Latvia in the New World

It was the 17th century, and colonizing various parts of the Americas was all the rage among European nations. Spain, Britain, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands claimed various parts of the “new” world - places that, of course, already had their own thriving civilizations - as their own. But they weren’t the only ones.

Duke James of Courland (bottom right) felt that for economic and political power, his small nation should also become a colonizer in this new land. The Duchy of Courland was a vassal of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but is part of what is now modern Latvia. The Duke set his heart on acquiring the small island of Tobago, now part of the nation of Trinidad and Tobago. 

He wasn’t the first to have the idea - the Dutch, Spanish, and British had all tried building colonies on the island. None of them had been successful, however, largely due to disease and the unwelcoming native people. Tobago, which didn’t have any precious metals, wasn’t worth the effort to the major powers. But in 1639, the smallest of the colonizing powers (Courland had a population of 200,000) sent 212 Couronian peasants to Tobago to establish a colony.

It failed almost immediately. The people already on Tobago weren’t pleased to have new neighbors, and Duke James was unable to support his new colony. They were unprepared for the tropical weather and too small in number to defend themselves. The failure weakened the duke’s political power, and he arranged to set up a second colony almost immediately - this time with convicts, because they were easily accessible. It also failed.

Finally, in 1654, Courland was able to establish a colony on Tobago. This as accomplished primarily by getting foreigners to do the actual colonizing - mostly British and Dutch people. However, all colonists had to swear fealty to the Duke of Courland, and settlements were given names that would be familiar to anyone with a map of Latvia. People were brought from Courland’s only other colony, in Gambia, to be slaves.

In the end, piracy and a loss of political power back in Courland spelled the end of the colony, which was officially abandoned in 1690. 

(Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4.)

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