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The Latvians a seafaring nation

Ancient seafaring

Ancient navigation flourished during the Viking Age (800-1060). Swedish and Danish Vikings went on their voyages of plunder and trade along the so-called Eastern route (“the route from the Vikings to the Greeks”) through the present territories of Latvia and Russia, across the Baltic Sea, then along the Daugava and the Dnieper to the Black Sea, with Constantinople as their destination. The Couronians, Semigallians, Livs and Latgallians both fought against the invading Vikings and traded with them. The chief items of barter were beeswax, furs, amber and silver.

The development of seafaring was accompanied by the building of ports for the morning of ships and for handling cargoes.

Long before the beginning of long sea voyages from the Baltic Sea, fishing was well developed both in the internal waters of Latvia’s territory and along the shores of the Gulf or Rīga. The waters then teemed with fish, which constituted a significant part of people’s diet. One of the most common fish which was a staple then but which is now extinct in this region was the sturgeon.

Medieval navigation and the Hanseatic League

In the early 13th century, Rīga became a trading centre for the eastern shores of the Baltic. Furs and wax came to Rīga via the Daugava from the East, including Russia;herring, spices and various metal articles came to Rīga from Western Europe across the Baltic Sea. Cargo ships from Latvia’s territory were laden with goods that were much in demand in Europe – linen, wax and grain.

To protect its business interests in Western Europe, Rīga joined the Hanseatic League at the end of the 13th century and continued to be its member until the mid-16th century.

Even though Rīga’s overlords changed a number of times – the city came under Polish (1581 – 1621), then under Swedish rule (1621 – 1710) – the port kept growing as more and more ships passed through it. Ships registered at the Rīga port had their own flag;the first known one was white with a black cross;it was in use until the second half of the 16th century.

The 15th and 16th centuries were the Age of Great Geographical Discoveries because the rapid development of manufacturing industries spurred production. With the expansion of trade, shipbuilding and PODs (ports and debarkation) developed. Ships underwent technical improvement, more masts were added, maneuverability was improved and the steering wheel was introduced. Ships, decorated with ornate wooden figureheads, were guided with the help of navigation instruments. Small shipyards operated also in Rīga.

Duchy of Kurzeme

In the 17th century, shipbuilding developed in the Duchy of Kurzeme, especially during the reign of Duke Jacob, a representative of the Kettler family (heir apparent since 1633, duke from 1642 to 1682). Duke Jacob strove to develop manufacturing and trade: import less, export more. Ships were built, orts were set up. Six shipyards were established in Kurzeme;two of these served the Duke’s own needs: one in Kuldīga (since the end of the 16th century) and another in Ventspils (since 1638). In Ventspils, during Duke Jacob’s reign, over 40 battleships and about 80 merchant ships were built. Everything necessary for outfitting the ships was manufactured on site – even cannons. The ships of the Duke’s fleet were given Latin, French, Dutch and German names with either an abstract meaning or the names of people, animals or fish – for example, Dame, Flower-Pot, Hope, Crocodile, Three Herrings, Lynn Kurzeme’s Seagull. Most of the ships were built for the Duchy of Kurzeme;they maintained trade contacts not only with European countries but also with America, Africa and Asia (chiefly India). In Duke Jacob’s time, Kurzeme possessed two colonies: St. Andrew’s island in Africa, at the mouth of the Gambia River, and Tobago Island in the Caribbean, south of the Little Antilles. During the Swedish-Polish War (1655 – 1660), the Duchy’s fleet suffered great losses;Kurzeme also lost its colonies.

18th – 19th century navigation

The Kurzeme fleet, built in the 17th century, was totally destroyed in the Great Northern War (1700 – 1721). This war marked the beginning of Latvia’s annexation to the Russian Empire, which was completed at the end of the 18th century.

The Great Northern War was followed by an extended period of peace that fostered cargo turnover in Latvia’s ports. After Latvia came under the rule of Russia, ships registered at Latvia’s ports flew the Russian tricolour (blue-red-white;sine the end of the 19th century white-blue-red).

In the first half of the 19th century, steamships started to handle merchant cargo transshipments. The Swedish steamer Oscar was the first steamer to call at the port of Riga on June 8, 1830. At the end of the 19th century Latvians also became the owners of steamships, which were foreign-built and 20-25 years old.
The building and repair of steamers in Latvia were initiated by the iron foundry, machine-building factory and the shipyard Vērmanis un dēls (founded in 1832). The biggest iron shipbuilding factory in Latvia was Lange un dēls (founded in 1869).

