The role of Riga, Königsberg, and Gdansk in the trade of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania

Thus far nobody has succeeded in overturning the conclusion drawn by the Edvardas Gudavičius and other researchers that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (hence, the GDL too) was in the periphery of the Western world in every point of views, irrespective if it was called “peripheral capitalism,” or “the eastern bastion of Europe,” or anything else. This circumstance determined the structure of the foreign trade (export and import) of the GDL that, first of all, agricultural and forest products and raw materials necessary to textile, shipbuilding, and food industries of the Western countries were exported from the country and mainly industrial goods (iron, fabric), herring, salt, the so-called colonial goods (sugar, spices), luxury goods, and wines were imported. This does not mean that fruit was imported or sledge was exported. Nature of foreign trade was not an essential factor that determined the level of development of the country. Furthermore, it was not only the economic factors that determined trade.

In the second half of the 17th– the 18th century, merchants of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania played the role of a mediator between the eastern (Russia) and western countries to a small extent (as compared with the 16th century) though the Grand Duchy of Lithuania traded with Poland by land and through it with other countries. The GDL merchants often reached the centre of Silesia Wrocław and the fairs in the city of Leipzig. They travelled to Hungary and other countries. When the role of a mediator for the merchants and noblemen (the Radziwiłł, the Ogiński, and others) of the GDL towns was a success trade with Russia was more successful too.

Trinity of the major ports

The ports of the Baltic Sea (Riga, Königsberg, and Gdansk), the so-called cities monopolists – “parasites”, which made use of the warehouse rights, were of a strategic importance to the trade of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The classic of historiography of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania’s economy Mitrofan Dovnar-Zapolski (1867–1934) noticed it. Only one or two researchers of the history of trade disagree to that, e.g. Z. J. Kopyski. The influence of the port cities was increased by the circumstance that the then most important, cheapest water ways – along the Daugava, the Nemunas and the Vysla Rivers, which had many tributaries – led to each of these ports. Flows of cargoes were collected from the largest regions of the GDL and border territories (first of all from Russia) through them. Hundreds of Vytiniai (traditional sailing river trade vessels), strugai (boats) and other kinds of ships reached the said ports every year (land roads were bad). The well-being of these ports was determined by their position as trade mediators. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was strategically important to Riga and Königsberg as a constituent part of their economic regions. The port of Klaipėda did not equal to them in its influence, and the ports of Palanga and Šventoji were just insignificant episodes in the foreign trade of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

It was via the ports of Riga, Königsberg and Gdansk that the biggest movement of goods from the GDL and to it was directed.

It is unclear which of the said ports was the most important because they affected different regions of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in a different way. (No researcher of the history of trade has carried out such an investigation). Merchants and noblemen seeking to get the best price often sold their goods in several ports. Geography of the goods defined the zones of economic influence of the ports. Business people of the abovementioned towns granted credits to the suppliers of raw materials – town merchants, the nobility, even the noblemen and peasants. Without initial capital they could not produce the necessary quantities of production for the merchants of Gdansk, Königsberg and Riga. These zones overlapped in certain parts.

Traditionally the port of Riga is considered to be the “gateway” of Eastern Europe to the West.

Gdansk had the least significant influence on the foreign trade of the GDL. During that period Gdansk did not lose its significance to the GDL as an important trading partner but at that time it was more important to Poland. From eastern Belarus (Polock, Vitebsk palatines and other territories) hemp fibre, hemp, and potash (potassium carbonate obtained from ashes and used to produce potassium salts), linseeds, furs and skins were carried to it by land. All these goods could be sold at a higher price in Gdansk though carrying them there cost more. Fabric, salt, sugar and other colonial goods, luxury items were brought from Gdansk. The noblemen and large merchants traded with Gdansk more often.

Trade arteries of the Daugava and the Nemunas Rivers

In the second half of the 17th– the 18th centuries the port of Riga was of the greatest significance to the trade of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Its zone of influence reached not only Rus’ian regions of the Daugava (Dvina) but also Ukmergė and Anykščiai. Hemp fiber and hemp, flax (“Pater noster” and “Rokiškis” flax were especially famous) and their flaxseed, which was used to make oil, different wood products, wood for poles, wanczos (a rectangular three-sided split oak timber with one unsquared side that had not been debarked), logs, timber for stave lags, potassium, ashes, furs were carried through that port. Demand for corn in the West dropped dramatically in the middle of the 17th century. It came to life again in Sweden and other countries in the middle of the 18th century. Salt, herring, metals, wines were imported from Riga. By the way, we cannot agree with the opinion that due to the trade with Riga the urbanization of Samogitia and other regions did not develop. Sooner it was the other way around. That was determined by many reasons.

Königsberg never lost its traditional role, the great Nemunas way and the river basin contributed to it enormously. Traditionally, corn was carried to that city. In 1786-1791, Königsberg was the major corn port of western and central Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Leather and fur, hemp fiber and hemp, flaxseed, oil, ashes, potassium, tallow, cereals and fat were carried to it. Salt, herring, spices, wines, fabric, haberdashery goods, sugar, exotic fruit, iron and paper was brought from Königsberg. The foreign trade in Königsberg cost less and supply of goods was larger than in Riga (though smaller than in Gdansk). At the end of the 18th century, Königsberg was much more significant than the port of Klaipėda, which was related to the region of the town and with Samogitia, and in which capital of Königsberg merchants prevailed. Sometimes, for example, in the 17th century, it was via Königsberg rather than via Riga that the largest flows of goods moved during the war.

Demand for Lithuanian hemp

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was engaged in international trade to a lesser degree than was Poland. It could not be otherwise because the GDL was not so well developed in all respects. For example, the yields of cereals were almost half smaller in the GDL, the geographical condition of the country was also worse. Due to these two reasons large numbers of cattle (oxen) were exported by land to the West mainly from Poland. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania traded in timber more successfully because it bordered on Russia, which was rich in forests. The manorial estate economy in the whole of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was related more to the domestic market rather than directed towards export, which was determined by the yields and other factors. It is logical that the manor estates, which was nearer the above-mentioned ports, was related to export to a greater extent than those that were farther from them. However, such a situation formed in the entire economically poorly integrated Europe of that time. 

Do You Know?

In the 17th-18th centuries the main export goods of the GDL were timber, flax and hemp fibre, which were especially significant to shipbuilding of England and Holland. Ragging of a single marine vessel needed from 20 to 60 tons of high-quality hemp fibre half-finished product.

The myth that the importance of raw materials of Western Europe to the development of Western countries was really great should be mentioned. Even total export of corn from Poland and Lithuania via Gdansk (along the Wisła water way) could satisfy no more than 4-6 per cent of the needs of the inhabitants of Western Europe. Export of timber, hemp fibre and flax, which were important to shipbuilding of England and Holland, had a greater effect on the West. For example, ragging of a single marine vessel needed from 20 to 60 tons of high-quality hemp fibre half-finished product (hemp stems had to be soaked in water, the separated fibres had to be combed, be of light colour, long-haired, elastic and strong). Ropes and other things made of hemp fibre were resistant to salt sea water. 

Aivas Ragauskas