How the Frisians became international mariners…

12 October 2017

Frisian mariners' communities were important merchant shippers within Dutch trade between 1650 and 1770. However, how this arose had not been clear up until now. Simone Steenbeek investigated the characteristics of the places where the mariners lived and the navigation routes that they followed. She discovered that due to the specialisation in agriculture, the division of labour, and population growth, mariners' communities became active in regional transport and thus automatically became involved in national and international transport as well. Steenbeek defended her PhD thesis on Thursday 12 October at the University of Groningen. Her research was funded by a grant from NWO's Free Competition (humanities) programme.

Old wooden sailboats in the port of Friese WorkumPort of Workum in Friesland. Photo: Shutterstock

Mariners from Hindeloopen, Workum and Harlingen were already internationally active back in the 17th century. Although the trade wars of the Dutch Republic with the English did not make life easy, the Frisians continued to make voyages unlike many mariners' communities in Holland. The Frisians specialised in timber transport on the Baltic Sea: halfway the Dutch Golden Age, at least one ship from the Dutch Republic travelled to Norway each day for the timber import, so there was enough employment.

Who sailed on which ship, with which consignment and to which destination on the Baltic Sea has been recorded in minute detail in the so-called Sound Toll Registers: a toll had to be paid to travel through the narrow Sound strait between Denmark and Sweden, for which a variety of details were recorded.  These registers have been preserved for the period 1574-1857 and many of the registers for the 75 years prior to this are still available as well. These provide a wealth of information.

Competitive prices

Frisian mariners found alternative activities in coastal and inland water transportation and used their place of residence as an import and export harbour and as a marketplace for their own trade with the Frisian and Groningen hinterland. Frisians also had another advantage over the Hollanders, as besides being mariners, they were also farmers: they could therefore spread the business risks enough and could offer highly competitive prices. Religious networks also played a role: Hindeloopen, for example, had a tight family trade network with other Mennonites in the Zaan Region and Holland.

After the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713), the demand for transport grew, as can be seen from the number of trips made through the Sound strait by mariners from the Dutch Republic. The mariners from Holland could not meet this demand. However, mariners from villages ('vlekken' in Dutch) such as Woudsend, Lemmer and Heerenveen could satisfy that demand and were considerably cheaper too. They already had business contacts with important trading centres such as Amsterdam, and it was therefore easy for them to acquire business.

Frisian farmers had specialised in certain areas of agriculture and had developed beyond the system of the self-sufficient community. The population growth also led to a greater labour supply. Although people in rural areas moved to more densely populated areas ('vlekken' in Dutch) a growing amount of money could be earned in trade and transport. Not only was the earning model of the mariners of the fishing villages better than that of the Hollanders, but the growth of these mariners' communities remained unaffected by wars and other problems at sea.

Changes in international trade – the decline of Amsterdam as an economic trade centre for the world – and, in particular, the consequences of the disastrous Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780-1784) and the subsequent French rule, resulted in a decline of the Holland and Frisian merchant shipping sectors at the end of the 18th century. Trade came to a virtual standstill, and the merchant shipping sector with it. Eventually, only Harlingen, Lemmer and, to a lesser extent, Woudsend managed to recover somewhat from this malaise. By then, however, the status of the Republic as a 'major power' was long past.

Further information

Simone Steenbeek (1982) completed her doctoral thesis titled ‘Schipperen in Friesland’ (Mariners in Friesland) within the project ‘The ascent of the Frisians. The Dutch commercial system and the market for maritime transport, 1550-1800’ at the Faculty of Arts, University of Groningen. The research was funded by a grant from the NWO Free Competition (humanities). Her supervisor is professor Louwrens Hacquebord; main applicant and associate supervisor is Dr Jan Willem Veluwenkamp.

Source: NWO