By Margit Løyland
Dutch ships are “searching every nook and cranny” for timber and food, the customs officer in Flekkefjord wrote to the authorities in Copenhagen in the mid-17th century. He was one of a great many officials who observed Dutch vessels along the Norwegian coast in the early modern period. There was hardly a fjord, estuary or harbour that was not visited by Dutch people from Holland, Friesland, Zeeland or one of the other four provinces of the young, expanding Dutch Republic.
The skippers Floris and Gosse
For several hundred years, from the late Middle Ages until the latter half of the 18th century, Dutch traders and skippers went to Norway for timber, fish and copper. Many came back to the same areas year after year. The skippers Johan Floris from Emden and Arian Gosse from Rotterdam were two of them. Skipper Floris regularly visited the same harbour area from the late 16th century until 1615. He brought grain and fabrics and took timber, fish, hides, butter and nuts in return. Some years later, skipper Gosse sailed to the same harbour with a fluyt, a vessel especially built for timber transport. This was one of several new ships used by the Dutch in the 16th century. It was flat-bottomed to enable it to sail well into shallow harbours and estuaries. Other vessels such as crayers and busses were built to transport live fish and lobsters quickly between the delivery point and the markets. Skipper Gosse’s fluyt had a loading capacity of 80-100 tons. Skipper and crew remained in the harbour for two to three weeks, dealt directly with the locals and were well known in the area. Forest owners had cut planks and beams with their water saws. The timber was ready and both parties helped to load and unload the ship. On 4 June 1620, Arian Gosse paid customs duty on planks, beams, barrel hoops and several cubic metres of firewood. He also loaded on board various smaller items, such as hides, moss, nuts and knitted stockings, which the local people came to sell or exchange for the many popular goods brought by the Dutch sailors. In this way, the coastal dwellers got hold of all kinds of merchandise, from grain, salt, shoes and textiles to spices, liquor, cheeses and rusks.
Traders and seasonal voyages
If the weather was suitable, skipper Arian returned to Fedafjorden in Vest-Agder two or three times during the summer. Autumn storms and winter cold put an end to the trips, but when the winter storms had died down and spring was approaching, the Dutch skippers sailed north again. In the same period as skipper Arian’s sailings, i.e. around 1620, it is estimated that about 400 vessels sailed to Norway every year. Many came from the important seafaring towns around the Zuider Zee, such as Hoorn, Enkhuizen, Harlingen and Hindeloopen. But trade between Norway and the Netherlands had been well underway as early as the middle of the 15th century. It was growing so rapidly that regulations were needed. Around 1440, the Dutch were awarded privileges in trade with Norway. People from e.g. Zierikzee and Amsterdam received royal permission to trade with Bergen, which had previously only been granted to the Hanseatic League. Dutch Hanseatic towns like Groningen and Deventer were also active in the early stages. After the unification of the Netherlands in 1585, several other towns rose to prominence as important centres of commerce, particularly Amsterdam. The city expanded and became the centre of trade and international contact during the 16th and early 17th centuries. Amsterdam is in the province of Holland, and for many Norwegian traders and immigrants, Holland with the city of Amsterdam was the most central and obvious destination. The province of Holland had a strong influence on the contacts between the countries, which is why Norwegians still call the period between 1550 and 1750 “the Holland era”.
The Dutch were interested in the fish trade, but were just as keen to sail to heavily forested areas. As a result, Drammen, with Kobbervik, became the biggest timber port on the coast. As early as 1446, the timber trade was so extensive that a separate customs officer was appointed for the town. The extensive timber trade just continued; every spring the town awaited a huge influx of Dutchmen, Friesians and others. But some merchants spent the winter in Norway; this was not popular with the people of Drammen, who lost out in competition with the wealthy Dutch. They complained that the merchants came with the Dutch skippers in early spring “before the ice goes, and then they stay in town - huge numbers of them - and trade all kinds of goods all through the summer right until the winter drives them away!” These merchants acted as agents for the skippers of the timber vessels, bought timber from the farmers and sold various goods in return. It was not only in Drammen that the Dutch merchants offered strong competition to the local timber traders. As early as 1548, so many Dutch timber merchants and traders came to the timber ports around the Oslo Fjord that the established and privileged merchants in Christiania (now Oslo) complained of lost income. The citizens wrote angry complaints that the Dutch did not bother about rules and regulations and dealt directly with timber traders further down the fjord. The traders who actually had privileges lost almost all of their business.
