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Resources and Infrastructures in the Maritime Economy, 1500-2000$

Gordon Boyce and Richard Gorski

Print publication date: 2002

Print ISBN-13: 9780973007329

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: January 2019

DOI: 10.5949/liverpool/9780973007329.001.0001

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Resources and Infrastructures in the Danish Maritime Economy: Evidence for the Coastal Zone, 1500-2000

Resources and Infrastructures in the Danish Maritime Economy: Evidence for the Coastal Zone, 1500-2000

(p.63) Resources and Infrastructures in the Danish Maritime Economy: Evidence for the Coastal Zone, 1500-2000
Resources and Infrastructures in the Maritime Economy, 1500-2000

Poul Holm

Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Historians of the Danish economy usually emphasise the importance of agriculture since Neolithic times. Evidence put forward in this paper suggests that a revision of this perception is necessary. The maritime component of the economy dominated medieval exports, and while the seventeenth century was marked by a decline in maritime activities, the eighteenth century was associated with a resurgence of shipping in particular. This overview looks first at natural resources, population and business statistics, and then goes on to present an historical overview on the development of the main maritime industries, fisheries and shipping, as well as other coastal economic activities in order to understand the relationship between settlement and economic activity. The outcome of this research is a fuller picture of the maritime population and activities of Denmark between 1500 and 2000....

Historians of the Danish economy usually emphasise the importance of agriculture since Neolithic times. Evidence put forward in this paper suggests that a revision of this perception is necessary. The maritime component of the economy dominated medieval exports, and while the seventeenth century was marked by a decline in maritime activities, the eighteenth century was associated with a resurgence of shipping in particular. This overview looks first at natural resources, population and business statistics, and then goes on to present an historical overview on the development of the main maritime industries, fisheries and shipping, as well as other coastal economic activities in order to understand the relationship between settlement and economic activity. The outcome of this research is a fuller picture of the maritime population and activities of Denmark between 1500 and 2000.

Natural Resources

Growth in Danish coastal regions, especially from the late Middle Ages, took place on four distinct types of land: heaths, woods, cornfields and meadows. The heaths and meadows were characteristic of the coastal landscape of Jutland from the Kattegat up to the Limfjord, and the same landscapes were also a feature of the two Kattegat islands, Læsø and Anholt (see figure 1). Seventeenth-century woodland clearances opened up the landscape, leaving it bare, with grazing by sheep and cattle keeping down the growth of vegetation. It was a landscape that could only be inhabited by drawing on all of the many resources and opportunities offered by the coast, in contrast to the specialised cultivation of corn found in the inland areas. Sand dunes dominated the North Sea coastline, which made even harsher demands on an already frugal existence and heightened the need to maintain pluralistic subsistence strategies.1 In contrast, the Limfjord and the (p.64) fjords of east Jutland were characterised by fields rich with corn and lush acres of meadowland. This contrast created contrasting social interactions between two completely different worlds.

Resources and Infrastructures in the Danish Maritime Economy: Evidence for the Coastal Zone, 1500-2000

Figure 1 Map of Denmark

The central landscape of the cornfields lay in southern Denmark, namely in south Jutland and on the Danish isles. The soil in much of this region was moraine clay, which stretched right out to the coast, creating a landscape that reflected its predominant function as farmland. Even so, there were tracts of land, as in north Sealand, on the small islands in southern Denmark, and on Bornholm, where fishing and shipping played important roles. Over the centuries the production capacity of the southerly landscapes was large enough to ensure grain supplies to the rest of the country, and also to Norway, thus requiring some infrastructure of redistribution and export.

(p.65) The Coastal Zone: Geographic Definition

Present-day bureaucracies use different definitions of a “coastal zone,” but none convey any historical meaning. Within the Danish administrative system the “beach protection line” (known as the “sand dunes protection line” in west Jutland) acts as the basic definition. The beach zone, determined by a law passed in 1994, is currently being charted by the Beach Protection Commission. In addition, a three-kilometre coastal protection zone is in force to prevent the construction of new buildings (with the exception of agricultural structures) on open land in close proximity to the sea. This zone comprises twenty-five percent of the aggregate land area. Globally, zoning is used also in the European Union’s definition, which defines all land within fifty kilometres of the sea as a coastal zone. By this definition almost all of Denmark must be regarded as coastal.

My work with the coastal zone will take as its point of departure the groundbreaking historical land-settlement classification advanced by Per Grau Moller and Erland Porsmose.2 Their work is based first and foremost on the cadastre, or land register, for 1682. The coastal zone, and with it the importance of marine resources, did not receive close analysis in their work. The authors were conscious of this omission, which they noted in a brief discussion of the importance of the fisheries by the end of the 1800s. Thus, there is considerable scope for further research on the character and importance of the coastal zone: one approach might be to incorporate all inshore activities other than the fisheries and to assemble data for a longer period.

