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From Peasantry to Entrepreneurship: Local Dynasties

In Sweden and Finland the peasantry was the Fourth Estate, an exceptional bonus because in many other European monarchies, peasants were part of the Third Estate. As an Estate, peasants achieved a relatively notable status, though they were clearly inferior to the nobility, the clergy and the bourgeoisie, the three other Estates. Landholders were eligible for the Diet, elected by their fellow landholders, one from each district (Jutikkala 1958, 260-80). Independent landowner peasants had a status hierarchy of their own, in which the order was primarily determined by the size of estate: the more land the peasant owned, the higher his or her local status. The highest rank consisted of so-called rusthall peasants, who usually had the largest landed property in their region. They were exempt from maintaining a cavalry soldier and horse. Beneath peasants were tenants, who had leased a small plot of land for cultivation, and landless cottagers, crofters, lodgers and farmhands (Jutikkala 1958, 339-45). All of them earned their main living from agriculture, as landholders or in the service of landholders, but many peasants also engaged in entrepreneurship. This was in fact quite common before the Industrial Revolution reached full swing (Hobsbawm 1990, 62). These entrepreneurs stayed in their home regions, and if their businesses did well and they managed to keep them in the family for more than two generations, they could create quite powerful local dynasties. One such entrepreneurial dynasty was the Finnish Abrahamsson family, who were engaged in shipbuilding and the shipping trade, quite a profitable business on the western coast and in the southwestern archipelago (Nikula 1948; Kaukiainen 1991; Dahlberg and Mickwitz 2014).

The Abrahamssons lived in Kustavi, the southwestern archipelago, where the poor soil made it impossible to conduct agriculture on a large scale. Shipbuilding and the shipping trade provided a source of extra income, but since rural people were declined burger rights, they did not have the permission to conduct trade outside the country and hence to grow their businesses. The situation improved after the mid-nineteenth century, however, with the abolition of legal disparity between peasant and town burgher shipping. This is remembered as the golden age of the peasant shipping trade (Kaukiainen 1991, 21; Tommila 2010, 18). Before going into the shipping trade, the Abrahamssons increased their riches by the only means available to peasants: through purchases of landed property, inheritance and advantageous marriages, the very same means used by the landed nobility, gentry and peasantry throughout Europe. Significantly, Finnish noble families also began to sell off their lands during the eighteenth century, first to civil servants, vicars, officers and merchants, but in the nineteenth century also to professionals and peasants (Tiirakari and Karki 2012; cf. Howell 2010, 87-92).

The same happened in Kustavi, where members of the Fleming councillor dynasty owned large stretches of land and many estates that they decided to sell off (Aapola 2004, 108-10). These transfers of land enhanced the Abrahamssons’ status in the local community and even further afield, when they purchased two large rusthall estates in the 1830s. As rusthall peasants, they now formed the uppermost layer in the peasantry’s status hierarchy. Abraham Abrahamsson (1794-1853) was the first in the family to be praised for being a ‘Great Man’. He was said to be a real highflyer who succeeded in everything to which he turned his hand (Aapola 2004, 18). In particular, his entry into the shipping trade sealed his status and reputation as the leading figure of the local community. The family’s heyday coincided with the heyday of shipbuilding and the shipping trade in the Kustavi region, where the sail tonnage was at its highest in 1875 (Kaukiainen 1991, 332-59).

Abraham Abrahamsson soon increased his stake in shipping companies, exporting a growing variety of foodstuffs, timber and other commodities to Stockholm, but more and more to other foreign countries too, finally as far as America. Profits were divided in proportion to shareholdings. As Abraham Abrahamsson had the largest stake in many sailing ships, he also made some handsome profits. Although ownership was dispersed, a dynastic tendency became evident in this family. As was normal practice, Abraham bequeathed his landed property to his sons and daughters, who mostly remained in their home region and continued farming there, but some of the sons also inherited shares of shipping companies. These sons and subsequently their sons continued as shipbuilders, altogether in three generations, from the mid-nineteenth century to the advent of the twentieth century. This gave birth to a dynastic clan, which gained extra strength from three marriages to another prominent local landholder family, the Erikssons, many of whom were sea captains but also successfully engaged in the shipping trade.

