The first settlers on the island of Saaremaa that emerged from the sea at the end of the Ice Age, were most probably seals who came nesting at Viidumäe. As the climate was warming up, the soil, flora and fauna appeared as well as first seal-hunters. As a result of the uplift of the earth crust, the area and the population of the island became larger. Saaremaa grew into the best developed part of Ancient Estonia. The last vikings of the Baltic Sea were kure-people and the people from Saaremaa who had their main harbour at Kihelkonna.
At the North-Eastern corner of the Suur Katel (Big Kettle) Bay, a harbour and marketplace appeared in the 13th century when South-Saaremaa belonged to Riga and formed a link in the Baltic Sea trade routes chain. The overseas trade lasted until the uprising of the St. George’s night when the worriers of Saaremaa were deprived of arms, their boats were destroyed and preparations to construct a bishopric fortification were started. The fortification was ready in 1243.
The harbour (Hafen Arensburg) came to a new life under the Danish rule. In 1625, a powerful trading company with 42 shareholders was established and its first merchant ship was bought.
Yet at the beginning of the Swedish rule, over 30 big merchant ships a year, mainly from the Netherlands, visited the harbour. In addition, 60-70 schooners with smaller shiploads from Saaremaa and Kurland eneterd the harbour. 830 units (unit= app. 2 tons) of grain were taken out from the harbour in 1648. Since Sweden did not manage to sustain crossing the Danish straits free, the turnover of the harbour started dropping. Bonuses were provided to bigger ships only. A so-called fully free (helfriet in Swedish) ship was provided a bonus of one third. With the trading company stopping its activity in 1664, the importance of the trade harbour became less and the shallow-sea harbour could not be used for military purposes.
It was necessary to know the fairway to the harbour very well, in order not to hit the seabed rock. Along the coast there is a dangerous underwater steep rock, next to which lies a natural groove – Aksliauk or Achelhöhle in German that means an armpit. The name comes from the shape of the groove that was used by ships throughout centuries.
The Russia of Peter I, as all other sea powers, had its own 0-meridian and that passed Kuressaare. Under the Russian rule, trade became feeble and thus, the recession of Kuressaare harbour deepened. Connections with Europe got cut and integration with Russia developed very slowly. At the same time, the earth crust kept lifting and the sea backing away.
At the beginning of the 19th century only about twenty ships visited Kuressaare harbour. In 1837-1846, in average 10,000 setverts (1 setvert=26.2 litres) of rye and over 8,000 setverts of barley were taken out of the harbour. An important export article was vodka, over 9,000 buckets (1 bucket=12.3 litres) of vodka a year were taken from Saaremaa to Russia. Salt was the main article taken to Saaremaa, the need made one pood (16kg) of salt per islander a year.
Only in 1857, after a break of more than 200 years, the harbour reached the level it had had during the final years under the Danish rule. That year the first passenger steamboats with holiday-visitors anchoraged off shore and Kuressaare became a health resort of all-Russian importance.
Source: Kalle Kesküla