Tvärminne lecture: The Burghers of Helsinki During the Construction of the Sveaborg Fortress

Abstract of the lecture that I held 24.3. in Tvärminne, in the doctoral student workshop of the history research community in the University of Helsinki.

In my oncoming doctoral dissertation, I will examine the burghers of Helsinki during the construction of the Sveaborg fortress (ca. 1747-1809) from a social history perspective. My two main questions are:

1)      What was the social structure of the Helsinki burghers in 1747-1809?

2)      What impact had Sveaborg on this

The Finnish bourgeoisie in the 18th century is a well researched subject. The focus, however, has nearly always been either in economic history or in political history, and the main interest has been on the rich and powerful merchant burghers. Economic historians have studied their business, political historians their political activity. The social history perspective has rarely been used, and thus, there are only few analyses of the social structure within the burgher class.

In the last few decades, growing interest in network analysis among historians has brought new insights into the field. However, also in these researches, the object has usually been the burgher elite, not the whole burgher class. There is a justification for this: the burgher elite has left behind an extensive source material, both administrative and private (such as letters), whereas the poorest burghers exist only in footnotes in the documents of the magistrate. Therefore, themes such as status in the community and relation networks can only be researched among the richest merchants.

Whatever the justifications are, a peculiar situation has occurred, where historians examine the elite without thoroughly understanding its status and position in its own community. In my dissertation, I aim to fill this gap by creating a thorough analysis of one town and its burghers.

Helsinki is an excellent object for this kind of research. In the years 1747–1808, about five hundred men had burskap (“burgher rights”) in the town. Therefore, the community is at the same time large enough and small enough: large enough for the normal differentiation processes within the group to take place – the merchants, the craftsmen, and the lesser burghers formed corporations and guarded their own professional interests – but small enough for this kind comprehensive analysis.

Because of the Case Sveaborg, Helsinki was not a typical Swedish/Finnish town of its time. The fortification works on the Sveaborg islands, starting in 1747 and continuing – with shorter and longer interruptions – until the Finnish War in 1808–1809, radically sped up the development of the town. However, exactly for this reason, Helsinki provides excellent material for an investigation of a typical Swedish/Finnish town in the 18th century.

Thanks to Sveaborg, most of the major trends in urban development of that time – demographical growth, pre-modern urbanisation, strengthening of the political and economical position of the burghers – can be observed in Helsinki almost in fast-forward. By selling food, supplies, and building materials to the fortress, many merchants in Helsinki became nouveau riche almost overnight, but some also went bankrupt during the interruptions of the construction works, when business opportunities rapidly diminished. From the historian’s point of view, Helsinki is like a research laboratory, where the normal development is artificially accelerated.

For the war-torn town of Helsinki, the construction period of Sveaborg was an exceptionally long period of peace and prosperity. The town lived through record-breaking seven decades without devastating wars or great fires. This peaceful period is reflected in the research sources: the acts and minutes of the Helsinki municipal government begin as continuous series in the 1740s. Therefore, the late 18th century is the only possibility to research the Swedish urban development in Helsinki.

The main source of my research is the taxation material: the annual taxation rolls of the bevillningsskatt (“concession tax”), the progressive income and property tax carried from the citizenry, and the mantalspenningen (“head tax”), collected per capita from the whole population. The tax data makes it possible to reconstruct the structure of the burgher community and the disparity of their income, to follow the financial developments of individual burghers, and to compare this information to the construction periods of Sveaborg. The taxations are also an “objective” source for analyses: they contain equal information about every burgher in town, from the richest merchant-magistrate to the poorest fisherman, butcher or worker.

When this basic structure has been built, it can be enriched with material from other sources, such as the archives of the Helsinki municipal government, the craft corporations and the local congregation. These sources, especially the first-mentioned ones, are lop-sided in the way I described earlier: the vast majority of information is about the burgher elite. However, as the taxation rolls are a rather dry a material even in their factual richness, these other sources will help to broaden our understanding of the late 18th century Helsinkian and his surroundings.