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Jakob Kettler: Success and Failure in Courland's Alleged "Golden Age"

Fri, June 1, 4:00 to 5:30pm, History Corner (450 Serra Mall, Building 200), 002

Abstract

Jakob Kettler (1610–1682), Duke of Courland and Semigallia, has been glorified as „good Duke Jakob“ both in traditional Latvian as well as Baltic German historiography. But despite his favourable reputation, his record of failure is striking. A ruler of admirable education, Jakob pursued an active economic policy not unlike his Prussian kinsmen or his godfather James I of England. He established proto-industries including glass production, ironworks and modern shipbuilding facilities that served as the foundation for his attempts to establish colonies on the Gambia estuary in western Africa and on the Caribbean island of Tobago. This unlikely colonial endeavour was primarily responsible for Jakob’s near-mythical status among early 20th-century historiographers. The Duke was envisioned as a visionary who boldly grasped any opportunity that presented itself, even if domestic and foreign policy and the military weakness of the Duchy rendered his situation almost hopeless. Given his political position – virtually powerless against his own nobility and geographically wedged in between the regional great powers of Sweden, Russia and Poland-Lithuania – even minuscule achievements could be interpreted as great accomplishments. According to this reading, Jakob’s full success was only thwarted by circumstances beyond the ruler’s reach. The presentation, however, will re-examine the reasons for Jakob’s failures, raising the question whether his personality, his individual agency and a notoriously bad choice of retainers and personnel contributed to the Duke’s lack of success.

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