The territory of today's Baltic States - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - played an important role in the history of Poland. In the fourteenth century Poland and Lithuania united in a commonwealth, with Poland the dominant partner. Eventually, this extended Polish territory to the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea. North of Lithuania along the Baltic lay a collection of principalities and duchies with names such as Esthonia, Livonia, Semigallia, Samogitia and Kurlandia.
The Balts who originally settled these lands were caught in the middle of rivalries among strong area powers: Prussia, Sweden, Russia, Poland and to a lesser extent Denmark. The German Prussians settled in cities along the coast and in manors inland, subjugating the native peasants. Russia pushed from the east, eager for a window on the Baltic. Sweden wanted to expand southward and Poland northward. The prizes were excellent ports and harbors, great natural resources, and control of the Baltic Sea.
Livonia, ruled by ethnic Germans of the Livonian Order of Knights and comprising what is now Latvia and southern Estonia, was constantly threatened by invading barbarous Muscovites. Grand Master Gothard Kettler secured the protection of Poland against the Russians by agreeing to become a vassal under the Polish crown in 1561. King Zygmunt promised Kettler autonomous control of the southern third of Livonia, creating the Duchy of Courland (Polish: Kurlandia). It was to remain a part of the Kingdom of Poland until the latter's final partition in 1795. At one point, it would count among its military guards a young Kazimierz Pułaski.
While nominally a part of Poland, the Duchy's ties to the Kingdom were very loose. The Poles wrote and imposed a constitution and a set of statutes on Courland. But the Duchy retained the right of neutrality. It was not forced to supply soldiers for Polish wars. It did not pay taxes to the crown. And the Duke was not personally subordinated to the Polish King.
Courland's greatest leader was Duke Jacob Kettler who ruled from 1641-1682. He developed the state's industry and agriculture and turned it into a maritime power with a huge fleet that traded with countries all over the world. The little dukedom had much to offer including high quality grain, timber and iron products.
Before long Duke Jacob became interested in establishing overseas colonies to compete with the western European powerhouses. He had his eye on Tobago in the West Indies, which had previously been claimed by the Dutch. After a couple of failed attempts at colonization, in 1654 an armed Courish ship carrying soldiers and eighty families of colonists, many of them ethnic Latvians, arrived at the island. The captain claimed it for Courland. Known as New Courland, it was rapidly developed and supplied Courland with sugar, coffee, spices and tobacco. But just five years later the Dutch chased off the Courlanders. Competition among maritime powers for bases was intense.
Duke Jacob was in no position to defend Tobago. In the great war between Poland and Sweden (1655-1660), in large part fought for control of the eastern Baltic, he rejected Swedish calls to align himself with that country, which incensed Sweden to invade and almost totally destroy Courland. Jacob was taken prisoner and held for two years until the treaty of Oliwa ended the war. Courland was restored to Polish control, but it would never regain its former glory. Tobago was returned to Courland but the colony was under constant attack from the Dutch, Indians and pirates. In 1689 it was truned over to the rival British.
Also, from 1651 to 1664, Courland held St. Andrew's Island at the mouth of the Gambia River and a small piece of land on the nearby West African mainland. The Courlanders were interested in cashing in on the slave trade. From here they were also forced out by the British.
These colonies were directly under the control of the Duke of Courland. Poles never occupied nor visited them. The flag of Courland flew over their fortresses. Yet as autonomous and independent as Courland was, it was still a vassal state subject to the Polish crown. Technically, Tobago and St. Andrew's were for a short time Poland's only overseas colonies.