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Maritime history

The life of Latvia as a coastal country has been linked with the sea already from ancient times. Latvians were outstanding sailors and ship builders and though the many authorities often forbade Latvians to go into the sea, Latvians even had their own national naval school.

The maritime history of Latvia is interesting and exciting, besides its witnesses are still found in nature and are sightworthy. The old Baltic tribes living in Latvia’s territory already since the 9th century were active sailors, merchants and even pirates – the ancient Viking tribes in Scandinavia were even afraid of the Cours’ robbers. One can clearly see ships used to sail in the Baltic Sea almost ten centuries ago by visiting the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation. Its exhibition contains also the so-called ship of Riga – an oak sailing vessel built in about the 12th century and found during excavations in Old Riga.

Thanks to the favourable geographical location of Latvia, the navigation in its territory prospered during the Hanseatic League, but especially in the times of the Duchy of Courland. Then the small Duchy of Courland became a rich European country that successfully traded, engaged in manufacturing and maintained even two colonies (Tobago in Latin America and Andrew’s Fort in Gambia). At that time there were built several hundreds of sailers in the Duchy of Courland by the help of Duke Jacob, including 27 ships, which were built by Courland’s masters for France and six – for Great Britain. Unfortunately, the large fleet of the Courland’s duke was fully destroyed by the Great Northern War (1700 – 1721).

The navigation in Latvia revived with the abolition of bondage in 19th century, when one of the most outstanding representatives of the Neo-Latvian movement Krisjanis Valdemars (Krišjānis Valdemārs) urged the inhabitants of coastal area to begin the building of far sea sailers and establish the naval school. His call was heard and the golden age of Latvia’s navigation began. At that time more than 500 seagoing sailers were constructed and new ports – the Ainazi Port, the Pavilosta Port, the Roja Port and the Salacgriva Port – were erected.

It is interesting that the first Latvian sailer went across the Atlantic Ocean in 1870. The ship staff consisted of local inhabitants who had gained the knowledge necessary for sailing only in a self-instruction manner by navigating along the coast of the Baltic Sea. On 23 November 1864 the Ainazi Naval School was established. The fact that every year 30 well-educated seagoing wheelmen and captains finished the school and found their jobs also in the world’s largest vessel companies evidences about the successful work of the establishment. Now the Ainazi Naval School Museum with a collection of anchors in the garden of the old naval school is situated in Ainazi.

Unfortunately, the World War I almost completely destroyed Latvia’s fleet; a similar fate was experienced also in the World War II. However, there have still remained interesting evidences about the golden age of maritime in Latvia, for example, lighthouses on the shores of the Baltic Sea. In total there are more than 10 lighthouses in Latvia. Out of these the Mikelbaka Lighthouse or the Mikeltornis Tower, which is the highest lighthouse in the Baltics (65 metres), must be surely mentioned. It takes 293 steps to take to enjoy the breathtaking view. In its turn, the some kilometres distant Ovisrags Lighthouse is the oldest one functioning in Latvia – its 38 m high massive tower was built in 1814. The Uzava Lighthouse is interesting; it distinguishes as located at the very sea shore, high dune, protected from illuviation by impressive breakwaters. A special one is the Slitere Lighthouse in the Slitere National Park. The lighthouse is interesting, because it is not located at the sea coast, but 5 kilometres from it – at the end of the Blue Mountains steep. Thus, although the height of the very lighthouse is only 22 metres, its navigation light is the highest in Latvia – 98 metres over the sea level. In its turn, the lighthouse of Cape Kolka has been built on a sea ford, 6 km from the shore. Cape Kolka has always been very dangerous for sailors therefore many ships had wrecked at Cape Kolka, the wrecks of which are often washed ashore. The Mersrags Lighthouse, the tower of which had once been made in France, is noticeable.

The ancient breath of the maritime history can be felt by visiting the small fisherman villages and harbours. The 18th and the 19th century fishermen villages have still been kept at the Kurzeme seaside, especially in Pape. There is a branch of an open-air museum in Pape Koninciems „Vitolnieki”, which allows facing the former life of fishermen. It is worth to go to the Livonian coast where the old Livonian fishermen villages are authentic monuments of that time’s specific housing.

The maritime history can also be studied in several museums. It is possible to learn about the history of the Ventspils Port at the Ventspils Museum, which is situated in the Ventspils Castle. It is worth visiting the Liepaja Museum, which is in a luxurious house on Kurmajas Avenue 16/18. The Sea Fishing Museum of Roja offers an interesting exposition devoted to the development of ship building and maritime in the Talsi Parish. The exposition about the antiquity of Saka and Pavilosta and the life of the littoral sailors can be viewed at the Pavilosta Local History Museum, Dzintara Street 1, but the life of fishermen at the Vidzeme coastal area and the river Salaca is exposed in the Salacgriva Museum.