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Courland Colonization of the Americas


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The Duchy of Courland was the smallest nation to colonize the Americas with a short-lived colony in Tobago during the 1654–1659, and again 1660–1689. Courland was established as a Duchy in 1561, a fief of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in the modern Latvia. It had a population of only 200,000. Under the duke, Jacob Kettler, the Duchy reached the peak of its prosperity. During his travels to Western Europe, Jacob became the eager proponent of mercantile ideas. Metalworking and ship building became much more developed. Trading relations were established not only with nearby countries, but also with Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and others. Kettler established the one of the largest merchant fleets in Europe, with its main harbours in Ventspils, Liepaja.

The Duchy’s ship were undertaking trade voyages to the West Indies at least as early as 1637 when a Courland ship attempted to found a colony on Tobago with 212 settlers. An earlier European settlement on the island, a Dutch colony, formed in 1628, had been wiped out by the Spanish a few months earlier. The first Courland colony was a failure as was a second attempted in 1639. In 1642, two ships under Captain Caroon with about 300 settlers attempted to settle on the north coast near Courland Bay but were soon driven off by the Carib natives. In 1651 the Duchy gained its first successful colony but in Africa, on St. Andrews Island at the Gambia River and they established Fort Jacob there.

Soon afterwards, on 20 May 1654, another colony was established in Tobago when the ship Das Wappen der Herzogin von Kurland arrived. The ship carried forty-five cannons, twenty-five officers, 124 Courlander soldiers and eighty families of colonists to occupy Tobago. Captain Willem Mollens declared the island “New Courland”. A fort was erected on the south-west of the island, also called Jekabforts (Fort James) with the surrounding town called Jekaba pilseta (Jamestown). Other features were given Courland names such as Great Courland Bay, James Bay, Courland Estate, New Jelgave, Liepaja Bay and Little Courland Bay. An Evangelical Lutheran church was built by the Courlanders in their first year on the island. A second Dutch colony was started a few months later and soon vastly outnumbered the Courland settlement. 120 Courland colonists came in 1657 but the Dutch colony reached a population of 1200 by the next year when 500 French settlers joined them.

Goods exported to Europe included sugar, tobacco, coffee, cotton, ginger, indigo, rum, cocoa, tortoise shells, tropical birds and their feathers.

The Duchy of Courland was a focus of interest for both Sweden and Poland. In 1655 the Swedish army entered the territory of the Duchy and the Northern Wars (1655–1660) began. Duke Jacob was held captive by Swedish army in 1658–1660. During this period both colonies were taken by more numerous Dutch colonists, and the merchant fleet and factories were destroyed. The Dutch settlers on the island surrounded Fort James and forced Hubert de Beveren, Governor of the Courlanders to surrender. Courland officially yielded New Courland on 11 December 1659. This war ended with the Treaty of Oliwa (signed near Gdańsk) of 1660, on the basis of which Tobago was returned to Courland. The Courlanders left Tobago in 1666, possibly after a pirate attack which occurred that year. In 1668 a Courland ship attempted to reoccupy Fort Jacob but was driven off by the Dutch. Tobago was regained again just for a short period at the end of Jacob’s rule with an attempt in July 1680 at a new colony which also later failed. He began to restore the fleet and factories, but the Duchy never again reached its previous level of prosperity. The island was abandoned from March 1683 – June 1686, and, in May 1690, shortly after the island was sold by Courland the previous year, the Courlanders permanently left Tobago, although absentee governors would continue to be appointed until 1795.

The Courland Monument near Courland Bay commemorates the Duchy’s settlements.

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