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« Tuna 2 / 2018

“This Fine City will become Deserted and Destitute”: Tallinn’s Economic Situation in the 1620s–1630s, III

The third part of this article is devoted to Tallinn’s grain trade in 1620–1632. As is known, grain, predominantly rye, from Estland and Northern Livland became Tallinn’s most important export commodity after the drastic decline in the relative proportion of Russian transit goods in terms of both quantity and value. By virtue of this, grain was the most important exchange commodity and source of income for Tallinners and the city’s hinterland in obtaining foreign consumer goods. In other words: grain was the basis for Tallinn’s economic well-being in every respect. A suspension in the flow of grain, for instance in years of crop failure (1622, 1623, 1628 and 1629) and when grain exports were forbidden, brought the city’s economic life to a standstill — this was a catastrophe. Yet Tallinn’s grain trade did not depend solely on weather conditions, rather the city also had to take state grain trade policy into consideration. Grain was a highly quoted strategic resource in Early Modern society. Central state authorities tried to subject trading in grain to their control. The Swedish crown also intervened decisively in Tallinn’s grain trade in the 1620s by prohibiting its export, channelling this trade to specific markets and buyers, and even determining prices.

According to pound toll registers, grain — rye, barley, wheat and oats — was exported in substantial quantities from Tallinn in 1620–1632 (Table 6). Most of the grain exported from Tallinn went to the Netherlands (see Table 7). For instance, 92.6% of exported rye went to Amsterdam in 1621. The share of the Netherlands was at about 70% in subsequent years. The prevalence of the Dutch stands out regarding other types of grain as well. The Netherlands was followed by Lübeck in rye exports, but the quantities of grain that reached Lübeck were small.

Frequent bans on export affected Tallinn’s grain trade in the 1620s. King Gustav II Adolf justified these bans with the need to supply Riga with grain, since large Swedish military units were deployed there. Since Riga was cut off from its traditional grain hinterlands in Poland, Lithuania and Byelorussia, limited quantities of grain reached Riga. The residents of that city, new subjects of the Swedish state, were starving. Later, grain had to be sent from Tallinn to royal armed forces in Prussia and thereafter in Germany. At the same time, there were years when under the condition that Tallinn keeps 2,000–3,000 lasts of rye in reserve, it was allowed to export the remaining grain. Tallinners also frequently ignored bans on the export of grain, for which reason the king was forced to repeat the bans that were in effect.

State grain trade policy in regard to overseas possessions, including Tallinn, became even more purposeful and strict starting in 1629. On 26 March 1629, the king forbade all manner of grain export from Tallinn. Thenceforth export was allowed only to the extent that would meet the needs of the army. This measure proceeded from the need to supply the armed forces stationed in Prussia with foodstuffs and money. In essence, the resources of the entire country were diverted to Prussia starting in 1628. The idea was that the Crown would buy up grain cheaply from its Baltic provinces using its monopoly on trade in grain, and sell that grain to Western Europe at a profit. As background information, the fact should also be taken into consideration that Gustav II Adolf, Axel Oxenstierna and the councillors of the Realm had adopted the decision at the turn of 1628 / 1629 to launch a war against the Emperor in Germany. It emerges from Tallinn’s pound toll registers for 1629 that the royal buyers and grain exporters for almost the entire trading season were two men: Bugislaus Rosen and Anders Haraldsson. The data in Table no. 7 indicates that out of 3,325.85 lasts of rye, 3,285.1 lasts were exported as His Royal Majesty’s grain. In the case of barley, the corresponding numbers were 1,072.3 and 1,050.3. The relative proportion of the king’s grain could have been even greater. The destinations where Rosen and Haraldsson sent the grain were, in order of importance, Amsterdam, Prussia in general, Elbing and Lübeck. Stralsund, Hamburg, Emden and Terschelling are also marked as destinations.

Yet the Swedish forces did not only need grain and other foodstuffs, they also needed money. The aim was to sell off the king’s grain at as favourable a rate as possible. Grain prices were high on the Amsterdam market in 1629, 1630 and even still in 1631. Namely, almost no grain whatsoever reached the Amsterdam market during those years from Danzig, from which the Netherlands traditionally received its grain but which Swedish forces had blocked off. Grain trade through the Danish Sound was at its lowest level of all time in the 1630s. Amsterdam’s grain market reacted to the scarcity of grain with a rise in prices. Sweden also placed great hopes on the successful sale of grain from Estland and Livland on the Amsterdam market as well as on supplying towns in Prussia.

On 4 January 1631, the Chancellor of the Realm Axel Oxenstierna presented his ideas to Gustav II Adolf on how to reorganise the grain trade in the provinces. The centre for the grain trade in Estland, Livland and Ingria, and Finland was thenceforth to be located in Tallinn. Officials for administering this trade were to be appointed to Tallinn, Nyköping and Sund. The corresponding merchants were to be appointed to office in other port towns as well. When ships from Western Europe arrived in Sund to pick up grain, they were to be sent to Tallinn, where a grain reserve had been accumulated. If the grain in Tallinn were to have been exhausted, the ships were to be sent to other maritime towns around the Gulf of Finland and thereafter to Pärnu and Riga. The Chancellor of the Realm justified the selection in favour of Tallinn with the circumstance that it was the kingdom’s most important location for the grain trade. The state monopolised the grain trade into its own hands in 1631 with an eye to Riga’s needs. The Chancellor of the Realm himself set about running this trade. To ensure that the Chancellor of the Realm could fulfil the task assigned to him, the port tolls (the state’s half-portion of the portorium) and the licent toll from Estland, Livland and Ingria, and Karelia were placed at his disposal. Axel Oxenstierna’s project substantively failed since grain prices started falling in Amsterdam in that same year of 1631. At the end of 1631, the Chancellor of the Realm was forced to confirm that the attempt to monopolise the grain trade had miscarried. At the same time, royal grain trade in Tallinn and other towns around the Gulf of Finland coincided with grain subsidies that Sweden received from Russia in 1629–1633.

The export of the king’s grain did not sit well with Tallinners. The greatest problem for them was that this offered a price that was lower than the prices in effect on the market. Thus it is also understandable why according to the commissars Rosen and Haraldsson, Tallinn’s merchants were in no hurry to sell grain to them. The second problem was that the royal grain buyers did not offer riksdalers, which were valuable in the eyes of Tallinn’s merchants, in exchange for grain, but rather copper money, which Tallinners were not accustomed to, and for this reason did not want to accept either. The serious embitterment of Tallinners should be noted as the third problem – since they could not conduct business freely, they lost out on potential profits.