The Baltic Amber Trade, c. 1500-1800: The Effects and Ramifications of a Global Counterflow Commodity

  • Author / Creator
    Christ, Adrian G
  • My thesis adds a new dimension to the history of the Baltic region during the early modern period (c. 1500-1800) by focusing on a previously unexamined global commodity from the Baltic: amber. Historically, the Baltic’s commercial activity during this period has been characterized as one supplying the development of urban centres and shipbuilding further west through the provision of bulk commodities such as grain, timber and metal. A material of Baltic provenance with very unique properties like amber stands conspicuously apart from this sort of bulk trade, adding a new directly global element to the characterization of Baltic trade at the time. Amber has not been seriously examined as a global commodity during this time period, and my research demonstrates that it was traded regularly from the Baltic to markets in eastern Asia in which European commodities generally struggled to find purchase. To demonstrate the significance of Baltic amber to early modern trade, I use a commodity chain approach that investigates amber in depth from its formation out of tree resin and collection along Baltic shores to its long-distance transport and arrival to Asian markets. Throughout this analysis, amber’s unique material features are critical: the possibilities for sensory interaction they provide allow great meaning and value to attach to it. Additionally, its light weight and high value make its transport viable over long distances, allowing it fill a commercial niche akin to that of previously studied commodities such as emeralds and pearls. The opening of new global trade routes after 1500 allowed this unique material to reach global markets much more efficiently, an opportunity for profit seized by a variety of commercial actors. Amber’s material features and collection are the first topic I address, noting its unusual combination of characteristics and the colonial regimes of extraction at play in its region of greatest abundance in the southeastern Baltic. Then, I note how those material features fit into particular cultural niches in early modern Europe using the evidence of surviving material sources from that time period. The quantitative evidence of the Sound Toll Registers, which recorded and tariffed cargoes moving through the busiest strait entering the Baltic Sea, allow me to next contend that amber was overwhelmingly headed to the port of Amsterdam during my time period. Archival sources from the important Baltic cities of Gdańsk and Lübeck suggest an additional extralegal dimension to the regional amber trade, carried out especially by members of the Armenian and Sephardic trade diasporas. Amber as an item of extralegal or partially concealed private trade is a continuity in its commerce further afield as well, as I evidence with primary source material from the Dutch and English East India Companies and contemporary travellers’ accounts. This extralegal traffic supplied a taste for amber objects and consumables in several eastern Asian markets, which I evidence with narrative and material sources. Together, these sources indicate that amber’s movement from its point of collection on the Baltic shore to consumers in eastern Asian markets was regular and especially profitable. Amber’s trade demonstrates that the presence of a unique material created global connections to cities around the Baltic Sea during an era of growing global commerce.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Fall 2018
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Master of Arts
  • DOI
  • License
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