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The City of Gdansk

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Gdansk - the past and the present of town and port


The entries about trade carried out by sea with lands situated at the mouth of the Vistula river appeared as early as in chronicles from the most remote times. As from the year 1000, Gdansk was mentioned in historical records. Chronicles of the early 13th century give more details about Gdansk's overseas trade at that time. Due to its location at the estuary of a large river, Gdansk swiftly developed into a major trade hub gathering commercial activity of its natural area of gravity in geographical terms i.e. mainly the Polish regions.

Gdansk's significant growth as a port occurred in the second half of the 14th century and the consecutive centuries. As of that time, a range of commercial relations between Gdansk and the overseas countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Flanders, England, France, Spain and Portugal was rapidly expanding. Towards the end of the 16th century Gdansk's vessels also reached Italy. The population of Gdansk in the 17th century amounted to 75,000 inhabitants i.e. more than the combined population of Nurnberg and Hamburg at that time.

The main area of gravity for the Gdansk port comprised the Polish lands; however, independent of that, Gdansk also maintained lively relations with Lithuania, Riga, Rewal and with distant Novogrod in the north; to the south Gdansk's relations reached Hungary and Moldavia, thus on frequent occasions goods from the east reached the west of Europe via Gdansk.

A successful development of the economic relations corresponded with the port expansion. Initially, principal export goods comprised timber and processed wood products. At the end of the 14th century, during the favourable years, Gdansk sent on an average of over 2,500 hundreds of timber, with a hundred equal to 120 planks. These years also saw an average annual export of 1,000 lasts of ash and tar and up to 1,000 stones of wax. Over the 16th and 17th centuries the exports continued growing, so that e.g. in 1610 a volume of 10,014 lasts of ash and potash was sent, as well as 6,074 lasts of tar. The value of those goods totaled about a million guldens, the amount that at that time was undoubtedly high.

Among the export products there were in addition copper and lead. During the 16th and the 17th centuries, Gdansk exported in transit 5 - 10,000 cwt (equals 112 lbs) of copper annually.

Export of grain started in the 15th century and its remarkable growth was recorded in the second half of the 16th century and the early 17th century when volumes of up to 128,000 lasts i.e. some 250,000 tonnes annually were sent by the port of Gdansk in a number of years. As from the mid-17th century, due to continuous wars and the economic decline of Gdansk's area of gravity, exports of grain only in exceptionally successful periods exceeded 50,000 lasts yearly. Among the export products at that time there were also flax, hemp, feathers, linen, saltpeter and hides. The major goods that came to Gdansk comprised spices, southern fruit, drysalter's products and other goods of the kind brought from Antwerp, Amsterdam and Lisbon. Their import volume in the early 18th century amounted to some 200,000 pounds. Besides, there were substantial volumes of sea salt, herrings and wine. A large share contained treated skins, the import of which totaled up to one million pieces per year, as well as woolen cloth that was barely produced in Poland at that time. In addition it is worth to mention glass and paper.

Likewise the traffic of ships was substantial considering that time. As of the early 16th century until the end of the 17th century, there was an average number of 500 - 1,000 vessels calling at Gdansk on an annual basis, with the greatest number of ships under a Dutch flag, followed by English and Gdansk vessels.

In the 15th - 17th century, the port of Gdansk played a vital role as a go-between for the East and the West, constituting at the same time one of the major links in the international commerce of that time. The only significant competitor to Gdansk on the Baltic Sea was Lubeck.

As from the mid-18th century, Gdansk's trade experienced a gradual decline as a result of wars and political changes in the area of gravity.

The beginning of the 19th century saw Gdansk fall under the rule of Prussia and become one of the many German ports on the Baltic. The focus of gravity in terms of the international trade was then shifted towards the Atlantic Ocean and to ports in its closer vicinity. Furthermore, the partition of Poland and splitting of Gdansk's natural hinterland by means of custom and political borders prevented the expansion of overseas trade in its former dimensions. Notwithstanding, the port of Gdansk managed to gradually increase its turnover and, over the last years before the war, it played a significant role in sea trade on the Baltic.

The years between 1919 and 1939 were the period of the Free City of Gdansk and the port's development was shaped by rather specific socio-political conditions. Due to the unification of the Polish lands connected in terms of customs with the Free City of Gdansk, the port has acquired a vast area of gravity and has become a focal point for the concentration of Poland's overseas commerce. During that time the economic development of the town depended greatly upon the overall prosperity of the Polish State and before the outbreak of the Second World War the cargo handling capacity of the port exceeded 7 million tonnes a year.

In 1945 Gdansk again became a Polish port but the years immediately following the war were devoted to the reconstruction of the city from the ruins. In the second half of the 1950's the improvements to the wharfs and port canals began. The next decade saw the accomplishment of new projects such as sulphur and fertilizers handling terminals. The overall cargo turnover rose from 6.6 million tonnes in 1949 to 15.8 million tonnes in 1974. The bulk cargoes such as coal and coke prevailed, however the amount of general cargo was on the increase, for example 2.15 million tonnes in 1973.

At the beginning of the seventies the Northern Port with fuel and coal terminals was built. After the completion of this project the total turnover of the port reached in 1978 the record volume of 27.7 million tonnes. The next decade was, however, less fortunate due to the political and economic decline that had an adverse impact on the volume and the structure of the port's cargo turnover.

The new era in the port's operation began after the year 1989. The most significant accomplishments at the Port of Gdansk over the recent decade include constructing a state-of-the-art liquefied petroleum gas terminal at the Northern Port, establishing the Duty Free Zone, developing the short sea shipping container terminal, further specialist cargo handling terminals and the Westerplatte Ferry Terminal. The successive investment strategy is currently subject to planning and implementation procedures.

The Port of Gdansk Authority SA holds a position of one of the biggest enterprises in the Pomeranian Region and a key player in terms of the regional economic and social life. Stimulating the development of port's capacity and attracting new investors, the Port of Gdansk greatly contributes to the dynamic growth of the city. From the residents' point of view, this means, first and foremost, employment opportunities - the port itself employs about 3,000 people with thousands of others working for the related businesses and, additionally, better quality traffic conditions due to the upgraded road infrastructure connecting the port and the city.

Moreover, the Port of Gdansk plays a significant role when it comes to shaping industrial environment in the urban structure of Gdansk. The environmental impact generated by the port's business operation has acquired much more friendly character over the recent years. This results from technological improvements applied in transport, cargo handling and storage methods, as well as from the investments in the heating and sewage systems. Since 1994, a substantial reduction has been observed in the emissions of sulphur, nitric and carbon oxides, as well as dusts.

Based on "The Port of Gdansk" compiled by the Port and Waterways Board in Gdansk in 1929 and published by the Industry and Trade weekly.


Related events:
We build history - 24.06.2011
Gdansk Port in the Past Centuries - 24.07.2002