by João Lopes Marques*
Didn’t start yesterday. It’s been like this for centuries. Much before the Kremlin gerontocracy, plagued by the rheumatics, fled for a healthy bath in the Summer resort of Jurmala. This exquisite taste of mini-megalomania is part of the Latvian genetic code. Maybe influenced by the fact Riga is the only Baltic metropolis. Or its decisive gateway between two antagonistic worlds: History has proved this was the chosen geography for systematic clashes between West and the Cyrillic civilization.
For a tiny territory inhabited by no more than 2,4 millions, reports can be admirably impressive: we see happening here world ice hockey championships, NATO summits, even bids to UN Secretary-General (i.e. Vaira Vike-Freiberga). Moreover, Air Baltic and its Riga International Airport — nicely dubbed “RIX” — have assumed themselves as the golden hub for the Commonwealth of Independent States, the decadent corps of former USSR.
In the wake of the financial crisis, after registering the highest annual GDP growth in European Union, things haven't changed that much (in absolute terms). From CNN to local scholars, all observers coincide on the abuse of superlative: “The biggest credit boom, the biggest property boom, the biggest current account deficit, the biggest wage inflation, the biggest price inflation, the biggest indebtedness...”
— But did you know once we had a colonial empire? — challenged me Inese.
— Beg your pardon, I don't understand…
— Didn’t you know Tobago island was ours?
— Are we speaking about the same Tobago?
Yes, we were. The very same that is nowadays twinned with Trinidad as an archipelago. Needless to say, I didn’t capitulate in the first round. Inese had to invite me for a guided tour so that I could see Tobago casino and other homonymous shops that mushroom in Old Riga. That was far from being a fabrication. Those embellished maps were crystal clear: 45 cannons, 25 officials, 124 soldiers and 80 families of colonists took over the Caribbean island that holy year of 1654.
Just a pity that Jacob Kettler, the committed Duke of Courland and Semigalia was too vulgar re-baptizing the colony he had bought ten years before to his English relatives. Obviously, too obviously, he opted to call it “New Courland”. A confessed mercantilist, Kettler believed wealth does not depend on the size of a country: his beloved-and-hated Netherlands inspired him. To boost chances he still proposed a joint-venture to Polish King, though earthy Kazimierz wasn't interested in current French Guiana and Northern Brazil.
— And we didn’t colonize Australia just because of a bad coincidence! — added Inese, I guess she took advantage of my sudden perplexity.
— Australia? Did you mean “Australia”? Aren’t you going too far?
Well, not for her standards. Not at all. Self-confessed patriot, eventually she will convince me that Mr. Kettler decided to send a strong fleet as far as the Antipodes. Just because the dreamy Duke wanted to scoop the Dutch, whom he was at war with and whose explorations off the Lost Continent were whispered across Europe. Some believe Kettler had designed a grandiose plan of seizure and consequent settlement of what Portuguese navigators had called 150 years before “Terra Java” — the Ptolemy's’ Terra Australis Incognita.
A more thorough search confirms it: deep-rooted in Latvian mythology, the Protestant Jacob Kettler had already trafficked the unlikely bless of the Pope Innocent X. Unfortunately, the Pontiff would pass away in 1655, ruling out all hopes in such a Baltic diaspora.
The skillful Mr. Kettler even greed some islands in the West African shores, somewhere off the Gambia River. For less than two decades he claimed the remote desert island of St. Andrew. Limited by a two-hundred-thousand-soul-population, we may agree he was overstretching his ambition. The generous wish to export Latvians always clashed against this demographic constraints.
Smallness brings the bad taste of frustration too often. Yet the three republics have been struggling hard — sometimes alone and in a epic way. The endemic roots of megalomania lay perhaps in this admirable effort of transcendence. Lithuanians never hide their pride on the medieval Grand Duchy that once stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea shores; Estonians thrive to be cutting-edge positioning themselves as "the" post-modern e-xample.
Coming back to Latvia, though. Mr. Kettler's megalomania could arguably be related to his capital city Liepaja, which means "the city where wind is born”. Such claim happens to be as p[r]o[ph]etic as pharaonic. Have you ever thought about claiming your cradle the place where wind starts blowing? Wind is universal, stateless, rebellious, almost as untamable as the present-day credit crunch crisis. Insufficient for the fearless sovereign: for the end of his life in 1681 he sought to recover the possession of the Courland colonies meanwhile seized by Western powers.
Therefore I have now plenty of arguments to believe that, when the topic is Down Under, my good indigo friend Inese is perhaps more than correct. Plus, I acknowledge she researches hard before speaking out things. Her Nordic assertiveness is proverbial. And that is why — had picky History been more benign to Mr. Kettler; were the three republics slightly larger; had Baltic golden ages lasted longer — I wouldn’t be surprised if one could watch brown kangaroos jumping happily by the Daugava.
Pity, especially because “if” is a tricky monosyllable.
* originally published in "The Baltic Times"