilding facilities in the Cronstierna yards. Foreign capital and knowledge led to the development of shipyards, sawmills and flax and hemp refineries along the Narova River. This contributed to a new period of economic growth in Narva and a revival of Russian transit trade, which had been halted by the Swedish conquest of 1581.

Swedish protective policies were an important factor in the shaping of a new trading balance in the eastern Baltic. Efforts by the Swedish government to gain more from the commodities that were in demand on the English and Dutch markets resulted in the establishment of the monopolistic Swedish Tar Company in 1648. The enforced monopoly was very dentrimental to Finnish tar exports, which until then had made up about 50 per cent of Finland's total export volumes. Especially the staple towns of Åbo, Helsingfors (Helsinki) and Viborg suffered heavily under the Company's monopoly because the redirection of exports provoked a fall in imports of such indispensable commodities as salt. Local farmers and merchants tried to avoid the negative effects of the Swedish protective measures by performing illegal trade. Finns sent their ships to the Livonian ports, whilst skippers from Holland in south-west Sweden illegally transported timber from Norway to northern Germany, Denmark and the Low Countries.

Foreign commercial relations with Sweden were further strained by the publication in 1673 of the trade ordinance, which was reissued in 1687. One of the limitations concerned the activities of native figure heads to the benefit of foreign merchants in Sweden. Such regulations followed the restrictions on international free trade that had been issued during the reign of Gustav II Adolf. These were aimed at creating a small group of staple towns and excluding other ports and markets from direct foreign seaborne trade. After 1636, all ports north of Stockholm and Åbo were subjected to such discriminating regulations. Especially Stockholm benefited greatly from these protective policies, resulting in a steady growth of its mercantile fleet. At the end of the seventeenth century, it had almost 750 vessels, though most were small coastal craft. Larger ships — that is, those with a capacity of over 100 lasts — were nearly all owned by Swedish trading houses. Göteborg came second, though with only ten ships of more than 100 lasts, it lagged far behind the capital.

Sweden's protective policies also served its efforts to control Russian trade in the Baltic. Several grandiose projects aimed at concentrating Russian trade in the hands of naturalised merchants in order to buy up Russian grain surpluses and entire annual Russian leather productions in an effort to effectively cut the Dutch out of the market. Negotiations with the Russian government resulted in the treaty of Kardis (1661), which provided for free trade in Russia. This came to an end in 1667, however, when the Russian Tsar introduced high transit duties. In the end, only the Dutch proved capable of adapting to the difficult Russian trading conditions, whilst poor and economically less developed states like Sweden and Denmark lacked the necessary reserves. The Dutch, however, lost considerable ground on the Swedish and Finnish markets in the last decades of the seventeenth century as a result of Sweden's protective policies.

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