An historical definition of coastal zone settlement ideally should take as its starting point the utilisation of resources rather than a straightforward measure of distance. In practice, however, a precise historical classification of the importance of marine resources would be impossible. Therefore, there is much sense in the proposal by Grau Moller and Porsmose to define the coastal zone as land owned by the Guild of Owners that bordered open water (the guild is a legal territorial unit with its origins in the medieval period). This definition would certainly work well for the east coast; but in some places, such as the west coast of Jutland, there are problems because economic activity was less confined to the immediate neighbourhood. Seasonal migrations of labour from the interior to the coast took place to enable participation in fishing. At the moment, available data have not been sorted by coastal guild, which prevents us from using coastal settlements as a definition. I will therefore confine myself to analysing the data at the parish level, although it must be acknowledged that this broadening necessarily makes the analysis less exact than is desirable. (p.66)

Resources and Infrastructures in the Danish Maritime Economy: Evidence for the Coastal Zone, 1500-2000

Figure 2

Source: Computed from the database for area use compiled by Per Grau Müller, University of Southern Denmark.

If it is valid to suggest that proximity to water is an important determinant of the opportunity to generate household income, then this proximity should be reflected in different settlement patterns. To test this assumption, figure 2 divides Danish acreage into “dry” and “wet” parishes. This division is based on the data of Grau Meiler and Porsmose that have kindly been placed at my disposal. Parishes without access to open water – collectively known as “dry parishes” – have been ordered to conform to Grau Moller and Porsmose’s categorisation of agricultural land, woodland and heath land. Together these parishes comprise just over half the aggregate land area. Parishes with direct access to salt seas, brackish fjords and freshwater lakes – “wet parishes” – have been classified under the corresponding categories of saltwater, brackish water and freshwater settlements. Inland parishes with small, self-contained rivers or streams are classified as dry under this scheme. The wet parishes are further broken into territorial waters. The salt parishes are differentiated by their access to the Wadden Sea, the North Sea (including the Skagerrak), the Kattegat, the Belts or the Baltic Sea, and the brackish fjords by their location, namely in the west Jutland fjords (Ringkøbing and Nissum) and the Limfjord (including the interior fiords of east Jutland, Funen and Sealand). Almost a quarter of land falls into this category in parishes that have access to salt beaches, while a further quarter have access to brackish and fresh waters. It is therefore of no surprise (p.67) that nearly half of Danish parishes have access to open water, which should encourage future cultural-historical settlement classifications to consider the importance of water.

Resources and Infrastructures in the Danish Maritime Economy: Evidence for the Coastal Zone, 1500-2000

Figure 3

Source: See figure 2.

Figure 3 shows the number of cottages according to the land register of 1682, in relationship to farms located in the various settlement areas. A marked over-representation of smallholders in parishes by salt beaches is immediately apparent. Indeed, nearly sixty percent of all smallholders in the first half of the nineteenth century lived by the coast. Given the size of the parishes, this is more than twice as many as we might expect. The North Sea and Kattegat coastlines stand out most noticeably in this respect, while the west Jutland fjords and the Limfjord also contain a larger percentage of smallholders than might be expected. Conversely, the Belts, the Baltic and parishes with freshwater lakes had a smaller percentage of smallholders relative to their size. Danish smallholders were therefore found along the coast, while farming communities with only a few smallholders favoured the drier areas of the country.

Figure 4 shows the distribution of the privileged landed interests following this broader definition of settlement classification. It appears that the densest distribution of estates and manor houses were to be found by the west (p.68) Jutland fjords, while the drier arable land and coastlines by the Belts, the Baltic Sea and the interior fjords also had many farms owned by privileged landed interests. It is clear from this analysis that smallholders were over-represented along the Danish saltwater coasts and estates near the brackish fjords, while farmers were predominantly found inland. This broader settlement classification, based simply on a clear proximity of parishes to the coast, suggests real differences between the economic strategies of the inhabitants of the coast, fjords and interior which are more pronounced than the modest size of the maritime population might imply.

A settlement classification based on cultivation criteria, like that offered by Grau Moller and Porsmose, should be quite reliable. Indeed, a snapshot based on the 1682 land register might be used as the basis for retrospective settlement models for periods where sources are less complete, such as the Middle Ages or perhaps even the Iron Age. More doubtful, on the other hand, is whether such use of the broader settlement classification would be meaningful. Since we possess very little factual knowledge about the development of pre-modern coastal settlements, in the following section I have tried to establish a set of data to underpin a comprehensive overview of the size, character and fluctuation of maritime populations in Denmark in the period 1500 and 2000.

