Courland colonization of the Americas

Courland colonization of the Americas
European colonization
of the Americas
First colonization
British colonization
Courlandish colonization
Danish colonization
Dutch colonization
French colonization
German colonization
Norse colonization
Portuguese colonization
Russian colonization
Scottish colonization
Spanish colonization
Swedish colonization
Colonization of Canada
Colonization of the USA
Great Courland Bay Monument

The Duchy of Courland was the smallest nation to colonize the Americas with a colony on the island of Tobago from 1654 to 1659, and intermittently from 1660 to 1689. [1]



Courland had a population of only 200,000, mostly of German and Scandinavian ancestry, and was itself a vassal of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at that time. Under Duke Jacob Kettler, a Baltic German, it established one of the largest merchant fleets in Europe. During his travels to Western Europe, Jacob became the eager proponent of mercantilism. Metalworking and shipbuilding became much more developed. Trading relations were established not only with nearby countries, but also with England, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and others. Kettler established one of the largest merchant fleets in Europe, with its main harbours in Windau (today's Ventspils), and Libau (today's Liepāja).

The Duchy's ships 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 a few months earlier by Spain. However, the first Courland colony met a similar end, whilst a second attempt was essentially blockaded by Spain and strangled in infancy by 1639. In 1642, two ships under Captain Caroon with about 300 settlers attempted to settle on the north coast near Courland Bay. This colony was again blockaded, but was more successful. Jesuit missionaries among the Carib quickly agitated and armed the tribes into attacking the settlement which was subsequently evacuated to Tortuga and later Jamaica. Under agreement with other Protestant powers who saw their various individual efforts insufficient to trade and or colonize both the America's, Africa, and the Indies simulteneously, Courland's attention shifted to Africa. In 1651 the Duchy gained its first successful colony in Africa, on St. Andrews Island in the Gambia River and they established Fort Jacob there.

Soon afterward, the Protestant powers felt sufficiently organized and prepared to launch several colonial expeditions in the Caribean against Spanish interests. However, the alliance between England and Netherlands against Spain began to sever under England's new trading program. The Dutch were primary competitors to Courland who decided to support the English in the brewing conflict. Therefore, Courland received permission from its Protestant English allies to make still another attempt at a colony on Tobago. On May 20 1654, the ship Das Wappen der Herzogin von Kurland ("The Arms of the Duchess of Courland") arrived carrying 45 cannons, 25 officers, 124 Courlander soldiers and 80 families of colonists to occupy Tobago. Captain Willem Mollens declared the island "New Courland" (Neu-Kurland). A fort was erected on the south-west of the island, also called Fort Jacobus (Fort James) with the surrounding town called Jacobsstadt (Jamestown). Other features were given Courland names such as Great Courland Bay, Jacobs (James) Bay, Courland Estate, Neu-Mitau (New Jelgava), Libau Bay and Little Courland Bay. An Evangelical Lutheran church was built by the Courlanders in their first year on the island. The colony was successful, but the Netherlands were not willing to accede to losing the West Indies and replied by establishing their colony nearby a few months later. Thus, the small Courland colony soon became overshadowed by a second Dutch colony. While 120 Courland colonists had come in 1657, the Dutch colony reached a population of 1,200 by the next year when 500 French Protestan refugees fleeing Catholic persecution 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-Lithuania. In 1655, the Swedish army entered the territory of the Duchy and the Northern Wars (1655–1660) began. Duke Jacob was held captive by the Swedish army in 1658–1660. Even so, during this period, both colonies continued to thrive. 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 December 11 1659. This war ended with the Treaty of Oliwa (signed near Gdańsk) of 1660, on the basis of which Tobago was returned to Courland. However, although peace had been established between the Courlanders and the Dutch, there still remained Spain. Thus, following several attacks by Buccaneers seeking new harbors and an expeditionary fleet of Spanish vessals, the Courlanders left Tobago in 1666. In 1668 a Courland ship attempted to reoccupy Fort Jacobus 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 except for visiting Buccaneers from March 1683 to June 1686, before again being occupied by a collection of scattered Courlanders from throughout the Dutch, French, and English West Indies, as well as fresh settlers from the home country. However, in May 1690, shortly after the island was sold by Courland the previous year, the Courlanders government permanently left Tobago, and those who remained essentially joined the buccaneers or other Anglo-Dutch colonies. Nonetheless, absentee governors would continue to be appointed until 1795, thereby facilitating the continued use of covert privateering Letters of Marque and Reprisal in the region.

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

Governors of New Courland (Tobago)

1642–1643 Edward Marshall
1643–1650 Cornelius Caroon
1654-165? Adrien Lampsius
1656–1659 Hubert de Beveren
1660–1689 ?

See also


  1. ^ Tobago: The history of the Dutch and Courlanders' settlements This website contains further bibliography:
    • Archibald, D. "Tobago: melancholy isle, vol. I 1498-1771" 137 pp. Westindiana, 1987, Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago
    • Carmichael,Gertrude "The history of the West Indian Island of Trinidad and Tobago, 1498-1900", 463 pp. 8 plts. 1961, London, UK.
    • Edmundson "The Dutch in Western Guiana" English historical review: 1901 Vol. XVI 640 - 675 pp. -- About he first period of Dutch settlements in Guiana and Tobago, including some information about Courland colonizing Tobago.
    • Goslinga,C.Ch. "The Dutch in the Caribbean & on the Wild Coast 1580-1680" 647 pp. 12 maps Van Gorcum & C. 1971 Assen, The Netherlands

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