Blog: Maritime connections between the realms of the Danish king and Netherlands in the early modern period (longread)

Although we know that lieutenant admiral Jacob van Wassenaar Obdam and his fleet was victorious in the Battle of the Sound in 1658 and later on was decisive in preventing the Swedish king, Carl Gustavius from taking Copenhagen, the maritime connections between Denmark-Norway and the Netherlands have not been clearly understood, although these connections had a large effect on the  development of the maritime culture in Denmark Norway.

My Ph.D dissertation tries to solve some of the questions related the above mentioned connections. The dissertation is based on the fact that many Dutch maritime words are also found in Danish and this fact has led to a further study of whether other Dutch maritime cultural phenomena, practices and traditions have found their way not only to Denmark, but to the whole of Scandinavia.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was primarily the import of Dutch maritime technology in the form of ships and rigging types, as well as knowledge of how to handle the new vessels and new ways of building them, that was imported. This phenomenon was based primarily on the purchase of vessels in the Netherlands and the recruitment of Dutch experts: shipbuilders and ship’s masters who brought new shipbuilding methods to the kingdoms and through participation in so-called practice communities with local craftsmen taught these new methods. The earliest known written testimony of the presence of Dutch shipbuilders in the Danish king’s realms dates from 1488, but otherwise it seems that it is in the reigns of Frederik II and Christian V that we see the recruitment of Dutch shipbuilders and shipbuilders in great numbers, primarily for employment in the Royal Navy.

Dutch navigation methods were probably also introduced to Scandinavia at the end of the 16th century, but it is in the reign of Christian IV that we first find evidence of Dutch navigators and seafarers recruited by the Danish crown. Dutch navigation methods made it possible to carry out long ocean voyages, which was necessary for the Danish king to be able to take part in the continent’s quest for colonies in the rest of the world, but the special skills needed to safely guide a ship to the other side of the globe still required personal experience, which meant that Dutch seamen and officers were recruited for this purpose.

In the latter part of the 17th century the Danish Royal Navy faced manning problems for its large and complicated naval ships, and so the admiralty looked to the Netherlands, where deep-sea sailors with the necessary skills were to be found. In this context it has been shown that there is a fundamental difference between sailing a small vessel in domestic traffic in near coastal waters, where the simple rig is handled from the deck, and being able to work aloft on a large full-rigged, ocean-going ship.

The latter required many years of training, knowledge and experience, which could only be obtained on board such ships, of which there were not many in the realms of the Danish king at this time. Therefore, from around 1663, many ordinary seamen and trained naval officers were recruited in the Netherlands, with the result that more than half of the officers in the fleet of Niels Juel at the Battle of Køge Bay were from the Netherlands. The ordinary sailors who worked on the decks and in the rigging and the naval officers and navigators were part of the same practice communities that constituted the social network on board. In this dissertation the theories developed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wegner on practice communities and peripheral-legitimate participation have been applied to demonstrate how ordinary sailors from the realms of the Danish king took over the knowledge, experiences, beliefs and practices of the Dutch sailors and officers through participation in practice communities and made it their own.

It is also from the middle of the 17th century that we have the first testimony of seamen from the Danish conglomerate state who participated in shipping from the Netherlands and who later returned home influenced by Dutch maritime practice; these ‘hollandfarers’ must also be considered when we talk about the Dutch maritime influence on Scandinavia. The phenomenon in the opposite direction, from Scandinavia to the Netherlands, grew in the latter part of the 17th century, but it is especially from the 18th century that we see an ever-increasing labour migration from the maritime communities of Scandinavia to the northern ports of the United Provinces. The driving forces behind this movement of people were poor social and economic conditions in the home countries, while in the Netherlands it was possible to find a job, even if you were unskilled, as well as a salary that was significantly better than what could be found at home.

Through the aforementioned practice communities (networks) based on family, friendships and local or regional affiliation, an immigrant from the Nordic countries could with relative certainty travel to the Netherlands and find housing and work in the new country through the same networks/practice communities. Many settled permanently in the Netherlands, but especially in the 18th century, most returned to their home country after a shorter or longer period abroad. In this dissertation the primary source of the presence of Scandinavian sailors in Dutch shipping is my findings in the Waterschout Archive in Amsterdam for the years 1772, 1780 and 1787, where approximately 5500 Scandinavian sailors have been found and, in addition to this, several findings have been made in notarial archives and other sources on the recruitment of Scandinavian seamen in Amsterdam in the 17th century. Thus, it is possible to get rare insight into the lives of ordinary people (in this case sailors) in the early modern period, and even to derive some general traits from the lives and movements of these people.

The Scandinavian seafarers participated in all parts of Dutch shipping, but most of them sailed in the runs across the Atlantic Ocean to South America and the Caribbean and in the grain trade to the Baltics. In the lucrative trades (the grain trade, whaling and the trade to Arkhangelsk), the sailors from the Wadden Sea area far outnumbered the other Scandinavians, while sailors from Southwest Norway were also represented here to a lesser degree. In contrast, it seems that sailors from the Scanian peninsula and from Sweden and Finland were to be found in trades with higher risks and with lower pay. Thus, the two maritime core areas, the Wadden Sea and Southwestern Norway, took precedence. Sailing on Dutch deep-sea vessels, Scandinavian seafarers became acquainted with the most sophisticated types of vessels and rigging and acquired the new technologies and practices through participation in the practice communities that existed aboard.

Local or regional identity was important for the Scandinavian seafarers’ choice of residence in Amsterdam. There were over 200 sailors’ inns in or near the harbour area, and especially in the eastern part many of these had, in one way or another, connections with cities or regions in Scandinavia, either through the host’s own background or simply due to the fact that sailors from a given area favoured a particular inn. In these inns, practice communities were established based on the shared local or regional background, but also on Dutch maritime culture, which the inns were an integral part of, and here new sailors could gradually be introduced to Dutch maritime language, practice and experience, as peripheral-legitimate participants in these practice communities.

Sailors from some locations in Scandinavia tended to keep among themselves, while others were more involved in the larger group of Scandinavian seamen, which means that there must have been a common Scandinavian-Dutch maritime practice community. It was to a large extent the innkeeper who secured jobs on board ships for his guests and, in some cases, these guests came from a certain location while in others they were a more mixed group of Scandinavian sailors; this fact is also reflected in the composition of the ship’s crews on Dutch ships. Almost all ships departing from Amsterdam had a core crew usually consisting of the skipper, the mate, the boatswain and the carpenter, all of whom were Dutch, so the Scandinavian seamen had to learn to understand the Dutch language. However, there was a small group of Scandinavian sailors who reached the ranks of skipper or mate and here we find sailors who were hired directly by their landsmen without the innkeeper as a go-between; in these cases, shared local or regional identity was essential in this relationship.

The Scandinavian sailors who participated in the Dutch maritime labour market in the 18th century were an integral part of Dutch shipping, while retaining their connections to home, and along with the Dutch shipbuilders, navigators, naval officers and ordinary seafarers who were recruited to serve in the realms of the Danish king, they were the carriers of Dutch maritime practice, technology and knowledge, which had a great influence on the development of shipping and seafaring in the Danish conglomerate state.

The dissertation will be published by Sidestone Press in Leiden with the help of the Directie der Oostersche Handel en Reederijen.

Asger Nørlund Christensen