This rise to local power coincided with an increasing occurrence of cousin marriages. The first of them were contracted two generations before Abraham embarked on shipbuilding and the shipping trade, that is, at a time when the family purchased and inherited more lands and brought them into the family through advantageous marriages. Cousin marriages consolidated the sense of family cohesion, as they used to do at least in the higher royal and noble echelons, but they also reinforced the sense of being on the up and up. The first two cousin marriages descended straight to the said Abraham, the protagonist of the family’s saga. Bertil and Matt, two brothers from the Abrahamsson family, married Hebla and Anna, two sisters from another peasant family. The weddings took place in the 1750s and 1760s. The two couples had a son apiece, both of them Abraham by name. These two boys were thus cousins on their maternal and paternal side. The son of one Abraham, again Abraham (1794-1853) by name, married the other Abraham’s daughter Anna (1797-1834) in 1817. They were thus second cousins on their paternal and maternal side. This Abraham was the man who embarked on shipbuilding and the shipping trade and established himself as the initiator of the family’s heyday. He married off three of his four surviving children from the first marriage to the said Erik Eriksson’s children. This matrimonial package of three in-law couples welded together the most prominent local families in the shipping trade. The siblings were also third cousins. In the second generation after the said Abraham Abrahamsson, six of a total of nine children survived to adulthood, and four of them married their relations. In the third generation, altogether 23 children were born to Abraham’s children. Ten children or 43 per cent died in infancy. All 13 surviving children married. Nine or 54 per cent of a total of 17 marriages were cousin marriages. In the fourth generation, altogether 59 children were born; 18 or 31 per cent of them died before adulthood (age 20), most of them in early infancy. The most dramatic fate in this respect fell to Viktorina and Anton, the two double first cousins: they produced eight children, but only one daughter survived. She was said to be sickly, which probably explains why she remained unmarried. In this generation 28 per cent of all surviving children remained single. When the heyday came to an end in the fifth generation, the number of cousin marriages fell dramatically, to 16 per cent, but at the same time, singlehood increased further from 28 per cent in the fourth generation to 34 per cent. These two tendencies also went hand in hand in the nobility during the nineteenth century, when the nobility’s heyday was winding down. I would suggest that in both cases, the turbulence in the marriage market resulted from significant changes in statuses, which compelled both noble and entrepreneurial families to change their strategies in the marriage market as well as their occupational plans.

Although he had built a notable local dynasty, Abraham Abrahamsson was unable to prevent his family’s social decline. In contrast to the three very advantageous in-law marriages, his youngest child, Albertina (1832-68), had a mismatched marriage. Her second husband Karl, a farmhand, lived in Albertina’s household, and as so often happened in these circumstances, the housekeeper, in this case a farmhand, fell into intimacies with the master, in this case the mistress of the house. Again, as so often happened, they married. The problem with Karl was not that he was a farmhand, but that he was a heavy drinker who preferred to spend his time at the pub rather than at home. Noble families had their own share of heavy drinkers, but as long as they could perform the duties of their high-ranking offices, many of them at the royal court, and marry nobles, heavy drinking did not cause social decline. Among ordinary landholders, however, it often pushed the family towards poverty and separation from other relations, as in the case of the Abrahamsson family. The said couple produced three children, of whom only the youngest son (b. 1860) survived to adulthood. He started out as a landholder on his indebted farm, but he eventually lost it as a result of his criminal and antisocial life. He thus followed in his father’s footsteps. He married a restaurant worker ten years his senior, who was seemingly his social equal at the time and also possibly part of a social enclave characterized by heavy drinking and illicit behaviours. The wife bore two children by him, in 1881 and 1884, but no further information is available about their lots—a typical ending to a family story for children who achieved little success in their lives.

The Abrahamssons’ heyday came to an end when wooden sailing ships ceased to be a profitable business. This happened relatively late in Finland because of a severely delayed transition from sail to steam: the amount of tonnage carried by steam increased from 10 per cent in 1892 to a mere 18 per cent in 1913, in contrast to many other European countries where this increase occurred much earlier and much faster. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the proportion of steam tonnage increased from

60 per cent to 93 per cent, in Sweden from 31 per cent to 83 per cent and in Norway from 14 per cent to 66 per cent (Kaukiainen 1991, 24). The Abrahamssons did not go into the steamship business, which would have required much more capital and know-how than they were able to mobilize. The Abrahamssons’ heyday thus lasted as long as their sailing ships generated gratifying profits, that is, until the very early twentieth century. The Erikssons gave up the shipping trade at around the same time and for the same reason: trade by sailing ships no longer paid (Aapola 2004; Tommila 2010, 20). A return to farming was ever tempting, especially as estates were being split up through inheritance and no new lands were being purchased, in contrast to the times when the clans were on the ascendancy. Yet some 40 per cent of all the Abrahamssons born in the 1880s and 1890s continued as farmers, many of them now with a degree in agronomy and otherwise moving towards professionalism. Indeed, many of those in the 60 per cent majority also had a university degree: there was a judge, a medical doctor, a professor, a writer, a civil engineer and so on, in other words, increasing numbers of professionals.

Today, the descendants of the two clans are scattered across Finland, although many have returned to Kustavi, not to live but to spend their summers there in cottages they have built on their inherited lands (Aapola 2004; Tommila 2010). This is one way to treasure the legacy of one’s clan: to return to one’s roots in the countryside. The other is to study the family’s history and record it in a chronicle. Both clans—the Abrahamssons and the Erikssons—have done this as well (Aapola 2004; Tommila 2010). Moreover, the Erikssons revere their famous writer, Volter Kilpi (originally Eriksson), who wrote a book about how his father and his father’s partners purchased a sailing ship. In the summertime, Kilpi’s literary works bring together his devotees to Kustavi to attend lectures and discuss his works.

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