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Dutch-Baltic Relations Up-Close

By Amy Bryzgel. 29.07.2008

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Latvia and The Netherlands – two seafaring nations that seemingly have nothing in common with one another – but upon closer inspection, all is not what it seems.

Latvia has oak trees, the Dutch, tulips; Riga is sometimes referred to as the Paris of the North, Amsterdam, the Venice of the North. But in fact, it was the sea that brought these two nations very close together, historically, although the Soviet Occupation of the former managed to effectively render these ties null and void for nearly fifty years.

In April of this past year, a group of scholars who specialize in Dutch-Baltic history came together in Riga to exchange information and share ideas about their individual fields of study. Although the conference was aimed at academics and specialists, the organizers of the event hope that eventually the information presented there will trickle down to the general public and become part of common knowledge on the history of the region. The symposium was organized by The National History Museum of Latvia, and was supported by the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Riga. A major portion of the financing came from a private organization known as the OHR, or, The Directorate of the Baltic Trade and Shipping Companies (Directie der Oostersche Handel en Reederijen). Although originally formed in 1689 to both promote and protect the interests of shippers and traders involved in trade in the Baltics, nowadays it is involved in promoting knowledge and scholarship specifically about Dutch-Baltic trade. The fact that the conference was paid for by the monies that were set up by the very people that the conference was about was a point not lost on the conference participants. It was as a result of the maritime trade that took place centuries ago that the conference and research on that phenomenon could take place today.

The Symposium on Dutch Baltic Relations in a Historical Perspective was part of Holland Days 2008, and it brought together art and architectural historians, maritime experts, historians, as well as laypeople with a specialized knowledge on the subject, to present papers, share ideas, make contacts and promote knowledge of this lesser-known history. The Dutch Ambassador to Latvia, Robert Schuddeboom, who will finish his tenure in Riga this June, explained that “although it is not usually the job of embassies to organise such conferences, it does fit in with the overall task of promoting Dutch-Baltic relations and the Dutch image in the Baltics.” He emphasized that although the target audience of the symposium was academics, it did indeed have a political message: “the Netherlands was one of the main players in the Baltic region for centuries. The existence of these historical trade relations between The Netherlands and Latvia, which were interrupted during the Soviet Period, holds promise for the future.”

The great ties between the two nations that we now know as Latvia and the Netherlands cannot be overstated. The earliest mention of links between Holland and Latvia were in the 13th century, when the Frisians (an ethnic group of Germanic people living in the Northern parts of the Netherlands) participated in the crusades by the Teutonic Knights against the pagan Livs and Cours. After the initial conquests, relations between the two regions were determined largely by trade agreements and shipping routes governed by the Hanseatic League. By the 17th century, the period known as the Dutch Golden Age, as the nation was it its peak both economically and culturally, trade with the Baltics was referred to as the “Mother Trade,” or “The Mother of all Trades,” signifying the important role it played in the Dutch local economy. Latvia was one of the most important trading hubs for Europe in the Renaissance era, and the Dutch played an important role in that. In fact, during the height of these commercial exchanges, more than 80 percent of the ships in Riga’s harbour were Dutch.

The strong maritime and trade relations were reflected in other areas of daily life, as commercial and financial exchange spilled over into other sectors, such as art and architecture, religion, and education. Consequently the conference involved two simultaneous sessions, one that focused on maritime contacts, trade, and politics and diplomacy, while the other was centred on art and architecture. The two topics, however, are certainly not mutually exclusive, as the sailing ships that travelled frequently from one port to the other brought with them artists, architects, teachers, not to mention everyday citizens. The result was a cross-pollination of art and ideas, all of which resulted from the relationships that were founded on shipping and trade.

One interesting fact that the conference reminded us of was the fact that these ties between the two nations existed not only in the large-scale arenas of architectural projects, diplomatic meetings, and economic trade agreements. There were micro-relations that also took place on a day-to-day level, among average citizens, people who would most likely be forgotten by history. Hendrik A. Hachmer, a teacher and curator from Veendam in The Netherlands, told delegates that what would on the surface appear to be an insignificant little tale, actually had great resonance for the main idea of the conference. In the 19th century a Dutch seafaring family found itself in Latvia after the father of the family, who was also a sea-captain, had died. The wife sold the ship and, to economize on train fare – which cost literally pennies in those days – walked with her children all the way from Riga to Veendam. “That is Baltic Dutch relations!” Hachmer exclaimed. Indeed his statement rings true, for it is the interactions that took place between average people that constitute the very core of the relations between the two nations. And this was one of just many anecdotes that Hachmer had uncovered through his research in archives with old letters and shipping papers.

