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The Mouse that Roared Colonized

February 14, 2009
The Mouse that...

From Atlas To Freeman's Historical Geography, 1902. Public Domain.

The countries on the Atlantic Rim were Europe’s big winners in the age of colonization, but states bordering the Baltic had a hand in the contest too. The US Virgin Islands were once the Danish West Indies, and Denmark repeatedly tried to colonize the Indian Ocean’s Nicobar Islands (and were defeated each time by malaria). Sweden settled the area around the Delaware River before it was taken from them by the Dutch, and Swedish attempts to control St. Barthelemy explains why that island’s capital is named for their King Gustav III. Nearly two hundred years before it became the German Empire, Brandenburg had a trading fort on the Gold Coast named Groß Friedrichsburg.

While all of these settlements are obscure to most, at least their mother countries are well-known. But there was one Baltic colonizer which has had even their homeland disappear into history: in both Africa and the Caribbean, the Duchy of Courland tried to make its way against countries much more powerful than it.

First, Courland itself. The duchy was a going concern when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth controlled what is now the eastern portion of Latvia. Its capital was the town of Mitau, now Jelgava; Windau, now Ventspils, was a large port. The double names are a clue to Courland’s history—it itself was a colony in an earlier age, as German-speaking people settled lands to the east of Europe, building towns and often setting themselves up as the local nobility. Courland was once part of the Livonian Order‘s lands, and had eventually fallen by war to Poland-Lithuania as an autonomous vassal. The ruling family of Courland was the Kettlers, and they were an ambitious lot.

The third duke, Jacob, is the one who brought Courland into the colonial game. He became duke in 1642, by which time Courland had become a miniature Dutch Republic on the Baltic with a large trading fleet for its population (estimated at about 200,000 Couronians, as compared to a 1.5 million people in the Netherlands and three times that for England). That gave him the means to send ships out into the wider world, and his family connections gave him the excuse.

When Duke Jacob was born, James I of England stood as his godfather. James gave Jacob’s father, Duke Friedrich, a yearly grant of £400 and the pension had fallen to Jacob on his father’s death. By that time the cash-strapped successor to James, Charles I, had fallen behind on his payments, so Duke Jacob arranged a deal: grant him the right to colonize Tobago in the Caribbean and all would be forgiven. Charles agreed, even though he’d already given the island away once previously, to the Earl of Pembroke fifteen years before. Pembroke had done nothing with his grant on account of his taking the wrong side in the Bishops’ Wars, but a further problem was that the Dutch had tried to colonize Tobago the previous year. They’d been driven away by Carib attacks, but they still had an interest in the island.

Regardless, in the same year Jacob succeeded to his ducal chair he sent a colonial expedition of some 200 people to the island. The Caribs chased them off too, but the island stayed in the Duke’s mind. In 1654 the Dutch tried again, and successfully founded Nieuw Vlissingen (now Scarborough, the largest town in Tobago) on the south shore. Encouraged by his rivals’ success, Duke Jacob sent 80 families and 149 soldiers to Tobago (their ship had the wonderful name Das Wappen der Herzogin von Kurland). The Couronians settled on the Caribbean shore of the island at its south end, at what’s still called Great Courland Bay. This put them not even ten kilometers from their Dutch counterparts. There were tensions at first, but both sides backed off after deciding they didn’t have the strength to eliminate the other. Within a few years, Fort Jacob was a small but thriving trade settlement.

Just before his second, successful attempt to settle Tobago, the Duke had paid for another complementary colony on the west coast of Africa. In the modern day, a cursory examination of a map of The Gambia shows that’s there something unusual going on there. The country is essentially just the lower Gambia River valley, extending inland for three hundred kilometers but rarely more that ten to either side of the riverbanks. The Gambia was never a colony per se, but rather a means to control the slave trade. The Gambia River was an important route down to the Atlantic Coast; the water was the important thing, not the land around it. The Portuguese were first to put a fort at its mouth, but the Couronians were next in line after it was abandoned.

Confusingly, this second fort was also called Fort Jacob, on what is modern James Island in the middle of the river’s channel where it meets the Atlantic. From Gambian Fort Jacob, the Couronians intended to ship slaves to plantations around Tobagan Fort Jacob, thus completing the third corner of a lucrative trade between the two colonies and the Duchy. Bountiful profits loomed, but the arrangement ran for just four years.

The downfall of Courland’s microscopic empire came from allying with the losing side in two successive wars. First, it was the Northern Wars, particularly the part named the Deluge—a name that gives an idea of how badly Poland-Lithuania fared against the rising Baltic empire of Sweden. England was in the midst of its Cromwellian interregnum and had temporarily abandoned Courland to side with the Swedes, while the Netherlands had sided with Poland-Lithuania. The Swedes overran Courland (and much else of the Polish lands too) and imprisoned Duke Jacob until the end of the war. Without ducal support, the colony in Tobago was easy pickings for their erstwhile Dutch allies and the Couronians were driven off.

When the Polish front of Sweden’s wars was ended by the Treaty of Oliva, the Duke was released. The Restoration in England let him return Courland and England to alliance. At this point, the second Couronian colony fell to a farcical affair involving the English admiral Sir Robert Holmes. The Dutch and the English were between the first and second of their mid-17th century wars and, while formally at peace, were still jockeying for position. Admiral Holmes was charged with putting pressure on the Dutch forts along the Guinea coast near Fort Jacob and succeeded—some say beyond the English government’s orders, some say in exactly the diplomatically deniable way Charles II wanted. He conquered the Dutch holdings and, in a fit of over-enthusiasm, Courland’s nearby fort too. At the instigation of Charles’ colony-happy brother James, the English negotiated with the Couronians to put their takeover of Fort Jacob on better legal grounds, and took legal control in 1661. They renamed it Fort James, and it was an important part of the British transatlantic slave trade until its end in 1807. As an aside, a post-publication accretion to Alex Haley’s Roots has his main character Kunta Kinte passing through Fort James; in one of those coincidences that makes one suspect history is making fun of you, Haley lifted the fictional details of his life from a book by an author named Harold Courlander.

As part of the quid pro quo for surrendering Fort James, the duchy negotiated a formal treaty with England in 1664, giving its ships right of passage to the Guinea coast and re-deeding Tobago to Courland. There was just the minor difficulty that the Dutch still held it—the pact seems to have been yet another way for England to provoke the Netherlands (the most famous way was the peacetime annexation of New Amsterdam, AKA New York). Unfortunately for Courland, the Dutch won the ensuing Second Anglo-Dutch War and stalemated the third, so England’s little ally was in no position to demand anything.

Tobago would become the island passed the most times back and forth during the colonial wars to follow, at various (and multiple) times being French, officially neutral, and British. The British were the ones to finally gain permanent possession (before the island became independent as part of Trinidad and Tobago, anyway), but by then Courland was no longer a player. The last of the Kettlers died childless in 1737, and the duchy was gradually absorbed by Russia. About the only people who pay any attention to Duke Jacob and his colonies these days are modern-day Latvians who rightly take some pride in their little country even having colonial history. There’s also a monument to his ambition on a cliff overlooking Great Courland Bay.

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