Resources and Infrastructures in the Danish Maritime Economy: Evidence for the Coastal Zone, 1500-2000

Figure 4

Source: See figure 2.

(p.69) The Coastal Zone – Population and Trades

Since the middle of the eighteenth century, the history of agriculture could be written in terms of an unremitting battle against open water, whether fresh or salt. Open water is a wonder of nature not especially welcomed by modern farming enterprises that prefer to irrigate the land using natural spring water systems. This is in complete contrast to the kind of understanding that existed among farmers in earlier times, when open water, with its rich resources of fish and bird life, represented a welcome addition to their daily subsistence and where wet meadowlands provided good grazing. The transition from farmer to hunter/fisherman/sailor was, therefore, gradual in the coastal zones – and many lines of trade were in existence.

In trying to calculate how many people derived a living from the sea in the recent past, it must be recognised that historians cannot offer precise answers. The problem with economic transition categories is that fiscal registration of businesses historically has always taken matriculated land (and therefore farming) as its starting point. In Danish society there are good reasons for doing this, since over many thousands of years the main form of subsistence was ensured through crop and meat production. But there are problems with those coastal dwellers who obtain a considerable (or perhaps the main) part of their income from the sea even though they are registered as smallholders or farmers. In the older type of census the category “those who live from the sea” was notoriously unrepresentative of the actual number of sailors and fishermen, and we need to exercise some caution when using this traditional method of defining coastal zones. For the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Hans Christian Johansen has tried to calculate the number of fishermen, but his estimates appear somewhat conservative.3 We have better statistics for the twentieth century due to the official annual accounts of the fisheries for the year 1901, and it has been possible to establish minimum figures for the number of seamen.4 Table 1 depicts both direct employment and (p.70) the number of people in households dependent on the sea for their livelihood. While household size is given in more recent censuses, it must be estimated for earlier eras.

Table 1 Maritime Population of Denmark, 1700-1995


Seamen and Fishermen

Number of dependents per employee: all sectors

Number of dependents per employee: maritime industry (*= estimated)

Number of employed and dependents: maritime industry (* = calculated)

% of total population







































Source: Hans Chr. Johansen, “Danish Sailors, 1570-1870,” in P.C. van Royen, J.R. Bruijn and J. Lucassen (eds.), “Those Emblems of Hell?” European Sailors and the Maritime Labour Market, 1570-1870 (St. John’s, 1997); Morten Hahn-Pedersen and Poul Holm, “The Danish Maritime Labour Market, 1880-1900,” in Lewis R. Fischer (ed.), The Market for Seamen in the Age of Sail (St. John’s, 1994); Statistisk Àrbog 1940, 1970 and 1996. Figures for employment in fishing and shipping were given by the relevant ministries.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries fishermen and sailors married earlier than farmers since they did not have to wait for their inheritance in the form of a farm, and the families of fishermen on average comprised between 4.5 and 5.5 household members.5 Many sons living at home were themselves fishermen or sailors, and therefore a lower estimate of three dependents supported by one seaman’s income has been used. Against this background we can estimate that around 1700 almost four percent of a total population of around 800,000 earned their living from the sea. Almost a century later, when the population had risen to approximately one million, the maritime workforce represented 4.7% of the total. By 1870 this had fallen to 3.4%. In 1901 the aggregate of those directly employed in maritime industries had risen (p.71) slightly, while the figure fell and rose again up to 1965. By the end of the twentieth century, however, the maritime population had declined sharply to an insignificant proportion.

Though it is not possible to achieve total precision in these statistics, it is nonetheless important to be able to draw attention to relative sizes and tendencies. From this exercise it emerges that the size of the maritime population remained fairly static relative to the total population until the severe reduction that occurred towards the present.

Open waters, of course, were important to many walks of life. First, “maritime employment” included ancillary activities that did not necessarily take place on the ocean. Shipbuilders, net-makers, rope-makers, offshore workers and many others must be counted as having maritime employment. In this respect, the most meaningful sea-related employment in more recent years is without doubt connected with tourism, which for many stretches of coastline employs the single largest number of workers. In 1994, for example, tourism provided over 54,000 full-time jobs, representing two percent of national employment.6 Second, earning a living along the coast was, and still is to a great extent, generation specific. Coastal parish records show that while a high percentage of adult males between fifteen and twenty years of age had the opportunity to become seamen, only a few remained at sea after the age of twenty-five. The remainder often became smallholders, though they did not necessarily lose their connection with the sea: some became fishermen while others found employment as shipbuilders, hand workers or day labourers. A narrow commercial definition of maritime employment therefore underestimates the full extent of activity that actually existed within the maritime economy. The 1965 census shows that besides those directly employed in shipping (23,846) and fishing (13,834), a further 35,361 were employed as tugboat hands, loaders/unloaders, shipbrokers, rope-makers, net-makers, shipbuilders and boat builders. By household, this further grouping of business activity represented 77,293 people and increased the relative share of the maritime population to 4.6%. Many other groups active in the market are hidden in the statistics. For example, the number of employees in the fishing industry is unknown. Nor does the available data allow us to predict the degree of error: however, it would not be unreasonable to conjecture that the percentage of those working in the maritime industries was probably twice as large as the official records indicate.

