A Polish-Lithuanian or Latvian Colony in Africa?

Le partage de l'Afrique a la Conference de Berlin de 1884
Le partage de l’Afrique a la Conference de Berlin de 1884

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.

The Duchy of Courland & Semigallia in 1740 (Source: Wikipedia)

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.

Duchy of Courland & Semigallia colonial possessions in Africa (Source: Wikipedia)

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 sugartobaccocoffeecottongingerindigorumcocoatortoise 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.

7 thoughts on “A Polish-Lithuanian or Latvian Colony in Africa?

  1. I can definitely hear your frustration for not knowing this sooner. That’s something I’ve been feeling after I graduated university. Even as a geography nerd, I had never heard of that duchy before and I only thought Livonia was just a town in Michigan. I didn’t even know that Lithuania was in on any colonization of Africa which is mind blowing to me. So many of the history books in the West are full of revisionism and that’s not even getting into the stupid American arguments going on right now in academia with which parts of Black history should or shouldn’t be taught. Don’t even get me started when I hear people use the term “critical race theory” which is a dog whistle from some racist people to try to avoid talking about the explicit parts of Black history that would make those of European descent very uncomfortable (examples: Black Wall Street Massacre, The Devil’s Punchbowl, etc.) and that’s just American history. It’s great that people like you actually care about the real history and sharing it.

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    1. Yes… I too… only knew of Livonia on the outskirts of Detroit… I was stunned by this finding. I totally agree with you with the latest history revisionism that is currently ongoing… it is annoying. Thanks for telling me about “The Devil’s Punchbowl”… I did not know about it until you mentioned it.

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      1. Gotcha. That’s how I heard of that name even though I’ve never been to that town before. The history revisionism is getting out of hand in America. Today is the 100th anniversary of the Black Wall Street Massacre and that still wasn’t in the curriculum in America and that’s not counting the politicians trying to block “critical race theory”. No problem about The Devil’s Punchbowl. I didn’t know what it was until a few years ago.

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  2. About erasing part of history it’s actually not that true. Even in Poland and Lithuania most of people never even heard of colonizating efford beacouse it’s such an obscure and small part of history. Those who know about it don’t try to deny existence of colony. ATHROUGH Kurlanders never participated in slave trade and mantained strait buissness relatioships with locals (they actually bought exotic friuts). They never stole anything and outside of building traiding outpost did not interfered with people around them

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    1. Capybara… thanks for your comment…. as you can see the erasing part of history is the same everywhere when it comes to slavery and colonization… just as you pointed out that in Poland and Lithuania majority of people do not know this (a few probably know), it is the same with say Germany where today many Germans do not even know that their country had colonies in Africa (and that was not so far back)! Or like the majority of French/British not knowing that French/British slavers were paid off for their slaves after the abolition of slavery, while the slaves received nothing. It is done on purpose.

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