One of the outstanding representatives of the New Latvians movement, Krišjānis Valdemārs, appealed to the inhabitants of coastal villages to establish companies of shipowners, to start building sailing ships and to open navigation schools so that Latvians could navigate ships not only in the Baltic but also to ports in Europe and other continents. The latter half of the 19th century was the most prosperous period on Latvian navigation. At the time, around 550 sailing vessels were built in Kurzeme and Vidzeme. The Ainaži port, Pāvilosta port, Roja port and Salacgrīva port were built at the Gulf of Rīga.

The first sailing ships built in the coastal villages were one-masted, like the ones built by seaside peasants and fishermen for transporting firewood and agricultural produce along the coast.

In 1864 Latvian wooden sailing ships set out for West European ports: the Ainaži-built vessel Katarina crossed the North Sea and reached Ghent in Belgium. The first transatlantic voyage of a Latvian sailing ship, the three-masted barkentine Georg, took place in 1870. Atlantic voyages of the ships Austra and Pollux, piloted by Latvian captains, started in 1885 – 1886. In 1887 the sailing ship Rota crossed the equator. A sailing vessel’s crew consisted of local Latvians.

Seagoing mariners had to master navigation, pilotage, sea law and foreign languages. In the mid-19th century there were two navigation schools in Latvia – one in Rīga and another in Liepāja;lectures were in German, and the majority of teachers were foreigners. Theoretical and practical work for professional marine education in Russia’s coastal villages was carried out by K. Valdemārs.

In 1867 Russia passed a decree establishing a new type of nautical school which was to be democratic, free of charge, free from rank and property restrictions, with instruction in the native language. On November 23, 1864, the first nautical school of this type was opened in Ainaži. Eventually, the total number of such schools in Latvia was 10. By the end of the 19th century, around 3,000 captains, helmsmen and coastal helmsmen had graduated from them.

Since the second half of the 19th century, the number of steamers registered in the ports of Rīga, Liepāja and Ventspils had been gradually growing. Ships went on trips along the coast, to Russian ports (St. Petersburg, Archangelsk, Nikolaev, Odessa, Vladivostok and others), to Western Europe (mainly Great Britain), Asia and Africa. Before World War I, a regular passenger steamship line operated from Liepāja to New York. As the number of ships, their size and draught and the volume of cargo increased, it was necessary to reconstruct Latvia’s ports and their facilities. The turnover in the ports grew, especially after the railway network was developed in the 1860s and 1870s.

Navigation in independent Latvia, 1918 – 1940

At the outset of World War I, 333 ships were registered in Latvia’s ports;they constituted nearly half of Russia’s Baltic Sea merchant fleet. Shipbuilding, large enterprises, well-developed ports and a railway network connected Latvia with the world market.

World War I destroyed Latvia’s marine transport. Ports on the Baltic Sea stopped operating. The ports of Rīga, Ventspils and Liepāja were blockaded, their entrances were mined and navigation came to a halt. During the war, Latvia’s merchant fleet lost nine-tenths of its ships and about 1,500 members of the marine transport staff. On November 18, 1918, the independent Republic of Latvia was proclaimed. The first ship to hoist the red-white-red flag of the Republic of Latvia in December 1918 was the steamship Maiga, and the second was the Saratov, which brought Latvia’s provisional government from Liepāja back to Rīga in July 1919.

When the battles of liberation ended in August 1920, the merchant fleet of the Republic of Latvia numbered 45 ships. The number of steamships in Latvia’s merchant fleet went up in 1923, when prices in the world market dropped and reached one-fifth of the 1920 level. Starting in 1923, the State of Latvia granted loans for purchasing ships from abroad. Most of the steamers were several decades old.

In 1923 – 1933 Latvia’s economy, including sea transport, was struck by the global economic depression.

Before World War II, around 90 % of Latvia’s exports and imports went through the largest ports – Rīga, Liepāja and Ventspils. Nearly 40% of the cargo was handled by the ships of Latvia’s merchant fleet, but the rest of the vessels were foreign-owned. In 1937 there were 16 regular steamship lines from Latvia to European ports – for example, Rīga-London, Rīga-Stockholm, Rīga-Bremen and Rīga-Hamburg.

Ships were the chief means for transporting Latvia’s main exports: butter, bacon and wood products. In turn, ships brought via the Baltic Sea route products that Latvia needed: manufacturing equipment, machinery, coal, as well as other raw materials for manufacturing, and consumer goods.