(p.72) Pluralistic Subsistence

Naturally enough, the particular economic attraction of the coastal areas can be found in the fishing and seafaring professions, but alongside these we can identify many other sources of income offered by the rich and varied resources of the coast. These resources historically have been exploited by anyone with access to the coast, including the true farmers who lived nearby. It was the seamen’s wages and the sales of fish that first and foremost provided money to buy things that they could not make. The main part of their daily needs had to be covered by the majority of the coastal population, women, children and old men, who were not directly engaged in sea-related occupations. Only the most capable men were able to earn a satisfactory income from the sea. On the other hand, the land rewarded both greater and lesser efforts. No family of a fisherman or sailor could survive without cultivating a little land and keeping an animal or two. This combination of land and sea use was common practice for nearly all pre-industrial coastal societies.

Many households continued to maintain this combination of different livelihoods, even when better opportunities were perceived nearby. There was an ingrained wish to retain a patch of land as a safety net that counteracted any decisive split between land dwellers and fishermen. Thanks to the much greater use of potatoes in the coastal regions after 1810, farming yielded greater returns even from the poorest soils. Still, pluralistic subsistence remains a living reality on many small islands even today. The continuation of settlements in these fringe territories is reliant upon the flexibility of households and their ability to fill those niches made possible through their surroundings.

The survival of households depends on judging the relative advantages of effort put into crops that increase self-sufficiency as opposed to those that produce cash income. Monetary income depends on ensuring specialised production for a particular level of output, which then has to be sold in the marketplace. This choice highlights the problems that always exist when livelihoods are derived from a combination of different activities. Apart from sea exploitation, some of the typical coastal livelihoods that generated cash incomes were salvaging; salt, train oil and textile production; handicrafts; peat digging; and stone quarrying. Closely connected to the fisheries and shipping were boat and shipbuilding. All these activities could be developed as a primary source of income, but as a rule they formed just one of several household activities and represented alternatives to the real sea-related industries of fishing and shipping.

The Secular Trend in Fishing Settlements

Over time, fishing and shipping have taken turns in their relative importance to the coastal population. The fisheries’ heyday was in the late Middle Ages and again in the first half of the twentieth century, while shipping played an (p.73) especially important role in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The economic fluctuations of the maritime sector must have had a significant impact on the coastal settlements.

Fishing settlements seem to have spread over the country in the late Middle Ages. What has become a long-standing historical discussion about the nature of fishing villages was stimulated after Johs. Steenstrup pointed out in 1905 the distinction in the sources between seasonal and permanent settlements. Steenstrup claimed that year-round, or professional, fishing settlements only emerged with the beginning of the modern cutter fisheries in the 1880s. More recent archaeological and archival research, however, has shown that this theory, which still appears in historical literature, is not tenable.7 Late medieval fishing villages were certainly seasonal insofar as the main fisheries, especially herring and cod, were concerned, but for the rest of the year a smaller permanent fishing population supplemented its main source of income with other types of work, whether seafaring, transporting agricultural produce or renting out their boats as pilots and ferrymen. The size of the west Jutland fishing boat, the evert, which had a twelve-man crew, also suggests that the fisheries had a considerably larger economic importance than Steenstrup assumed. Settlements were often established on unregistered land outside of village jurisdiction.

Figure 5 gives the overall picture of export values in daler for fisheries and agricultural produce in the sixteenth century.8 The aggregate value of fisheries’ exports considerably outstripped agricultural exports in the first half of the century. The value of the cattle trade around 1500 was hardly more than one-quarter of the aggregate fisheries trade, and even in 1540, when there was a short-lived corn surplus, agricultural exports amounted to less than half the value of the fisheries. Still, it should be noted that while the cattle trade was principally in the hands of Danish merchants, the fisheries trade at the beginning of the sixteenth century was still dominated by Germans. It is necessary to bear in mind this crucial distinction when evaluating the importance of the fisheries to the nation’s coffers, but it is of less importance to the history and structure of coastal settlement since almost all fishing was conducted by Danes. In 1537 royal officials estimated that in August and September, the fisheries in the Sound alone required the labour of up to 37,000 people. While German dominance declined, the Danish nobility made considerable investments in the fisheries in the first half (p.74) of the sixteenth century.9 They contributed capital and labour from their estates, and the Sound fishery channelled supplementary manpower from the whole of south Sealand into many eastern Danish towns.10 This workforce came from all parts of the country, and the seasonal flow of labour naturally affected other sectors of the economy, especially in eastern Denmark, where towns like Stege were almost deserted during the season and estates had difficulty with the harvest.11

