Civil Society Heritage Cities

How Dubrovnik was one of the wealthiest states in Europe

Dubrovnik, or ancient Republic of Ragusa – view of Gruž port

The Republic of Ragusa, today known as Dubrovnik, and its surroundings gained remarkable significance due to trading all over the Mediterranean and beyond between the 14th and the 18th centuries. During earlier times, whilst under the rule of Venice (1205-1358), the Republic established trade links all over the Adriatic Sea, especially with Italian city-states. After gaining independence from Venice in 1358, Dubrovnik flourished into a modern independent city-state with wide-spread connections all around Europe. During the wealthiest period of the Republic, between the 14th and 18th centuries, it recognized the authority of seven different monarchs or states within it. In order to avoid conflict between their vassals and to keep the peace among other competition at sea, these state delegates were skilled in negotiation and diplomacy. During the 18th century, the Republic had between sixty and ninety consulates all over the world (the Habsburg Monarchy, in comparison, had only 30).

The Republic had good diplomatic relationships with many states, but in order to trade with the Ottoman Empire (in what is today Turkey) it was required to pay a large amount of money annually in the form of a ‘tribute’. What is more, it was also required to send ‘guest’ hostages (noble citizens of the Republic who were treated with respect, but who acted as a ‘guarantee’ that the tribute would arrive again the following year) to Istanbul throughout the year. There wasn’t much choice in the matter though, as this ensured keeping their independence which they valued above all, with the Republic’s motto being “Non bene pro toto libertas venditur auro,” meaning “liberty is not well sold for all the gold.”

There was great benefit in being able to freely trade in the East. The Ottoman Empire used the Republic like a main distributer of merchandise in the inner Balkans. The main goods distributed were ore, especially silver and Dubrovnik was the main port for goods that were traveling from Italian states to Black Sea. Under the protection of the Ottoman Empire, Dubrovnik had a settlement in every major city in the Balkans, from Istanbul to Belgrade, Bucharest, Sofia and Sarajevo, where it had established its own hospitals, trade courts, cemeteries and churches within the cities.

The Republic had strong relations with Rome and the Spanish kings too. Not only was it a Roman Catholic country, but it was also a main trade mediator between the West and East. With all of these benefits in both politics and goods, Dubrovnik developed a great fleet which was even covered against accidents by naval insurance from the city itself. The city port of Gruž (Grauosa) could receive around 100 big ships, the largest of which was the famous Dubrovnik Karaka, large enough to carry a crew of 140 people.

Karaka ship – biggest merchant ship of the Republic

Karaka ship – biggest merchant ship of the Republic

There were many famous sailors who were not sailing under the Republican flag alone, but who were captains of foreign ships. Records from the 18th century claim that Dubrovnik had around 250 ship captains. Its ships were also active in the Atlantic, and especially across the shores in England (London and Southampton), where they traded Greek wine and English wool.

Behind all the power of diplomacy and wealth was the Republic’s main trading good – salt. Salt was the main item of export during the Republican times and the income generated from it was huge. After liberation from Venice, Dubrovnik bought territory in the peninsula of Pelješac where the famous salt works were active during the Roman times. The salt works were immediately revitalised and the new city of Ston was founded, complete with all of the necessary administrative support.

Ston town with salt works

Ston town with salt works

Ston’s salt works are the oldest active salt works in Europe. Salt is still being produced here according to the “old way” – depending a lot on the sun, wind and sea. Over 45 000 square meters of salt works are divided into 53 pools that are each named for what are considered the most important Saints in Dubrovnik (among whom St. Blaise, the guardian of the city, St. Francis, St. Nicholas and St. Joseph). The only pool that does not carry a saint’s name is Mundo – the pool from which the Republic used to give salt to its poorest citizens.

Salt was a very expensive commodity, and at the time often used for the conservation of food. The price was thus very high and only the wealthiest patrons could afford it in large amounts. Most of the salt was shipped to the Habsburg court in Vienna. The purest, and therefore highest quality salt was taken from a special pool paved with granite slabs.

With the huge benefits accorded through the salt trading (a third of the total GDP at the time), the living-standard in the Republic during the 17th century was the highest in Europe. According to old records, the salt works produced more than 6000 tonnes of salt every year between 1611 and 1637. In comparison, today Ston’s salt works produce only about 2000 tonnes per year.

In order to protect their main commodity, the Republic built a vast system of fortifications up to seven thousand kilometres in length between the 14th and the 18th centuries. The walls were reinforced with ten round and thirty-one smaller square forts, that together make up the longest walls in the world after the Great Wall of China. The reasons for building such a system were the high level of insecurity caused by wars between the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe.

Fortification system in Ston

Fortification system in Ston

In order to provide high security to both the citizens and city’s main commodity, it was necessary to have a stable government. Not only did the Republic boast well-organised diplomacy abroad, but it also had its own city management to maintain law and order that was provided by the Big and the Small Council and the Senate. They sought to place the Republic’s interests first, and disobeying this order with greed or self-interest was immediately sanctioned. From within the Councils and the Senate members a Duke was chosen. The Duke was a symbolic figure only and his mandate lasted for only one month. In this way, they supressed individuality and the possibility of autocracy.

With security and safety guaranteed, many citizens were rich. It was a modern and well-organised society with highly developed legislation which, as a result, in 1416 abolished slavery and condemned slave trafficking on their ships.

Dubrovnik flag with Quote “Libertas” – short for “Non bene pro toto libertas venditur auro” and a common site in Dubrovnik today still

Dubrovnik flag with Quote “Libertas” – short for “Non bene pro toto libertas venditur auro” and a common site in Dubrovnik today still

 

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