Active shipping traffic continued among various coastal cities and regions, as well as on Latvia’s largest navigable rivers – the Daugava, Lielupe and Venta.

The modernization of Latvia’s ships began in 1939. To promote national shipping, the United Shipping Company of Latvia was established;it procured the motorship Hercogs Jēkabs in 1939. The ship was intended for regular shipping between Rīga and the ports of North America.

I the period between the two world wars, several navigation schools in Latvia produced qualified seamen: Krišjānis Valdemārs School for Navigators and Ship Engineers, Liepāja Navigation School and Ventspils Navigation School. On September I, 1939, World War II broke out. At the beginning of the war, Latvia was neutral. Its government took certain measures to ensure sea trade. It issued an order prohibiting the divulging of information about the positions and voyages of merchant ships;the name of the ship, Latvia’s ensign and the word LATVIA had to be painted on the side of the ship.

As of January I, 1940, the merchant fleet of the Republic of Latvia numbered 103 ships, with a total capacity of 201,063 BRT (Brutto-Register-Tonnen, gross register tons), or 98 BRT per thousand inhabitants of Latvia. The figure is smaller that that of the developed sea powers, for example, Great Britain or Norway. However, it is larger than that of some other European countries – for example, Italy, 76;France, 70;Spain, 38;Portugal, 35;the Soviet Union, 8;Poland, 3;BRT per thousand inhabitants.

In the period between the world wars, Latvia developed a navy, which included a mine sweeper and submarines.

World War II and foreign occupation

When Latvia’s occupation began in June 1940, the USSR authorities commenced to take over Latvia’s navy. After August 5, 1940, all of Latvia’s ships in USSR ports had to exchange Latvia’s ensign for the Soviet one.

On October 5, 1940, the Supreme Soviet o the Latvian SSR issued a decree on the nationalization of inland and sea shipping enterprises, with the aim of taking over Latvia’s navy and handing it over to the USSR shipping organizations. In November and December 1940, all ships on the Baltic Sea were nationalized. Nationalization took place in Rīga, Liepāja, Ventspils, Jelgava and Leningrad. Even tugboats, floating canes, pile drivers, dredgers, dredge pumps, barges, motor boats and yachts were nationalized. Eight ships off the coasts of the United States disregarded the order and continued sailing under their own names and flying Latvia’s red-white-red ensign. The crews of Latvian ships stationed in Great Britain and Netherlands also disobeyed the Soviet order. Only the motorship Hercogs Jēkabs complied with the order to set sail for the USSR. On February 3, 1941, from Kalyao (Peru) it called at Vladivostok, where its flag, crew, name and port of registry were changed.

Since the summer of 1940, one of the principal qualifications of a seaman was an “untainted” biography. Shortly before the outbreak of the war between the USSR and Germany, the leading marine personnel were replaced. The first to be removed were Latvian captains.

On June 22, 1941, war was declared between the USSR and Germany. In the very first days of the war, Germany captured Latvian steamers, which were then under the USSR ensign in German ports, as well as two others that were in Rotterdam for repairs. The ships were renamed, German captains were appointed, and the ships went on sailing under German ensign but with the same Latvian crew aboard. On June 22, 1941, German torpedo boats sank the steamer Gaisma. On the same day, the war reached Latvia. Twelve Latvian steamers were at the port Liepāja. Almost all ships were seized by the German military. Evacuation from the port of Rīga began. The steamers left the port on June 27, reached Pärnu on the following day and proceeded to Tallinn. Several steamers of the once independent Latvia were sunk, and they never reached the port of destination. Others arrived in Tallinn, where they were given war transport registration numbers, to be later entered into the registry of the auxiliary fleet of the Soviet-Baltic navy. From Tallinn the steamers were evacuated to Leningrad.

During World War II, all warships of independent Latvia, which were taken over by Soviet occupation forces, were destroyed.

Shipping in Latvia after WW II

Many Latvian seamen, afraid of Stalin’s regime, lived abroad after the war. Even after the war was over, those of the Latvian marine transport staff who had remained in their native country suffered heavy repressions. Just a few navigation experts managed to find sea-related jobs, mainly in the fishing fleet;only a few could find jobs on seagoing ships. Latvian nautical schools were shut down.

Of Latvia’s transport ships sailing the US waters, two steamers outlasted the war. Their owners, the heirs of shipowner F. Grauds, founded the shipping company F.V.Grauds Shipping Co. in the United States.