Although the Sound fishery declined from the middle of the sixteenth century, this was counterbalanced by the marked success of the fisheries in the Skagerrak along the Bohuslen coast, which was part of the Danish-Norwegian kingdom. The relative importance of fish and agricultural exports therefore remained unchanged. After 1590, however, there was a reversal that changed the (p.75) Danish economy. At the beginning of the seventeenth century Danish exports were narrowly focussed on cattle, even if grain was also periodically important. Exports of fish diminished rapidly as early as 1610, though we cannot as yet follow the process in detail. The main explanation for this decline can in all probability be found in changing price structures. Figure 6 shows the development in terms of trade in cod and grain in the markets in London, Amsterdam and Bergen. The price of cod peaked in the late Middle Ages and thereafter entered a long period of decline in relation to grain. The causes for this shift must surely be connected with dietary changes following the Reformation, as well as population increase and changes in consumer patterns generally. But this relationship has not been fully studied. What is central to the study of coastal settlements is the outcome of the price shift – a general recession in northern European fisheries which caused settlements either to be completely abandoned or drastically reduced in size. This recession has been documented both by archaeological and archival evidence for a number of places in Denmark, including Sonderside in west Jutland, Sandhagen on the island of Langeland, Lollands Albue and Gilleleje.12 The recession started before 1600, but it is clear – at least for Sonderside – that the billeting of the main body of the Swedish force that occupied Jutland in 1627 triggered a knock-on effect from which the settlement never recovered.13 In south Sealand the towns went into recession due to a slump in the fish trade. Therefore, in small compensation, the towns wished to limit the transport of agricultural produce by peasant ships to force distribution by merchant-owned vessels. The combined efforts of the nobility and the towns were crowned with luck by a sequence of royal letters.14 This prohibition, however, meant that farmers completely lost interest in keeping boats and not only ceased trading but also gave up fishing. Before 1600 the majority of south Sealand farmers were tied to working the land all year; if herring did come to the Sound in large numbers, it was left to a small group of professional fishermen to catch them. The fisheries could no longer recruit labour from the surrounding areas and, from the standpoint of economic interest, society turned its back on the sea. Southeastern Denmark was described during the eighteenth century as (p.76) an area where the farmer would work the land in defiance of his proximity to the sea. When the nobility – and their money – left the fisheries, most of the coastal areas were simply abandoned. Professional fishermen gathered in fishing villages in the vicinity of large towns, such as Copenhagen, Malmo and Helsingør, where they found a local market for fresh fish.15 In the marginal areas of Jutland the depression in the fisheries induced coastal dwellers to turn to small-scale farming, often resulting in legal wrangles with landed peasants who resented the intrusion of fisherman who used plots of land at the margins of the village for vegetable production.16

Resources and Infrastructures in the Danish Maritime Economy: Evidence for the Coastal Zone, 1500-2000

Figure 6

Source: Arnved Nedkvitne, “Mens Bønderne seilte og Jaegterne for,” Nordnorsk og vestnorsk kystokonomi 1500-1730 (Oslo, 1988)

The result of this development was a marked fall in the standard of living for fishing families. Many consequently sought escape, either by taking on work as cheap day labourers on landed estates or by signing on as hired hands in the shipping industry, either as part of the rapidly growing Dutch fleet or on Copenhagen- and Hamburg-owned ships, which also grew in number throughout (p.77) the eighteenth century. In reality, the poorest fishermen assumed the role of casual labourer who could be recruited and dismissed quickly.

A real breakthrough for the fisheries came when skippers from Bornholm (around 1750) and Frederikshavn (in 1814) began to buy fresh fish from the inshore waters for delivery to Copenhagen, where putting fresh plaice and cod on the table became preferable to the well-known dried and salted cod from Norway and Iceland. This success soon translated into prosperity for the inshore fishing communities (see figure 7). In 1771 more than half of the country’s fishermen could be found by the Skagerrak, Kattegat and Limfjord; a century later they were far more evident on the Sound, the Belts and the westerly regions of the Baltic. In the same period the west Jutland fishing community was in constant decline because it experienced great difficulty finding markets for its traditional dried and salted products.

