The Dichotomy of Insularity and the Case of Hailuoto

Having just returned from a few days spent around the Øresund, the strait that, only 2.5 miles wide at its narrowest, connects modern-day Denmark and Sweden, this guest blog by Outi Korhonen, a doctoral student at the University of Oulu in Finland, gives much needed depth and clarity to several themes on which I am no expert, but which are crucial to the history of the Baltic region.  Ice – in particular the duration, thickness and reliability of marine ice cover – is a key consideration when it comes to understanding of coastal communities in littoral and island communities throughout the Baltic, and especially to its north. For this reason, I’m delighted to be publishing this post by Outi, whose very well-received paper at the Firths and Fjords conference focused on the historical interaction between people and environment as regards the island community of Hailuoto in the Gulf of Bothnia. Her contribution below takes us to Hailuoto during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and accounts for the influence of what was a challenging and dynamic marine, island and coastal environment, on human settlement and community development. (David)


The uniting and dividing nature of the sea has been a central topic in Maritime History, as well as in the emerging field of Coastal History, regarding which unifying features have been especially highlighted. Wide-reaching marine contacts seem to be one of  the most important characteristics defining coastal regions and communities.[1] The theme is of paramount importance to one such group, islanders, since their mobility is completely dependent on the ability to cross the sea, and so related discussions have been going on in Island Studies also. Generally, it has been agreed that islands are not wholly insular, in the broadest sense, with their historical experience being characterised, in fact, by a paradoxical contradiction between openness and isolation.[2]


A useful tool in dealing with the dualistic nature of islands is the ‘dichotomy of insularity’, a concept introduced by Louis Sicking, and which addresses the need to position islands and islanders somewhere along a spectrum between insularity and connectivity. By comparing several case studies of island history, Sicking has discovered some relevant topics concerning islands’ connectedness.[3] In terms of concrete case studies, an interesting example is the island of Hailuoto, which is located on the eastern coast of, and almost at the far end of, the Gulf of Bothnia, the most northern arm of the Baltic Sea. Both environmental conditions and political factors have limited the development of maritime contacts there.


In this northern climate, seasonal changes have had an exceptionally strong influence on the lives of islanders. As a brackish ‘inland’ sea, the salinity in the Baltic Sea is low, and, in this section, the sea freezes for months every winter. Weather, and icy conditions in particular, create a seasonal rhythm to life. During the summers and autumns, until November, the fishermen used to sail to their fishing camps on many smaller islands around the gulf. In the winter, Hailuoto residents used the ice cover as a highway to the mainland, mainly to the closest Ostrobothnian coast, while they could also cross the gulf to the Swedish side. The ice was relied upon to transport timber from the mainland by horse, an activity which would have been much more troublesome by boat. However, between the periods of open sea and of thick ice cover, there were dangerous phases of thin ice, which could last for months, and for islanders this meant total isolation. No news or post arrived on the island, dwellers could not always join the gatherings of the district court on the mainland, or get help when needed, as in the spring of 1847, when there was an epidemic of typhoid fever on the island and no doctors or medicine were available for nearly two months. Not a word of islanders’ distress was heard on the mainland until the ice broke and began to melt.




A mercantilistic trade policy meant also political restrictions to mobility. Seafaring was limited by the so-called Bothnian staple constraint. The Swedish authorities forbade all the port towns on the Gulf of Bothnia from sending ships south of Stockholm or Turku or to receive foreign vessels. This restriction had existed since the Middle Ages, and in the early seventeenth century the policy was tightened still further, so that all sailing to the Gulf of Bothnia north of Gävle and Turku was forbidden for foreigners. For Stockholm, the Swedish capital, the policy aimed to reinforce its position as a commercial centre, and to retain the Gulf of Bothnia as its hinterland.[4] At that time, some of the Hailuoto peasants shipped their products – such as sealskins, blubber, butter and whitefish – to the capital, which dominated the trade completely. Yet there was discontent among Bothnian merchants regarding the staple constraint. Finally, in 1765, following many questions and complaints in the parliament (Riksdag), the Bothnian towns gained the right to sail directly to foreign ports albeit foreign vessels were not allowed to arrive at the ports of the Gulf until 1812. Step by step, the closest port towns to Hailuoto, Oulu and Raahe, began to export their main product, pine tar, beyond Stockholm, to the North Sea, Mediterranean and across oceans.[5] When marine trade picked up in the area, sea marks, charts and piloting were needed, and this provided additional employment for the inhabitants of Hailuoto. Ships passing by Hailuoto also used the bays of the island as anchorages.



At the same time as trade was freed up, peasant shipping from Hailuoto to Stockholm came to an end. The reason mentioned in the sources was a lack of timber: it was not possible to build seaworthy vessels anymore. However, the islanders still took part in coastal trade by carrying freights close to the shores of the Gulf of Bothnia. The most important form of mobility remained travelling to the various fishing camps, until this too was hindered by a major political change: in the 1809 peace treaty between Sweden and Russia, the border between these two came as far as the gulf. The most important fisheries were left on the Swedish side, which was a crisis for the inhabitants of Hailuoto. Later they regained the fishing rights, but fishing probably never fully returned to its former extent.[6]


According to Sicking, further case studies of islands are needed to make comparative island history possible. I agree with this: while working on my dissertation on the environmental history of Hailuoto, I have been looking for case studies of island history to use for international comparison. In many respects Hailuoto is a unique and original island, and it is easier to demonstrate its distinctive features than what it holds in common with other islands. Still, I think this is one of the most important and intriguing tasks in my research:  to find out what connects Hailuoto with other, each in their own way unique, islands of the world.

[1] See, for example, Sarah Palmer, ʻThe Maritime World in Historical Perspective’, International Journal of Maritime History 23 (1) (2011), p.1; David Kirby, Merja-Liisa Hinkkanen, The Baltic and the North Seas (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 1–3; Michael Pearson, ʻLittoral Society: The Concept and the Problems’, Journal of World History 17(4), (2006), pp. 353–354.

[2] Godfrey Baldacchino, ʻThe Coming of Age of Island Studies’, Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, 95 (3), (2004), p. 274; Godfrey Baldacchino, ʻIslands – Objects of Representation’, Geografiska Annaler 87B(4), (2005), p. 248; Godfrey Baldacchino, ʻIsland Landscapes and European Culture: An  ʻIsland Studies’ Perspective’, Journal of Marine and Island Cultures, 2, (2013), p. 16; Gloria Pungetti, ʻIslands, Culture, Landscape and Seascape’, Journal of Marine and Island Cultures, 1, (2012), pp. 51–52.

[3] Louis Sicking, ʻThe Dichotomy of Insularity: Islands between Isolation and Connectivity in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, and Beyond’, International Journal of Maritime History 26(3), (2011), pp. 494–511.

[4] Ulla Ehrensvärd, ʻMare Balticum – Cultural Cross-Swells’, in Ulla Ehrensvärd, Pellervo Kokkonen, Juha Nurminen, eds., Mare Balticum. The Baltic – Two Thousand Years (Helsinki: John Nurminen Foundation, 1995), p. 132.

[5] Yrjö Kaukiainen, A History of Finnish Shipping (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 33–35.

[6] Information about Hailuoto is based on archival material used in my forthcoming dissertation.


One thought on “The Dichotomy of Insularity and the Case of Hailuoto

  1. In more recent times too the ice has sometimes been a highway, occasionally allowing East Germans to drive a Trabant across the ice to Sweden and freedom


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