We can stand to learn a great deal from personal stories, such as this one, about the local effects of what was happening on a political level. There are archives of countless records, letters and other documents that can provide the bridge between contemporary society and these historical events, much in the same way that the organizers of the symposium see these historical relations as being the key to the future relations between Latvia and the Netherlands. For Ambassador Schuddeboom, “the main message is that the relations that we had two to three-hundred years ago we had because it made sense, logically. The Netherlands has always been and always will be on the crossroads in Europe, it is a geographical fact. Latvia also is and has been on the crossroads as well. The twentieth century was difficult for both nations, especially for Latvia. But we are coming back to these former positions and revisiting these connections now because it also makes sense, logically, to do so.” The role of the Embassy, as organisers of the conference, is to promote this window of opportunity, in hopes that people will take advantage of it.

When we look for evidence of Dutch influence in Latvia, we may not notice these signs at first. Some are harder to see than others – for example Riga’s fortifications, which were modernised by Heinrich Thomé, a Dutch fortifications engineer, in the 17th century, based on the Dutch model, or the city’s original water works, which were designed by a Dutchman in the 19th century. Still, other edifices may be more clearly seen, for example in the von Dannenstern House (Dannenšterna names) at Mārstaļu 21 (G-4), and the Reutern House (Reiterna names) at 2 Mārstaļu (G-3), in the Old Town. Latvian art historian Anna Ancane pointed out how the Dutch Classical, or Palladian, style is reflected in both of these buildings, and stressed that “the heritage of the Dutch Classicist architecture in Latvia is marked by very few, yet significant buildings which link to a prevailing and wide-spread architectural movement, reflecting the classical tendencies inspired by 17th century Dutch architecture, and above all, should be classified as a local manifestation of the style in one of the furthermost corners of Northern Europe.” Evidence of Dutch classicism can also be seen in Latvia’s sacred buildings, for example St. John’s (Sv. Jāņa) Church (G-3) in Riga’s Old Town.

A bit further afield, in the Quiet Center, is a park (B-2) that was built by Peter the Great fashioned after Dutch gardens that he had seen in the Netherlands. Although only a portion of the original garden survives, it is still frequented to this day by pensioners and toddlers alike. Known originally as “The Imperial Garden,” and more commonly as “Peter’s Park” or “The Tsar’s Garden,” today it is simply called Viesturs Gardens (Viestura Dārzs), or Song Festival Park (Dziesmusvētku Dārzs). According to Sergei Zhuravliov, from the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts and Sciences, it was as a result of the Tsar’s order for linden trees to be imported from the Netherlands that we can enjoy the shade of this quiet city park to this day. The famous French gardens at Rundāle Palace were also originally planted with linden trees and tulips from the Netherlands. During the reconstruction of the gardens in the 1990s, tulips from The Netherlands had to be imported one again.

Riga is also soon to acquire yet another Dutch masterpiece, in the form of the country’s very first contemporary art museum. Designed by world renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, the Contemporary Art Museum, or CAM, will be located on Andrejsala in an old power plant built by Latvian and German architects that dates back to 1905. Koolhaas’ design will keep the historical factory building intact, and enclose it in glass to provide additional exhibition and meeting space. In many ways Koolhaas’ CAM sums up the Dutch-Baltic relations in a nutshell: firstly, that cooperation between the Latvians and the Dutch are as old as the face of modern Europe itself, and traces of this can be seen in Medieval, Renaissance, and even Contemporary sources. More importantly, the result of this cooperation has resulted in a cross-pollination that does not threaten the integrity of either of the nations on their own, but is rather a mutual coexistence, a partnership, that depends on the strength and individual character of each nation to succeed, much like the Koolhaas glass shell will work in concert with the original Latvian building, coming together to produce one great master work of architecture.

It should not be forgotten that despite Latvia’s Cold War legacy of being part of Eastern Europe, for a much longer period, the country was politically and culturally part of Western Europe, and the Dutch trade routes were an integral part of that connection. As Wicher Slagter, Deputy Head of Mission at the Royal Netherlands Embassy put it, “the historical Dutch link is one of the ties that bind Latvia to Western Europe,” and emphasized that this conference “was more than of mere academic significance, but can also have relevance with regard to Latvia’s place in Europe today.” By making more people aware of the common links between the two countries, this strong historical foundation can serve as a model for relations between the two countries in future.

According to Ambassador Schuddeboom, the consequences of this awareness will be far-reaching. “In the Netherlands, it is common knowledge how our nation is linked with England, Spain, or Germany, for example. But fewer people know how our nation was once so closely linked with the Baltics.” It is his hope that eventually this information will trickle down from the heights of academia, through more seminars, book publications and teaching, and this history of Dutch-Baltic relations, which was discussed so intensely at the conference, will also become part of everyday knowledge. He says that “when a company looks to do business with a foreign country, they choose one that they are familiar with, one that makes sense, historically, to be partners with.” When the strong ties between the two nations become better known, Latvia will come to be considered a logical choice for people doing business in the Netherlands. “And then,” he says, “we will have done our job.”


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