The Marselis brothers
The citizens of Christiania were afraid of competition, and no less so when the Amsterdam-based capitalists, the brothers Gabriel and Selius Marselis, established themselves in the city in the mid-17th century. They were wealthy and lent money readily. The Dano-Norwegian monarchy borrowed from them repeatedly, usually when the king needed to finance his wars. As repayment, the Marselis brothers could buy up land all over Norway. For a period from the 1640s onwards, the brothers were actually the biggest landowners in the country. They had properties from Bohuslen (part of Norway until 1658) to Trøndelag. They took over all the big properties that governor Hannibal Sehested had owned in eastern and southern Norway and they owned Bærum ironworks, the Eidsvoll Verk factory and many other factories. They traded in iron, weapons and ammunition, delivered supplies to the army and lent the monarchy huge sums. Selius Marselis moved to Norway in the 1640s, while Gabriel continued to live in Amsterdam. Selius became postal director and royal mining commissioner in Norway and obtained special privileges such as tax exemption and religious freedom. He settled in the then city centre and built the mansion “Marselienborg” and a grand park in Dutch style where the Parliament, the National Theatre and the Studenterlunden Park are today. The Marselis brothers were able to establish themselves as major capitalists in Norway because they came from one of the most influential business families in northern Europe. Their father had built up a big trading company based in Hamburg and Amsterdam and also developed a close relationship with the royal families of Russia and Denmark-Norway. He had sent his sons on long commercial trips in Europe and Asia for training. The brothers built up their own fortunes and both married women from successful trading companies in Amsterdam. At the peak of the economic heyday of the Netherlands and Amsterdam, they held key positions of economic power in Norway. The brothers have since been referred to as representatives of a brutal, primitive and parasitic form of capitalism.
Cornelia and copper
Cornelia Bieckers also came from a well-established Amsterdam family. She was the daughter of the mayor of the city. In 1656, she married the wealthy Jochum Irgens in Amsterdam. He owned several houses and properties in the city, but also had been chamberlain to the Dano-Norwegian royal family. The monarchy had given him privileges related to the new copper mines in Røros and he had been the main participant (main owner) there since 1647. Cornelia, like her husband, became involved in the operation of the copper mines and in the real estate business in Trøndelag, Nordland and Troms. She continued as the owner until 1686, ten years after her husband died. The Røros mining company was a major exporter of copper to the European market. Both Norwegian and Dutch merchants became actively involved in the copper business. For a long period, as much as 80 percent of all the copper from Norway was exported from Røros via Trondheim directly to Amsterdam. Copper was in great demand all over Europe. Strong population growth meant that copper was much sought after for the production of coins, ammunition and cooking utensils. However, Jochum Irgens was bankrupt when he died. Cornelia Bieckers managed to buy back some of the properties, and together with relatives, she continued to enjoy the privileges at the copper works in Røros. The Bieckers/Irgens family exploited this business to the maximum. The way they ran the copper mines caused great unrest in the local community, and the miners revolted several times. They had to wait a long time for their wages while the owners were earning good money from copper mining, so it was no wonder the workers reacted. The material suppliers who provided wood and coal and transported timber, provisions and tools to the mines and smelting works complained that it could take up to seven or eight years before they finally received payment, and when payment did come, it was often in the form of over-priced food.
