Friday, 31 March 2023 to Sunday, 2 April 2023

A Fortress Built on Sand: The Duchy of Courland's Engagement with Africa in the Seventeenth Century

Fri31  Mar02:30pm(20 mins)
Senate Room


John Freeman1
1 University of Cambridge, UK


During the seventeenth century, the European engagement with the continent of Africa, and in particular Western Africa, grew immensely. In the Eastern Baltic, the Duke of Courland and Semigallia, Jakob Kettler, concocted plans to aggrandise his family beyond its local role as vassals of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In 1643, the ducal council negotiated access to the Danish Sound, and by 1650, Couronian ships were transporting goods for the Portuguese crown between Lisbon, Guinea and Brazil. In 1651, the Courlanders established a colony of their own in the River Gambia at St Andreas Island, which they held until 1660. The paper proposes to review Courland’s participation in the slave trade, which I argue is much greater than previously imagined. It also seeks to investigate how Courlanders approached their encounters with indigenous African people, and what strategies they employed in order to extract riches from the continent. The paper will ask whether there was anything distinctively Baltic or Couronian about the duchy’s activities in the Senegambia region and will try to explain Courland’s actions in full context, appreciating how African kingdoms such as Barra and Kombo received and interpreted their new neighbours from the Baltic.