The red-white-red flag disappeared from the world’s seas on December 8, 1948, when independent Latvia’s largest steamer, Ķegums, was shipwrecked in heavy fog in the Bay of Biscay.

Eight of the steamers which had been in Leningrad during the war, returned to Latvia after the war. Because all this marine transport was in poor technical condition, part of it was written off at once. In retreating, the German troops destroyed the ort of Rīga. Other ports were less seriously damaged.

The main shipping agency after the war was the Latvian Shipping Company, which was part of the USSR shipping organization. As reparation, it received steamships from Germany and used ships from other USSR shipyards. New ships began to supplement the fleet in 1958;the first of these was the motorship Ķemeri.

 Between 1960 and 1970 Latvia’s shipping fleet began to specialize in cargo transport. Tankers were added in 1959, refrigerator ships in 1963, gas carriers in 1965, container carriers in 1971 and cargo ferries in 1975. Motorships gradually replaced steamships. In 1983 the Latvian Shipping Company had 94 ships. Its fleet transported USSR exports and imports;it specialized in oil and petroleum products, chemicals, liquid gas ad dry cargo.

Latvian Shipping Company operated from three ports: Rīga, Ventspils and Liepāja. Reconstruction of the destroyed port of Rīga continued until 1950. The port was enlarged and modernized;a container terminal was built in the early 1980s. The port of Rīga specialized in processing dry cargo and container cargo.

The port of Ventspils became the largest commercial harbour. In 1961 an oil refinery was built there. Crude oil was supplied first by rail and then (starting in 1968) by pipeline from Pollock (Belarus). Ventspils became the dominant exporter of oil products in the USSR. In 1977 a plant processing liquid chemicals was built at the port. In 1980 a terminal for handling potassium salts (fertilizer) began operations;it was the largest such facility in the world. The port of Ventspils specialized in processing cargoes of oil, oil products, chemicals, potassium salts and general goods.

The commercial port of Liepāja operated for a relatively short time because in 1951 it came under the control of the Soviet navy. In 1956 ship repair facilities resumed operations. From 1967 to 1991 it served as the USSR’s naval base for the warships and submarines of the Soviet regime.

After World War II, fishery enjoyed a resurgence. For the most part, fishing was limited to the Baltic Sea coast, but in 1954 deep-sea fishing began in the Atlantic Ocean. For this purpose, special fishing and refrigeration vessels were constructed. Even today fishing is a common occupation for coastal inhabitants of Latvia, and in many places ancient fishing traditions have been preserved.

All types of ship repairs in Latvia were carried out at Rīga’s dry dock facility. Small-tonnage ships were built there as well.

Navigation trades could be acquired at the nautical schools in Rīga and Liepāja.

Shipping in independent Latvia after 1991

 In 1991, after the restoration of Latvia’s independence, shipping came under the jurisdiction of the Republic of Latvia. The Latvian Shipping Company had a fleet of 87 motorships, including tankers, gas carries, refrigerator ships, container carriers and cargo ferries. These ships transport freight over the seven seas. The tankers of Latvian Shipping Company rank fifth in the world in terms of tonnage transported.

After the renewal of independence, Latvia made a concerted effort to restore and improve its navy. The navy’s most important function is to protect the borders of Latvia’s territorial waters.

The chief role of Latvia’s ports is to process transit cargo. At the port of Rīga, general cargo, containers and oil products are transshipped. The port of Ventspils has the greatest turnover of all Latvian and Baltic Sea ports. Tankers load their cargo at the largest oil and oil products terminal on the Baltic Sea. The port of Ventspils has one of the largest terminals for handling potassium salts, and it has the largest terminal for handling liquid chemicals. In 2000 a container terminal began functioning there as well.

In 1992 Liepāja regained its status as a major commercial port. The last Russian warship left the port on June, 1994. The port of Liepāja now specializes in processing various kinds of dry and bulk cargo.

In addition to its three major ports, Latvia has seven smaller ones – Salacgrīva, Skulte, Lielupe, Engure, Mērsrags, Roja and Pāvilosta. These are all fishing ports which, after restoration of Latvia’s independence, became engaged in international transshipping and sea tourism.

Ports are important not just as commercial enterprises but also as docking areas for yachts. Every year the number of yachts that enter Latvia’s ports increases.

At ship repair facilities, Latvian and foreign ships are repaired. In addition to the existing nautical schools, the Naval Academy of Latvia was established in 1990. It prepares specialists for the fleet and for ports.

Shipping continues to be an important sector in Latvia.


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