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How the Towns of Ostrobothnia Came to Be

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By Gunnar Damström
After Kurt Jern, Vasa

Swedes colonized the Ostrobothian coast in the late 1200’s and 1300’s. Finnish speaking people had lived further inland for centuries. Originally the colonists lived from fishing, however as the land uplift progressed, they had already taken up agriculture and did not follow the receding shoreline. This pleased the Government who was eager to collect tax. Taxing agriculture based on acreage and cattle heads is easier than taxing gatherers. However the Government continued to look for new ways to levy taxes. Before long the idea of collecting a sales tax evolved. The problem was: how do you apply sales tax when the commerce is not controlled? The solution was to forbid direct sales and requiring farmers to bring their merchandize and produce to towns and official marketplaces where the taxation bailiffs could conveniently collect the tax. Implementing such rules met with problems in Ostrobothnia where at the end of the 16th Century there were no towns north of Björneborg. Neither was it desirable to prevent the seafaring peasants from bringing their produce to Stockholm, since the Capitol was depending on this supply. No wonder King Johan III’s trade policy for the Bothnia provinces (East and West) fluctuated. During one period the commerce by seafaring peasants was forbidden, at other times trading was permitted to various degrees. And all the time it continued unabated. The coastal peasants traveled by sea to sell their produce. In parallel with this traffic, the coastal farmers conducted trade on a large scale using ships of 20 tons (16 läster) and larger. The ship owners purchased large quantities of merchandize in their native country and traded in Stockholm, taking grain, salt and other merchandize on the return trip. In addition the Bothnian ship owners traded with Åbo, Reval (Tallinn) and Narva. The Government eventually conceived a scheme for collecting sales tax. In 1591 a register was prepared of all the rural merchants in Ostrobothnia. The register lists 94 merchants. 5 lived in Mustasaari; 5 in Vörå; 12 in Pedersöre; and 8 in Karleby. 18 were from the Finnish part of southern Ostrobothnia and 41 from the parishes north of Karleby. The purpose of this register was bi-fold. Firstly the registered traders were immediately required to pay tax on their sales. Secondly the plan was to establish towns and require the rural merchants to move into these to facilitate control of the commerce for taxing purposes. West of the Gulf of Bothnia the City of Hudiksvall was established in 1581, Härnösand in 1585, and Umeå in 1588. Soon thereafter the Norrbotten rural merchants were required to move to the ports of Pitå or Torneå, which were to be incorporated. The work was interrupted by the death of King Johan III and the ensuing unrest in the country. After Duke Karl (later to become king Karl IX) had consolidated his power he continued the commerce policy his brother had started. The trade conducted by the seafaring Ostrobothnian farmers irritated him since it evaded taxation and in a letter dated June 16, 1600 to the Sheriff of Ostrobothnia, Augustinus Larsson he demanded that it stop. All trading was to take place in the towns and at a few legal market places. Merchants who desired to continue their trade were to move to the ports of Mustasaari, Pedersöre, Salo, Ule or Kemi, which were to be incorporated. During the winter of 1603 Karl visited Ostrobothnia personally. He now changed his plans and only three towns were to be founded: Kemi, Ule and Mustasaari. Later he dropped Kemi from the list. Uleåborg was incorporated 1605. The commerce district was to include the entire region of Northern Ostrobothnia, including also the Parish of Karleby. Mustasaari, incorporated October 2, 1606 was to be the trading post for the southern region. In the foundation letter the King required anybody conducting trade or navigation to move to the new town or give up his trade. The peasants in the southern region were forbidden to trade their produce in any other town than Mustasaari. January 31, 1611 Mustasaari received its final privileges. At the same time the city name was changed to Vasa. The burghers of Vasa were given the rights to sail to every market place in Finland and Sweden and the Estonian and Latvian cities that belonged to Sweden. Wood products and tar could be exported to these places, however foodstuff had to be traded in Stockholm only. For the return trip the merchants could take anything, provided one did not transport the merchandize of foreign traders. Foreign ships were not permitted in the Gulf of Bothnia. The burghers of Vasa were also allowed to produce lumber, tar and conduct fishing. These liberal trade rules were abolished by the 1611 Trade Ordination that required the merchants in the new towns of Ostrobothnia to trade exclusively in Stockholm and Åbo. Ostensibly the Stockholm merchants had opposed establishment of more towns in Ostrobothnia which would compete with their trade, however with the new trade ordination their resistance ceased. During the spring of 1620 state councilor Johan Skytte and Johan Otteson visited Ostrobothnia on a fact-finding mission. As a result the cities of Nykarleby and Gamlakarleby were founded September 7, 1620. No new city was at this time established in the old port of Pedersöre. Nykarleby, Vörå, Pedersöre and Lappo Parishes were designated belonging to the Nykarleby commerce district. Pyhäjoki, Kalajoki, Lochteå, Karleby and Kronoby parishes were designated belonging to the Gamlakarleby trading district. A complete control of the commerce was difficult to achieve as long as long coastlines still lacked towns. December 5, 1649 Governor General Per Brahe issued foundation letter for two new towns, one in Lappfjärd, one in Salo Parish. After final privileges were issued the towns received the names Kristinestad and Brahestad. The City of Vasa commerce district was now further reduced as the parishes of Lappfjärd and Närpes were moved to Kristinestad. Pyhäjoki was extracted from the Gamlakarleby trading district and assigned to Brahestad. In 1652 Chancellor Jakob de le Gardie received Pedersöre as enfeoffment. The donation letter allowed the bearer to establish a town. Jakob de la Gardie’s widow used the right and established Jakobstad October 27 1652. The grand parish of Pedersöre became the commerce district of the new town. All these new towns were bound by the 1611 Trade Ordination, which limited their trade to Stockholm. The 1611 Trade Ordination remained in place until it was abolished by the Swedish Parliament 1765. With this event started the golden years of Ostrobothnia commerce and shipping that lasted for one century.

Source: Svenska Österbottens Historia III, Vasa 1980


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