(ENG) Empire-building ships and tar

Updated: Mar 28



By Liisa L. North,

Professor Emerita, York University (Toronto).


The globalization that we can date to Magallanes does not necessarily bring ship construction and peasant societies to mind. But it was the need for tar, to seal wooden ships, that drove the peasants of northern and western Finland into the global market economy. As colonial conquests expanded, the British and Dutch ship-building industries consumed more and more of the forests of Finland. Tar production for export started in the late 1500s, and the last barrel of tar was delivered in 1927, for export from the port of Oulu.


Tar involved large numbers of peasant families in cutting down forests, extracting tar in “burning pits”, to transporting it in barrels, in small boats that were rowed through the country’s extensive river and lake systems -and to its expanding network of canals- to ports on the Gulf of Bothnia. In the late 19th century, Finland’s so-called national painter, Axel Gallen-Kallela along with his fellow artist, Louis Sparre, were attracted to my home province of Kainuu, considered  to be one of the most traditional parts of the country in which the tar industry formed a very important part of the economy. There, the two artists and other fellow artists produced paintings of tar producers, but especially, of the boats and their rowers, who included women, my grandmother (according to family legend) among them.


The chapter will briefly explore aspects of the tar industry, the artistic and photographic work it inspired, as well as my grandmother’s possible life as a rower, from Kajaani to Oulu, when she was a teenager.