Learn more about Hanseatic trade and the harbor.

Hanseatic traders
In the Middle Ages, merchants normally traveled with their goods. In the 15th century, the nature of trade began to change. Ships could carry significantly more goods, and often a merchant would own more than one ship or had a share in several ships through trading partnerships. It was increasingly less common, therefore, that a merchant could attend every transaction. From the 14th century, there were so-called "counting houses" in Hamburg. These were the local offices of the originally Hanseatic traders in various port cities.

If a merchant, banker, or money-changer died, his widow or one of his daughters would often continue the business. This picture dates from the first half of the 17th century. It was painted by Jurian Jacobsz, an artist who was born in Hamburg but made his career in Holland. It shows an elderly lady counting and weighing out gold coins.

Unlike silver coins, which were usually only valid in a particular region or town, gold coins were mainly used for large payments in international trade. Each gold coin had a high value. It was important to check that the coins were the correct weight, because gold coins in particular often had their edges snipped or were forgeries.

In those days, people did not yet count using the Arabic digits that we use today, but still used Roman numerals. They had a system of vertical lines showing the different values, on which traders performed calculations using their own tokens.

The merchant's office that we see in the museum is a two-story reconstruction of a special type of building for foreign traders based in Hamburg, Bremen, or Lübeck. Until the end of the 18th century, they were used by wealthy merchants and their employees as an all-in-one residence, place of work, and warehouse. Now that virtually all the original merchants' houses have been lost, it gives us an impression of the lives and homes of the upper classes in the period between 1650 and 1700.

Have a look around the merchant's office and house!

The shipwreck of Hamburg, Wittenbergen
Where there is war, there is money to be made—that was no less true in 1600 than it is today. At that time the Netherlands were fighting for their independence from the Spanish crown, and munitions and food were traded via the neutral Hamburg. Dutch ships patrolled the River Elbe trying to capture weapons smugglers on their way to Spain. A large part of the cargo of this ship which sank nearly 400 years ago was recovered but the artifacts found do not reveal any secrets about the ship's demise.

Shipwrights' tools, cargo for unknown recipients—bowls and knife blades from southern Germany—, and weapons which, if smuggled, were probably the reason why the ship was sunk, were found in the shipwreck. Judging from the seal stamp and counting tokens, there must also have been a merchant on board.

All of these things were found in the shipwreck. Take a look around!

Hamburg as the Centre of Trade
Both politically and economically, Hamburg experienced a massive upturn in the 17th century. From the middle of the 16th century there had been a general increase in shipping on the North Sea, but Hamburg also opened up brand new sea routes. Ships now sailed directly to England, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain, and served all Mediterranean ports. The resulting trade brought immense wealth to Hamburg. 

Hamburg's convoy ships from that time are of an almost unsurpassed elegance. The huge warships that the town built in the 17th and 18th centuries to protect the trading ships were fearsome. There was nothing comparable anywhere in the world in terms of their design and weaponry. At the same time, they also symbolized a confident community which combined well-fortified protection with prestige.

No expense was spared by Hamburg's Admiralty and merchants when it came to building the Wapen von Hamburg III, which was launched in 1722. The ship was based on English designs of that period. If you look in through the window in the stern of the model, you will see that the interior was also opulently decorated.

The floating Baroque palaces we talk of today have a basis in reality. On voyages to Cadiz and Lisbon, the captain of the Wapen von Hamburg, Martin Tamm, held numerous receptions and gala dinners on board. Influential military officers, diplomats, and governors were all regular guests.


The "Grönlandfahrt" (Greenland Journey) was the name given to the dangerous work of whaling during the summer months in the Arctic Ocean. Parts of the whales would subsequently be processed on dry land to produce "train oil" (whale oil) and whalebone. In Hamburg, the main era of whaling began in 1644 when the city had privileged rights. If you worked for the right person, a lot of money could be earned in a short time. In this painting from 1680, during the heyday of whaling in Hamburg, the dangerous task looks relatively innocuous. However, the hounded animal would often turn on its pursuers. A blow from its mighty tail fin could capsize lightweight boats or even break them into pieces.