Jan and Katrine, Barents and Ippes
The Dutch who settled in Norway for longer or shorter periods did not only bring goods and capital. They brought new behaviour and customs, new words and expressions, and new names of places, people and families. Norway still has family names such as Irmens, de Witt, Geelmeyden, Dedekam, Harmens and Brix, and first names such as Jan, Henrik, Teis, Evert, Annette, Susanne and Katrine. Dutchmen such as Willem Barents and Jan Jacobs May van Schellinkhout went on expeditions to find new trade routes to the major spice and silk markets in Asia. They put Svalbard on the map for the first time and gave names to Bear Island, Spitsbergen, Amsterdam Island, Barentsburg, Jan Mayen and many more. These expeditions led to considerable Dutch activity in the far North. Whaling, sealing and bird hunting came into focus. For a long period, the Dutch activity was pure exploitation of the resources in the Arctic Ocean. They built fortifications on some islands and every season there were hundreds of people whaling and boiling whale oil. The Dutch gave up looking for a sea route to the East through the Northeast Passage, but they discovered new land and new markets. A large number of Norwegian sailors were on board the Dutch ships that sailed to Arkhangelsk and other parts of northern Russia in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Among the hundreds of Dutch people who sailed along the Norwegian coast in the 17th century was Jappe Ippes. He made good use of the shiny rocks and had a flourishing business in Nordmøre for about a decade at the end of the century. Jappe Ippes came from a Dutch seafaring and trading family that had sailed the Norwegian coast for several generations, so they were very familiar with the people and landscape. The family had its regular trade contacts and were well known in several ports. Jappe Ippes had to apply for special authorisation to engage in the production of stock fish (dried salted fish) for sale and export on the island of Tustna. He brought experts from Spain and France with knowledge of how best to salt and dry fish. The typical shiny rocks of the area were used to dry the fish, but had to be scraped and cleaned beforehand. Jappe Ippes also built quays and warehouses to ensure a good harbour for the ships that collected the fish. Much of the fish went to Mediterranean countries. When production was at its peak, more than 70 tons of stock fish were exported annually to the Netherlands, Portugal, France and Spain.
Didrik and the Reformed doctrine
The Marselis family were granted freedom of religion in Norway. But that was a privilege that only a very few wealthy people could enjoy. In the 1660s, Didrik Meyer was sentenced to death for having sold a few dozen Reformed hymn books to village people in Vest-Agder. That was strictly forbidden. In the Danish-Norwegian state, the Lutheran doctrine reigned supreme and the state church was established with the Reformation in 1536. From then on, the king was the supreme religious leader and all non-Lutheran religious practices were illegal. But contact with the Reformed Church in the Netherlands and the Calvinistic Dutch people also affected religious life in Norway. After four years as a sexton in a Danish-Norwegian church in Amsterdam, Didrik moved to Kvinesdal in Vest-Agder and went into the timber trade with a companion. They had their own ship, but at one point got into a fierce argument about who was responsible for paying customs duties. Their friendship received a serious blow, and Didrik’s companion accused him of heresy. The reason was the many hymn books he had imported from Amsterdam. Heresy was far more serious than customs fraud. Didrik was tried, and during his trial it emerged that he had discussed religious matters with many neighbours and advocated both predestination and the Reformed communion. He had ended up in a fight and embarrassing situations at the parsonage where he rented accommodation, and he had not gone to communion as he should have done. Quite the opposite, the court was told. After receiving the Eucharist during a visit to Amsterdam he had told an acquaintance, “Let the devil take me, before I go to communion with a Norwegian priest again!”
Didrik Meyer’s case was discussed in several courts: from a local court via an ecclesiastical court to the highest court in the land. There, in 1673, he received a much lighter sentence than the death penalty from the ecclesiastical court. The sentence was converted into a fine of ten riksdaler. His enthusiasm and the religious influence from the Netherlands had put Didrik in a life-threatening predicament, but it was probably the same overseas cultural influence that made the court give him a milder sentence. Anyone who had been in Amsterdam would have experienced the city as a linguistic, ethnic, economic and religious melting pot. The freedom of religion in Amsterdam resulted in many religious refugees arriving there from other parts of Europe.
The strict and sober Calvinistic bourgeois ethics influenced many Dutch merchant families. Ordinary working people, small businessmen and public officials in Norway were also affected by ideas and trends in the international Dutch society. There was not only a theological but also a linguistic influence from the Netherlands on the religious scruples and new creeds in Norway. The Dutch and Low German languages had an impact on many areas of everyday life in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. This showed perhaps even more in everyday practices than in personal religion. Many words related to home and work, such as household objects, kitchen utensils, forestry expressions, and especially maritime expressions came to Norway from the Dutch. The words for cutlery, cabin, deck and even grandfather and grandmother are just a few examples. When Norwegians say “weak in the knees” they use the word “mo” for “weak”, which comes from Dutch “moe”, meaning “tired”. For something worthless, Norwegians say that it is worth no more than a “døyt”, which comes from the Dutch word for the coin of lowest value at the time. There are also many words directly linked to Dutch commodities, such as vinegar and cheeses, and various idioms, such as “helter skelter” which originate from the same cultural contact with the Netherlands.