Resources and Infrastructures in the Danish Maritime Economy: Evidence for the Coastal Zone, 1500-2000

Figure 7

Source: Centre for Maritime and Regional History, University of Southern Denmark, TRAWLER, database.

In the meantime, the coming of the railways radically changed the options for fish distribution from the 1870s. Fishing boats used on inland waters were affected by the Jutland west coast line, which enabled fish to be transported (p.78) to auction at Hamburg within a day. In tandem, many west and north Jutlanders were able to escape from their subsistence economy to acquire money and brick houses over a couple of decades between 1880 and 1900. The distribution of the population reflected this development. North and west Jutland fishing communities forged ahead strongly while the eastern regions of Denmark went into decline. Indeed, the distribution of the country’s fishermen in 1977 was reminiscent of the situation in 1771. This trend has continued, and the total fishing population now stands at 4500 year-round fishermen and perhaps 2000 semi-professional and occasional fishermen. Activity in the seas off north and west Jutland has become even more concentrated, and the majority of fishing settlements along the east coast of Denmark are in decline.

Secular Trends in Merchant Shipping

In much the same way as fishing settlements, seafaring communities have experienced sharp swings in market conditions over the centuries that have brought quick success and rapid decline. Yet market forces in shipping brought about a very different pattern of development. In this way the two key maritime trades were able to some extent to take pressure off each other and entice experienced labour in response to need.

The renaissance for Danish shipping, and the heyday of maritime settlements, was in the period 1550-1620. For this period we lack the close analysis of old estate records that would elucidate the process. Yet from 1670 onwards evidence of tonnage levels provides a clearer picture, and it seems that the long-term pattern of activity can be described as a constant battle between the capital and the provinces (see figure 8). Between 1670 and 1700 the capital’s fleet forged ahead and overtook the aggregate tonnage levels for the provinces. Success continued through the 1700s.17 The “golden age” of shipping was, first and foremost, a Copenhagen phenomenon, and for the provincial coastal environments this meant a concentration of finance and labour in the capital. Such concentration was completely in step with contemporary absolutist economic policy and left enduring traces in the architecture of Copenhagen. A large part of the labour force for shipping was brought in from the fishing communities. The few economic theorists who in the second half of the eighteenth century were concerned with opportunities to develop the fisheries certainly regretted the unequal competition with the merchant fleet, which could (p.79) employ all the young able seamen that the fishing communities were able to produce.18

Resources and Infrastructures in the Danish Maritime Economy: Evidence for the Coastal Zone, 1500-2000

Figure 8

Source: See figure 7. This is calculated from Dansk Sefarts Historie, vols. 2 and 3 (Copenhagen 1997); and Anders Monrad Moller, Fra galeot til galease (Esbjerg 1981).

In the period after the Napoleonic wars, the shipowners of southern Funen did extremely well.19 A shift occurred in the country’s shipping geography away not only from Copenhagen but also other traditional centres, such as Aalborg, which was especially hard hit by the opening of the Limfjord towards the west. The latter development brought gains to small towns, such as Thisted, Lemvig and Skive, and in the case of Struer, even formed the basis for a completely new market town.20 Over the next few decades the provincial communities did well out of the large sailing vessels, but the transition to steam (p.80) pushed many into decline. Fano lost the whole of its fleet in the first decade of the twentieth century, and many traditional seafaring towns such as Aabenraa looked instead towards industry and business.21 Some of the able seamen who were left redundant by the crossover from sail to steam were able to find employment in the fisheries, which at the turn of the century were enjoying a sharp upturn in prosperity.22 With the progress of the railways after 1870, followed by the arrival of lorries (around 1930), motorcars (from 1955) and air freight (1970), the country’s pattern of transport changed fundamentally. The volume of coastal traffic dropped sharply, while the shipping industry turned to the global liner and tanker trades. Localisation of seamen became unimportant because crews could now be flown out to their vessels.

Coastal Change and Continuity

The essence of coastscapes is variability. In this brief summary, I have demonstrated the existence of a maritime population that responded to a variety of natural resources and fluctuating market factors. While agricultural landscapes convey a sense of millennial perpetuity in the way the land is used and settled, variability is inherent in coastal landscapes. Not only do the seas and winds constantly transform them, but adaptation to change is a necessary prerequisite for any coastal dweller who wants to eke out an existence from the meagre resources on offer – resources that invite an opportunistic use of both land and sea. The size of the Danish maritime population remained relatively stable through the period 1500-1950, as coastal dwellers alternated between various economic strategies including fishing, seafaring and a variety of subsistence activities.