Once a whale had been slain, the process of utilizing the corpse would begin alongside the whaling vessel. Some of the crew would climb down on to the animal and cut out the layer of blubber with big knives. The fat was packed in barrels and later, on dry land, boiled up to make oil that was burnt in the dim lamps which served as a light source for large parts of Hamburg's population for centuries.

The whale's fan-shaped shoulder blades were used for many years to make inn signs and gave the "Schulterblattstrasse" (Shoulder-blade Street) in Hamburg its name.

Not only will you find the name-giving wale's shoulderblade the so-called "Zunftsaal" at Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte but also plenty of other objects!


To protect the trading ships from attacks by pirates, Hamburg's merchants came together to build heavily armed frigates as escort vessels. They called their first convoy ship "Leopold Primus" after the Holy Roman Emperor of the time. This painting shows the ship moored on the Elbe in front of the Hamburg city skyline, framed by another two tall sailing ships. This view of the city from the Elbe is typical of how Hamburg was portrayed from the middle of the 17th century. Seen like this from the water, Hamburg styled itself as a wealthy, well-fortified trading city.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, shipping was threatened by North African pirates. Hamburg lost 50 ships between 1719 and 1747, and 682 sailors were sold into slavery by pirates.
The humble sailors stand there like little statues, their begging hands folded in front of them, awaiting their cruel fate.

As early as 1622, a kind of ransom insurance system was established in Hamburg for captains and navigators, the so-called "Casse der Stücke von Achten".

Before setting out on a voyage, every crew member would pay in a certain sum to the fund so that their freedom could be bought if they were captured by pirates. However, for ordinary sailors, the sum was impossibly high. Soon, though, a similar insurance policy, known as the "Hamburger Sklavenkasse" (Hamburg Slave Fund), was set up for them, too.

It consisted mainly of donations which were used to free the men. Boxes for donations, depicting these figures, would be found in churches.

Harbor before the Great Fire

This model shows how Hamburg looked before the Great Fire of 1842: an early industrial port city, still with no railway service, but instead with a sheltered port upstream on the Elbe for tall ocean-going ships. For safety reasons, the steamships, which were innovative in their time, had their own landing stages further down the Elbe. There were no quay walls in the harbor. Instead, the ships would moor at so-called "Duckdalben," consisting usually of several massive oak piles rammed into the harbor's seabed. It was not only on and around the water that the city was growing. Although the center was still dominated by narrow medieval alleyways and cramped backyards, new residential areas were developing on the outskirts. On the Wandrahm island, to the left of the docks, we can see the Baroque residences that, 40 years later, had to give way to the Speicherstadt warehouse district which is there today.

At the start of the industrial era, most of the work in Hamburg's docks was still done by hand. New sailing ships were built on the Grasbrook and it took numerous winches and a lot of muscle power to drag damaged ships on to dry land for repair. This labor-intensive work required not only actual shipwrights but also a huge unskilled workforce.

How the "Reeperbahn" got its name

The Reeperbahn, which is nearly a kilometer long, is still the most famous street in Hamburg's red-light district, St. Pauli. At the beginning of the 17th century, rope makers began to settle here on public land outside the gates, between Hamburg and Altona. In seafaring, a "Reep" was a rope or hawser. Making a rope like this required a stretch of straight road about 300 meters long.

The fibers would be twisted together on these long ropewalks, and counter-twisted—under great tension—alternately to the left and to the right. Ropes were in great demand: a single sailing ship about 50 meters long would need about 6000 meters of rope of different thicknesses.

Credits: Story

Projektkoordination und Umsetzung: Anna Symanczyk, Martina Fritz
Texte: SHMH
Fotos: SHMH

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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