Have you ever heard of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia? Did you know that this somewhat unknown place in Europe had colonies and slave forts in Africa? And played a part in the slave trade? Did you know that it owned St James Island, modern-day Banjul, the capital of the Gambia? See… when I tell you that the plundering of Africa of her resources, both human and minerals, was perpetrated by the united nations of thieves, and that so many countries in Europe took part in it, you have a hard time understanding it right? It was not just the usual suspects: France, Great Britain, Spain, Portugal, who took part in the Atlantic slave trade and beyond, but even Denmark, Brandenbug-Prussia (part of modern Germany), Holland, Sweden, Norway, and the Duchy of Courland. Let me tell you more about it.
Well, the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia was a duchy in the Baltic region, in what was then known as Livonia, which existed from 1561 to 1569 as a vassal state of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and subsequently part of the Crown of the Polish Kingdom from 1569 to 1726 and incorporated into the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1726. On 28 March 1795, it was annexed by the Russian Empire in the Third Partition of Poland. There was also a short-lived wartime state existing from 8 March to 22 September 1918 with the same name. The area became a part of Latvia at the end of World War I. At some point it was also part of Sweden.
Although small, the Duchy was wealthy and took a “modest” part in the European colonization settlement attempts of West Africa and the Caribbean. Like Brandenburg, that had far larger German colonizing power before the formation of the German Empire, the Polish-Lithuanian fief of Courland had a European expansionist past. Its colonies were established under Jakob, Duke of Courland and Semigallia, and were indirect colonies of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. During Jakob’s reign which lasted from 1642 to 1682, the Duchy established trading relations with all of the major European powers.
In 1651, the Duchy gained a colony in Africa on St. Andrew’s Island (modern-day Kunta Kinteh Island, renamed after the hero of the movie and book ‘Roots: The Saga of An American Family’ by Alex Haley) in the Gambia River and went on to build Fort Jakob on the island. The Duchy also gained control of additional land, which happened to include St. Mary Island (modern day Banjul) and Fort Jillifree. The Duchy’s colonies exported sugar, tobacco, coffee, cotton, ginger, indigo, rum, cocoa, tortoise shells, as well as tropical birds and their much sought after feathers. They also established a colony in the Caribbean in Tobago. In the end, the Duchy would manage to retain control of these lands for less than a decade and the colonies were formally ceded to England in 1664.
Can you imagine that I, an African child, just learnt this recently? We should definitely throw away all these history books, which choose to “forget” to mention that slavery and later the scramble for Africa was like a gold rush, led by an ensemble of nations which resemble the NATO of today, where almost every European country took part in it! One may argue, what is the need of knowing this? Don’t you see that what Africa is living through today is a repeat of yesterday? Can you count the number of joint European forces in Mali? in Libya? in the DRC? Today it is called the United Nations. It is about time that Africans write their own history! Enough is enough! We need to know what happened yesterday to be better prepared for today and tomorrow.