The marginal lands by the foreshore attracted fishermen and business people, especially in the late Middle Ages, when the coast took on an especially important economic role that reflected the success of fishing and seafaring. But market fluctuations and the impact of war in many coastal areas during the seventeenth century tipped the fisheries into decline, while shipping made progress in the eighteenth century. Coastal dwellers took care of themselves through pluralistic subsistence strategies that made maximum use of resources taken from both the sea and the sand dune/heath lands. From around 1650 the coastal population was transformed into a secondary workforce able to subsist by a pluralistic use of coastal resources and which, at times, could be mobilised as a source of labour for the conventional maritime industries of fishing and (p.81) shipping. This occurred with the expansion of Copenhagen during the late eighteenth century and again after 1850, when the fisheries experienced an upturn.23 After 1650, however, the real winner was land: agricultural estates benefited from rising prices for their products, absolutely and relative to marine products, and from the ability to employ the surplus population of the coastal regions. This process formed the backdrop for the distribution of settlements that we can explore with the aid of the broader definition of settlement classification described above. While the salt coast was characterised by impoverished smallholders, the typical inland settler was the well-to-do farmer. In between the two, and taking advantage of both, lay the manor houses of the fertile coasts.

Maritime settlements made real progress, first with the success of provincial seafaring in the period 1830-1870 and later during the heyday of the fisheries up to 1930 (in some areas extending down to the 1970s). These two periods of growth remain with us in the architecture of maritime environments, such as skipper communities, with an imprint of the heyday of the late nineteenth century, and small harbours attached in particular to the fisheries that grew from the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Coast Today

Today, globalisation has broken down the seafaring communities, and the remaining fishing villages are few and highly technological. In 1997 there were only 4000 Danish sailors left, and this number is expected to fall due to recruitment problems. With the exception of individual refuges, such as Marstal, Svendborg and Fano, seamen represent a disappearing minority. Most Danish harbours are in decline, and it is estimated that only fifteen will survive in the long run as goods ports. Not one Danish harbour is of global importance at a time when only twenty ports account for fifty-five percent of the world’s container goods.24 The fisheries, as I have already suggested, experienced a similar recession that only halted in the mid-1990s. The remaining harbours seem to have a good chance of survival.

The traffic and fishery policies defined in Denmark and the European Union are concerned solely with those interests that are attached to these trades (p.82) and in principle are not dependent on the coastal communities that historically created and sustained them. Today, shipping and to a very large extent fishing need not consider the communities that once provided their labour. This view can be clearly seen in the proposed new harbour law for Denmark: ports that cannot be economically viable shall cease to be commercial harbours and be replaced by marinas. Similarly, the main objective of recent fisheries policy has been to phase out tonnage and jobs in order to bring catches into balance with biological resources. Coastal politics are in this way influenced by technological-economic-biological parameters, while considerations about the social and psychological consequences of these politics are hardly in evidence.25 Only a few holistic studies can be found on the consequences of change in fishing ports over the past generation. In this respect coastal culture is distinctly separate from farming culture. While a number of investigations can be found of the consequences of change and rationalisation in Danish agriculture after 1960, one can search almost in vain for similar studies of the fisheries and shipping.26

Even though the tourist industry more than anything else is the defining coastal business today, one should not overlook the importance of continuity from the earlier subsistence coastal livings of hunters, fishers and gatherers. Inshore hunting in particular plays a decisive role in the identity of many coastal societies. To explore and exploit nature is one of the defining activities of coastal dwellers, one which differentiates them from the rest of modern society.


(1) The term “pluralistic subsistence strategies” denotes the opportunistic use of available economic resources and opportunities. In our context, the opportunistic use of land and sea by coastal dwellers took the form of hunting, gathering and scavenging the sea and land in ways that did not conform to formal occupational strategies, but which in combination served to secure the livelihood of the coastal dweller. This was a necessary mechanism to allow coastal settlements to enter and leave the formal maritime and agricultural economies; and especially in times of scarcity, it secured their existence.

(2) Per Grau Moller and Erland Porsmose, Kulturhistorisk inddeling aflandskabet (Copenhagen, 1997).

(3) Hans Chr. Johansen, “Danish Sailors, 1570-1870,” in P.C. van Royen, J.R. Bruijn and J. Lucassen (eds.), “Those Emblems of Hell?” European Sailors and the Maritime Labour Market, 1570-1870 (St. John’s, 1997), 242. Note that the official numbers – such as table 194 in Danmarks Statistik 1995, which shows 47,000 persons in maritime households in 1870 – are clearly erroneous.

(4) Morten Hahn-Pedersen and Poul Holm, “The Danish Maritime Labour Market, 1880-1900,” in Lewis R. Fischer (ed.), The Market for Seamen in the Age of Sail (St. John’s, 1994), 146 and 154. The 1901 census puts the number of Danish seamen and fishermen at 18,066, but an accounts control shows that the minimum crew required for the Danish fleet was 15,802. The number of full-time employed fishermen was given as 7460 in the same year’s Fiskeriberetning, in addition to 5818 part-timers, most of whom no doubt combined fishing with agriculture. The total maritime labour force may therefore be estimated at around 29,000.

