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Mercantilism in the West Baltic

(Baltic Sea Trade, part 5)

As the Baltic ports were virtually clogged with Dutch (and English) ships, governments redesigned their policies in order to reduce foreign influence on both their seaborne trade and their 'national' economies. The mercantile policies of the Danish King Christian IV (1596-1648) combined with his pursuit of political hegemony in the western Baltic, posed a serious threat to the Dutch advance. Tensions rose after Denmark's victory over Sweden during the Kalmar wars of 1611-1613, which resulted in a ban on all Dutch traffic to Sweden and a sudden increase of the Sound Toll duties. In order to secure free entrance to the Baltic, the Dutch entered anti-Danish alliances with the Hanseatic league in 1613 and with Sweden in 1614. These alliances forced Christian IV to pull back, while the Dutch also imposed some sort of Pax Neerlandica on the Baltic waters, obliging the surrounding powers to guarantee free and secure shipping in the region. Danish mercantilism challenged the Low Countries again in the 1630s. A Spanish-Danish commercial treaty of 1632 was designed to undermine Dutch-Iberian trade to the Baltic. The treaty indeed triggered an increase in Danish-Mediterranean trade and a revival of the construction of large ships in the Norse harbours. Trade to the Baltic was severely hit by another increase in the Sound dues, which primarily affected the Dutch since the new levies specifically concerned commodities like grain, flax, hemp and herring. In addition, a new toll at Glückstadt was imposed, creaming off the burgeoning Elbe traffic. As negotiations with Denmark had no effect, the Dutch navy entered the Sound in 1645, escorting a huge number of merchant vessels. Under the threat of an attack against Copenhagen, Christian IV annulled the new levies at the Sound and in Glückstadt. The agreement of 1649 reinforced the Dutch trading position in the Baltic even more, since it discriminated against Hanseatic and Swedish shipping through the Sound.

The shift of Sweden's war efforts to Prussia and Germany during the Thirty Years War seriously undermined King Christian's ambitions in his struggle for Baltic dominion. The acquisition of Gustav II Adolph (1611-1632) in 1632 of the northern German shores, along the Baltic and the North Sea, was followed by successful Swedish campaigns in 1643 and 1657 in Jutland. On both occasions Denmark had to give up territories in the Baltic and several provinces along the eastern coast of the Kattegat and the Sound, thus losing its supreme strategic position at the entrance to the Baltic. It marked the beginning of Sweden's Age of Greatness, which was to last until 1721, when Swedish naval forces were worsted by the galleys of the Russian Tsar, Peter the Great. Until then, however, Sweden controlled an area stretching from the Sound in the west to the Bay of Riga in the east. On several occasions, Sweden's expansion in the Baltic provoked the intervention of the Dutch navy in an effort to protect the Republic's commercial interests in the region. In 1656, the Republic sent a fleet to Danzig to warn off the Swedes; two years later, it was dispatched to protect Copenhagen against attacks by King Charles X, who was on the verge of imposing his authority on both sides of the Sound. The defeat of the Swedish fleet in the Sound secured for the Dutch free access to the Baltic, but also alarmed the English government, which now feared that the Dutch naval power might lead to the exclusion of the English from the Baltic trade. In the end, not war but diplomacy prevailed, as in 1660 a peace treaty between Sweden and Denmark was signed after Anglo-Dutch mediation. The Swedish king also promised to issue regulations to prevent any effective discrimination against foreign ships by the Swedes.

Economic relations between Sweden and the northern Low Countries remained ambiguous. Swedish military enterprises in the east were a nuisance to foreigners carrying trade, since they were accompanied by blockades of the eastern Baltic and Prussian ports and trade interruptions. Sweden's internal market, however, depended very much on the investments of foreign capital and the services offered by the financial market in Amsterdam. Dutch entrepreneurs like De Geer and Trip made a fortune in the Swedish iron, copper and weapons industries and obtained pivotal positions in Sweden's export trade. In the 1640s, Sweden had become the Dutch Republic's number one trade partner in the Baltic: about 50 per cent of Sweden's imports originated from Amsterdam's staple market, whilst all copper exports and 40 per cent of all iron exports went to the Low Countries, as did 75 per cent of the Finnish tar production. The Swedish market had also become the second pillar of the Low Countries' Baltic trade.

However, this position was challenged by the Swedish mercantile stance of 1667. Contrary to the agreement that had been reached seven years earlier, heavy tolls were imposed on salt and wine shipped on foreign ships other than those sailing under the flag of the nation of origin. The measure was clearly directed against Amsterdam and the West Frisian ports, and it triggered Dutch retaliation. As war broke out between Sweden and Denmark, in 1676 the Republic sent its navy into the Baltic. In a joint campaign with Denmark, the Swedes were defeated and forced to accept a treaty in 1679 annulling the restrictive measures, and to salvage their mercantilist aims. After that, friendly relations between Sweden and the Republic prevailed and trade was restored. The improvement of the relations with the Swedes resulted in the recovery of Dutch trade through the Sound. By the 1680s, an avarage nearly 1000 Dutch ships entered the Baltic each year, accounting for almost 60 per cent of the total traffic. However, Norse-Danish and Swedish shipping was expanding, and — with some 2000 ships — heavily outnumbered the total number of Dutch ships involved in the Sound trade in the last decade of the century.

The growth of Danish-Norse shipping was the result of prolonged mercantilism in the realm. Dutch relations with Denmark-Norway withered as the latter two countries maintained their policy to reduce their dependence on the Amsterdam entrepôt, which played a pivotal role in the distribution of Norwegian timber, fish and pitch. A Danish-Dutch guerre de commerce flared up in 1683 when the government in Copenhagen issued an aggressive tariff list. The Dutch reacted by suspending Norse imports, which forced the Danish government to withdraw its discriminating policies and to accept a new commercial treaty in 1688. Although relations then improved, Dutch pressure did not bring about a complete restoration of its position in Denmark. Exports of timber to Holland declined, as did Dutch imports of salt, spices, sugar and cloth. The Danes and the Norse had acquired their own substantial merchant fleet, though it comprised mainly small vessels, which traded directly with the English and French ports and increasingly circumvented the Amsterdam entrepôt.

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