Port of English merchants in Lithuania: Šventoji in the second half of the 17th century

After the wars in the middle of the 17th century, the so-called the “Deluge” period, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth lost a large part of its territory bordering on the Baltic Sea, as well as the income derived from the maritime trade. Attempts were made to find some ways out. In 1662, the idea emerged (the author is unknown) to establish a port in a small seaside town of Lithuania – in Šventoji, the then called the village of Žvejai.

The English in Šventoji

A port and 20-50 vessels had to be built in Šventoji, it was planned to allocate some land to the arriving new settlers, and to grant privileges to a future town, which would encourage trade in the port. At first local merchants tried to realise the plan, however, their efforts were insufficient. Later foreign merchants of England and Holland became interested in Šventoji.

The establishment of the new port started on the initiative of the ruler Jan Sobieski. He received many offers from foreign merchants. In 1682, the merchant from Amsterdam J. Schmidt proposed the plan of founding a port in Šventoji to the Ruler. However, it was the English merchants who were entrusted with the work of building the port. In 1679, Jan Sobieski allowed Richard Borini who represented the English merchants to build a house for himself and establish the port. English people started settling in Šventoji, in a small town where 45 townspeople had their homesteads (about 360 inhabitants). Around 1680, vessels of English merchants with cargoes of salt, wine, iron, tobacco, silk, woollen felt cloth started to arrive at the new port. The merchants expected to acquire Lithuanian corn, flax for their goods.

It is thought that the turnover of goods in Šventoji could have reached one million gold roubles per year.

How a small seashore village nearly became Janmarienburg

After the term of privileges granted had come to an end, five years later, the English merchants appealed to the Ruler again asking to extend them. In 1685, Jan Sobieski granted a new privilege to them to go on with the building of the port: to clean the bed of the river, to dig canals. It was permitted to create a town in Šventoji, which had to be called Janmarienburg in honour of the ruler Jan Sobieski and his wife Maria. Moreover, the neighbouring villages of Paliegiriai, Purviai and Želvė had to be given over to the territory of the future town. On Thursdays, markets and two annual fairs had to be held in the town: the first one on Epiphany, the 6th of January, and the second one on the next Wednesday after St. John the Baptist (after the 24th of June). The English merchants had serious plans: they hired the engineer Markus Maximilan von Kohler from Silesia to do the work of equipping the port, planned to build a drainage system through the swampy right bank of the Šventoji River, to dig the canal.

Work of a huge scope was planned to be done, which had to change the entire picture of the town of Šventoji and to improve the navigation conditions in the port.

Several years later the scope of the work done by the English was not large, and the future town resembled a small settlement of the English merchants located on the loops of the Šventoji River. The names of the people who were concerned with the establishment of the new port in Lithuania are mentioned in historical sources. They are: Wilhelm Gatli, Richard Brynley, Tom Richardson, John Hurst, Robert Archer, Alexander Smith, Brunon Heilman, John Drayer, Wilhelm Wilet, John Middlehurst, and others.

Unrealised plans

Do You Know?

At the end of the 17th century, after the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had lost a large part of its territory bordering on the Baltic Sea, it was decided to establish a new trade port in Šventoji. The English merchants were entrusted with the task, and the new town had to be called Janmarienburg in honour of its ruler John Sobieski and his wife Maria. Unfortunately, half-way through its construction the works were stopped because of the quarrels between the ruler’s wife and the English merchants.

The port of Šventoji, which was started to be built by the English merchants, was not destined to become established in the trading market of the Baltic Sea. Several reasons stopped the activity of the new port. The nearest port cities of Prussia – Klaipėda and Königsberg – were afraid of the port of Šventoji as a possible strong rival. Merchants of Poland – Gdansk for whom Šventoji was a distant rival in the Baltic Sea were not interested in the appearance of the new port either. It is thought that the merchants of the said towns influenced the Ruler Jan Sobieski because his relationships with the English merchants deteriorated. The aspiration of the ruler’s wife to collect more taxes from the English merchants also contributed to the collapse of the port of Šventoji. Fierce disagreements started between the ruler, his wife and the English merchants. It is true, attempts were made to resolve these disagreements, but everything was in vain. Furthermore, the new arrivals disagreed with the inhabitants of Palanga who did not allow the vessels of the English company to sail the shore.

Disappointed with the situation the English merchants began moving back to England, and the Northern War that broke out later disrupted the construction work of the unfinished port of Šventoji. Šventoji remained in the shadow of Palanga. The establishment of the new port is remembered as a small episode in the history of the Lithuanian seashore.

Literature: Z. Kiaupa, Šventosios uostas Palangos seniūnijoje, Palangos istorija, sud. V. Žulkus, Klaipėda, 1999 p. 147–162.

Jonas Drungilas