(5) Hans Chr. Johansen, Per Madsen and Ole Degn, Tre danske kystsamfund i det 19. ȧrhundrede (Odense, 1993), 57, 118 and 187.

(6) Thomas Rafn, Turismens okonomiske betydning for de danske amter (Nexø, 1996).

(7) Tommy P. Christensen, “Kystbebyggelser i senmiddelalder og renæssance,” hikuin, XXII (1995), 99-124; and Johs. C.H.R. Steenstrup, “Nogle Træk af Fiskerbefolkningens Historie,” Historisk Tidsskrift, VII (1905).

(8) Poul Holm, “Fiskeriets økonomiske betydning i Danmark, 1350-1650,” Sjœk’len 1998 (Esbjerg, 1999), 9-42.

(9) Erik Arup, Danmarks Historie II (Copenhagen, 1932), 417.

(10) Bjarne Stoklund, “Bonde og fisker. Lidt om det middelalderlige sildefiskeri og dets udøvere,” Handels- og Sofartsmuseets Àrbog 1959, 101-122.

(11) Poul Holm, Kystfolk. Kontakter og sammenhœnge over Kattegat og Skagerrak ca. 1550-1914 (Esbjerg, 1991), 60-62.

(12) Lene Frandsen, “Pȧ jagt efter fiskerlejet Senderside – arkoeologiske undersøgelser,” Mark og Montre 1998,61-68; Hakon Berg, Lise Bender Jørgensen and Ole Mortensøn, Sandhagen (Rudkøbing, 1981); and Søren Frandsen and Erik A. Jarrum, “Sæsonfiskelejer, ȧresild og helârsfiskerlejer ved Sjoellands nordkyst,” Gilleleje Museum, XXIX (1992), 105-139.

(13) Poul Holm, “Sønderside – fiskerleje og handelsplads,” Mark og Montre 1998, 69-80.

(14) F. Martensen-Larsen, Hav, fiord og handel. En Studie i handelsveje i Nordjylland i tiden indtil 1850 (Herning, 1986), 151, note 10.

(15) Bjarne Stoklund, “Bonde og fisker. Lidt om det middelalderlige sildefiskeri og dets udevere,” Handels- og Søfartsmuseet pȧ Kronborg Àrsskrifì (1959), 119.

(17) Anders Monrad Meiler, Fra galeot til gatease (Esbjerg, 1981).

(18) Poul Holm, “European and Native Ways. Fishing, Whaling and Sealing in the Danish North Atlantic Empire, circa 1750-1807,” Northern Seas Yearbook 1995, 109-148.

(19) Anders Monrad Meiler, Jagt og skonnert (Skjern, 1988).

(21) Morten Hahn-Pedersen, “Søfarten fra Aabenraa, Fanø og Svendborg,” in Hahn-Pedersen (ed.), I storm og stille – den sikre havn (Esbjerg, 1992), 19-34.

(23) See Mette Guldberg’s investigation of proto-industrial pottery, Jydepotterfra Varde-egnen. Produktion og handel ca. 1650-1850 (Næsby, 1999), which demonstrates that pottery was a strategy for survival in an impoverished area.

(24) M. Hahn-Pedersen, “Changing Structures – Developments in Danish Commercial Ports since 1960,” International Journal of Maritime History, VII (1996), 59-86; and F. Broeze, “Containerization and the Globalization of Liner Shipping,” in D.J. Starkey and G. Harlaftis (eds.), Global Markets: The Internationalization of the Sea Transport Industries since 1850 (St. John’s, 1998), 413.

(25) Poul Holm, “Kulturarv og fiskeripolitik,” Sjœk’len 1996 (Esbjerg, 1997), 93-104; Holm and Søren Byskov, “Coastal Heritage and Sustainable Development: The Need for an Integrated Approach,” EuroCoast ’98 (Barcelona, 1998). For the importance of coastal culture on national identity, see Holm, “Coastal Life, ’Nordic Culture’ and Nation State: Reflections on the Formation of the Nation State and Maritime History,” in Lewis R. Fischer and Walter Minchinton (eds.), People of the Northern Seas (St. John’s, 1992), 191-204.

(26) See Poul Holm (ed.), Fiskere og farvande (Esbjerg, 1994); and Holger Munchaus Petersen, Hanne Poulsen and Bente Borg Serensen (eds.), Caroline og de andre. Fornyelsen i dansk smȧskibsfart efter Krigen (Ringe, 1995).