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The Second Dutch Advance in the Baltic

(Baltic Sea Trade, part 4)

Despite the impressive number of ships passing through the Sound in the sixteenth century, both the volume and the value of the Dutch Baltic trade remained modest. The majority of the ships had a capacity of less than 50 lasts, and since merchandise for the Baltic countries was available only in small quantities in the Dutch entrepôt, vessels often sailed eastward on ballast. The range of products transported to the east consisted mainly of salt, herring, cloth and wines. In the 1580s, it was the English and the Hanseatics who were involved in the exchange of the wide range of commodities that were in demand in Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine. There, the land-owning nobility were experiencing a steep increase in prosperity, which provoked a growing demand for jewellery, spices, manufactures and other highly valued commodities. The transport of high-quality textiles was very much in the hands of the English merchant adventurers and the German Hanse. Hamburg and Lübeck still controlled the seaborne trade to Danzig, Königsberg, Riga, Reval, Viborg and Stockholm, and were the main re-importing centres of colonial products like spices and sugar. The shipping of valuable merchandise from Scandinavia and the eastern Baltic (e.g. yarn, leather, furs, tallow and tar) was predominantly organised by merchant houses in Lübeck, Hamburg and London, whilst Sweden's major export products (bar iron and copper) reached the west almost exclusively via the Lübeck staple market. Lübeck merchants also had by far the largest share of the trade with Sweden, Finland and Russia and still crowded the markets of Reval, Riga, Danzig, Narva and Novgorod. Although the German Hanse's role in the Sound trade had been considerably undermined by the Dutch and English competition, it still wielded influence in important segments of the markets across the Baltic in the decades around 1600.

The Sound Toll registers show that a second Dutch advance in the Baltic was taking place in the 1590s as Dutch trade in Mediterranean and colonial wares started to eclipse that of Hamburg and Lübeck. This was the result of the more diversified triangle trade between the Baltic, the western Atlantic coasts and the Mediterranean. Danzig grain was shipped by Dutch merchants directly to Lisbon and Venice, where they sourced the Mediterranean produce demanded in the Baltic. Spain, Portugal and France were also markets for naval stores as well as Swedish copper and iron; they were also the north's main providers of salt, woollens and wines. The Baltic, however, remained primarily the source of the Dutch domestic market and the Republic's main supplier of grain, timber and naval stores. The availability of these basic commodities – especially of grain – gradually transformed the Amsterdam market into the focal point of European trade. Re-exports of grain were already a feature of Amsterdam's expansion around 1550, but they gained importance in the 1590s as famine ravaged southern Europe. In the words of the American historian Jan de Vries, it was such extensions of Dutch trade into other parts of Europe that led in the seventeenth century to Amsterdam's rise as Europe's new entrepôt. For a while, its position was unparalleled as the Dutch gained primacy in colonial trade with the East and West Indies, in Atlantic fishing and whaling, and in Russian trade via Archangel. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Dutch exports — and in particular the influx of such colonial wares as sugar, tea, coffee and tobacco — to the Baltic rose dramatically. Dutch ships carried 14.5 million pounds of colonial wares through the Sound in the years 1661-1670. Fifty years later, the volume had more than doubled. Being the Low Countries' main supplier of basic commodities and the main market for its domestic and colonial produce, their political leaders could only acknowledge the key position of the seaborne mercantile traffic through the Sound, calling it "the mother of all trades".

The development of the fluitschip is a major reason for the Low Countries' supremacy in the Baltic after 1600. The fluit was constructed around 1595 in order to maximise carrying capacity and slash construction and equipment costs. Its design, characterised by an almost flat bottom and a long hull, revolutionised the transport of bulk commodities through the shallow Baltic coastal waters. Contrary to the then current preference for converting naval ships for merchants use, the fluit was uniquely designed for mercantile purposes. As a result, construction costs were cut by replacing traditional oak with fir and pine, which made the ship much lighter and easier to handle. A Dutch fluit could be crewed by half as many men as a traditional vessel, whilst construction costs were reduced by almost 50 per cent. The introduction of the fluit had an enormous impact on shipbuilding practices, as in the subsequent centuries its design served as an example for ship builders in all major yards across the Baltic. Dutch knowledge of shipbuilding was exported throughout the Baltic, giving a new impulse to the yards of Altona, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Danzig, Riga and St. Petersburg, where immigrants from the Low Countries took leading positions.

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