How Latvia's timber trade changed the shape of Europe

  • 2005-10-26
  • By Ben Nimmo
RIGA - This year Britain, France and Spain commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. Known to generations of tourists because of its London connection - the city's legendary Trafalgar Square is named after the battle and its chief landmark, Nelson's Column, celebrates the victorious Admiral Horatio Nelson - Trafalgar helped change the shape of Europe and the world. What is much less well known is that the key to victory lay in the West's trade with the Baltics.

In fact, trade between Latvia and the West has a long history. In the case of the U.K., it started before either state existed. According to the 16th-century English chronicler Richard Hakluyt, the first real contacts were made in 1403. At that time, trade throughout the Baltic was dominated by the Hanseatic league, and a series of disputes had arisen between English visitors and the Hanseatic cities over the lucrative trade in Baltic timber and hemp, both of which were of key importance in shipbuilding.

King Henry IV of England thought the Baltic trade so critical that he initiated trade talks with the Hanse at a time when he was fighting for his life against a series of rebellions. ''Sundry commodious privileges unto the realm of England were then ordained and established,'' Hakluyt explains, but the settlement did not last: within two years the treaty had been broken, and by the end of the century England and the Hanse were at war. The fact that England was willing to fight the Hanse while in the midst of its own civil war highlights the importance of the trade.

As naval technology across Western Europe improved, so did the need for Baltic supplies. The Baltic was not Europe's only source of ship-building timber, but it was the best and the most convenient: then as now, consumers preferred the short and predictable Baltic supply route to the long and costly trans-Atlantic one. Hemp, however - the long plant filaments which were used to make ropes - could only be obtained through Livonia, and the quantities needed to supply Europe's navies were prodigious. In February 1663, the Secretary of England's Navy Board, Samuel Pepys, noted in his diary: ''Casting up accounts of 500 tons of hemp brought from Riga.'' Pepys was one of the greatest administrators in English naval history, a man obsessed with efficiency and quality: his interest in the Riga trade clearly shows its importance.

It would not be too fanciful to say that Baltic naval supplies were as vital to national security in those days as oil supplies are today. The proof of this came on Oct. 21 1805, at the battle of Trafalgar, where Royal Navy ships faced the might of the Franco-Spanish Combined Fleet. Both sides were rigged and masted with Baltic supplies.

The war for wood

In the summer of 1805, Napoleon was planning to invade the United Kingdom (created by the union of England and Scotland in 1707). He had massed an army of 160,000 men on the Channel coast, and only needed his navy and that of his Spanish allies to gain control of the waterway to launch his invasion fleet. All summer the Royal Navy and Combined Fleet played a cat-and-mouse game in the Atlantic approaches, neither side managing to gain the strategic advantage; and at the end of August, faced with an Austrian-Russian invasion, Napoleon ordered his army to march east and his navy to return to the Mediterranean. After more than a month's delay, the Combined Fleet of 33 battleships sailed for Gibraltar.

It was the opportunity the British had been waiting for. Lurking out to sea, a few miles west of the rocky Spanish promontory known as Cape Trafalgar, was a fleet of 27 battleships, led by Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson in his flagship HMS Victory. Although outnumbered, the British attacked, and by sunset over half the Combined Fleet had been captured or sunk. British casualties numbered 449 killed, Nelson among them; the losses of the Combined Fleet are estimated to have been 10 times higher. With the victory of Trafalgar, Napoleon's sea power was irreparably broken.

The shock was felt around Europe. Cut off from the sea, and therefore from international trade by the British victory, Napoleon decided to rebuild his own navy and bankrupt Britain by shutting it off from Europe. In the next five years his armies swarmed across the continent, forcing country after country to close its ports to the British; it was at this time that the Russians, fearing invasion, built the great fortress of Daugavpils. One of Napoleon's prime strategic goals was to gain a monopoly on Baltic supplies, enabling him to build his own fleet and destroy Britain's ability to build theirs. The British saw their strategic supplies threatened, and sent a battle-fleet east to protect them. For the rest of the war, the Baltic Fleet organized regular convoys of up to 1,000 ships at a time through the dangerous narrows of Denmark, and the Baltic was converted into a war zone. The cost in ships and manpower was enormous: there can be no clearer indication of how much the Baltic trade mattered to both sides.


In the end, the Continental System itself led to Napoleon's undoing. In 1811 Czar Alexander of Russia rejected the system and opened his ports to British goods. At a stroke, Napoleon's strategy was defeated, and in 1812 he took the fateful decision to invade Russia. From then on, his decline was swift. Outgeneralled at sea and on land, he was forced into retreat, abdication and eventually exile. His defeat changed the shape of Western Europe. France was limited to its historical boundaries. Norway, hitherto a Danish dependency, was transferred to Sweden. The Kingdom of the Netherlands was established. Germany began the long process of unification. And Britain, whose international trade had financed the many coalitions against Napoleon, was confirmed in its status as the world's leading trading nation.

All that began with the Baltic's naval supplies. Without their vital stores of wood and hemp, there would have been no great European battle-fleets. Without the fleets, there would have been no need for Napoleon to resort to economic warfare, and hence to invade Russia. The Royal Navy knew where its strategic lifeline lay, and had the means and the will to protect it: hence the 1,000-ship convoys of the Baltic Fleet. No matter what other factors of seamanship and training may have turned the scales, without the Baltic trade there would have been no victory - and indeed, no HMS Victory - at Trafalgar.

Europe is at peace, and ships are no longer powered by wood and hemp, but Latvia's timber trade is as strong as ever. Britain - Latvia's single biggest export partner - is still the largest importer of Latvian timber, buying almost one billion lats' worth in the last five years. Wood products account for more than a third of Latvia's total exports each year, and export quality is improving as much as quantity: wooden furniture is already being eyed as one of Latvia's future export strengths. Wooden chairs and tables may not make Latvia quite as strategically vital to Western countries as the wooden walls of the Trafalgar fleets did 200 years ago, but they are just as important for the economies concerned. Perhaps Latvia should suggest supplying Trafalgar Square with wooden benches. Nelson would feel right at home.