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Denmark - Aero Island

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Aeroe History

The history of Aeroe Island and Archaeological excavations prove settlements going back to earlier than 8000 BC. There are some burial mounds on the island, as well as an old Ting place. Relics of antiquity are found all over the island. Burial mounds, passage graves, and dolmens bear witness of human activity through more than 10,000 years.

In Aeroe's new history, especially the period of the duchies is of interest. During this period - from the 14th century to the year 1864 - Aeroe was united and separated, alternately, in a number of enclaves. Aeroe was outside the tariff wall of the Kingdom, leading to flourishing smuggling which was a way of living for many of Aeroe 's inhabitants. In 1629 the main town of Aeroeskoebing burnt down in a great fire. There was no other disaster of comparable scale. In 1750 the island, previously split in exclaves of numerous duchies, was united as single administrative district.

Until 1864, Aeroe was part of the Danish Duchy of Schleswig - the area of Schleswig/South Jutland is now divided between Denmark (Northern Schleswig) and Germany (Southern Schleswig). King Christian IV's cousin, also named Christian, was the Duke of Aeroe from 1622 to 1633, and lived with his concubine Cathrine Griebels at Gråsten Manor House.

When the Duke died, a banner was found at Gråsten composed of nine pieces of cloth and in three colours - body colour, sea green, and golden yellow. This banner has provided the inspiration to the flag of Aeroe which is seen today all over the island. When Duke Christian died, Aeroe was distributed among four of his brothers, and this offers one explanation of why two towns developed in the island - Aeroeskoebing and later on Marstal that each came to be in their own "country".
Gråsten Manor House was abolished in 1766 and the buildings were demolished. The name of Gråsten is still alive today in the farmhouse that stands almost on the same spot as the ducal manor. Gråsten of today offers bed and breakfast accommodation.

Aeroe history records show: Aeroe Island was united in 1750

Aeroe history records also show that it has not since been separated. This is marked by the memorial stone at Olde Mølle (English = Old mill). At the union, the old Code of Jutland from 1241 was applied and even today some of those rules are still valid. In recent history, the fight for survival as an outskirt area is the most important element. The solidarity between the inhabitants of Aeroe was clearly shown in the year 2000, as a movement among the inhabitants saved Marstal Maritime School from closing down. More than two thousand inhabitants travelled to Copenhagen to protest against this, and the politicians were convinced. The Maritime School survived.

» Read full history-article here. By Erik B. Kromann - Marstal Maritime Museum
Episodes from the history of Ærø:
There are substantial differences in dialects and culture among the inhabitants of Ærø, and the is- land itself alternates in landscapes of varying beauty. Above all the island has remained an island. An island must be reached by boat - the feeling of it vanishes if you have to cross a bridge to get there. Down through the Ages people have lived on Ærø. Some of the earliest traces of Danish ancestry are found on the island. At the termination of the Ice Age the sun nursed a meek growth that was ideal for reindeers and in turn attracted hunters. More than 11.000 years ago a horde of trappers roamed about the island. A proof of their existence is a depositary of arrow-heads found at Ommelshoved.
The find is exhibited in the maritime museum of Marstal among many proofs of human presence in the course of time. A dozen burial mounds across the island are a small section of at least 250 that have been traced.
A report from the past that the island was always comparatively densely populated. Another visible sign of past activity are the many banks and ramparts. These defensive constructions were built as a safeguard against the Wends who their expeditions from their native place, the north-coast of Germany. The Wends themselves were pushed forward by their southern neighbours, and they practised their looting with such intensity that many parts of southern Denmark became desolate. The inhabitants were robbed, extorted contributions from and suppressed - many were enslaved and villages set on fire. Only a few locations could manage real resistance, in other places the Wends settled which certain place names suggests. On Ærø it is believed that the Vindeballe settlement is established by these obtrusive new arrivals.

The Arkona Castle on Rygen, which also was the setting of the temple for the God Svantevit, fell after the Danish King Valdemar the Great and the expedition of bishop Absalon in 1167. Still years after the Wends attacked southern Denmark many times, but now Ærø had good defence constructions like the rampart at Søbygaard from 1100. There was also a great castle at Graasten cove (demolished) from 1318, and a third rampart at Stokkeby cove. Ærø was in other words rather exposed and had to be fortified. A fact that commanded royal interest and it is likely that the island from this time and age became the personal property of the King. That meant perceptible changes as the King disposed of the island as he saw fit. It was within his power to give parts of the island away, land could be inherited by various relatives in opposition to Crown-lands that belonged to the King only. In short, Ærø was open to juggling - and that happened. Some twenty years after the fall of Svantevit a good friend of King Valdemar was presented with a substantial part of the island. Not for long as they shortly after became unfriendly.

A longer lasting change occurred when the margraves of Brandenburg obtained the island as dowry in 1232. The margraves founded villages in their districts, and it is likely that they established Ærøskøbing in mid 13th century. The ground-plan of the city is similar to the cities founded by the Brandenburgers in northern Germany around the same period. The age of the margraves ceased in 1315 when Laurids Jonsen, one of the Kings knights, was presented with the island. In the year 1331 it came under the reign of count Gert, and until 1864 it was most of the time in the hands of the Slesvig duchies. Thus Ærø was always under Danish colours - also following 1864 when the neighbouring island Als was occupied by the Germans after the war with Denmark. The period of the duchies had far-reaching consequences through the partition of the island into four parts in 1634, and three separate duchies in the year following. Most significant was the collapse of the trade monopoly of Ærøskøbing - although the market town was promised that its privileges would continue. The east and northern parts of the island thus had an opportunity to participate in trade and shipping.
A possibility the people of Marstal seized with great expediency. Their eastern point, Erikshale, gave shelter to the Baltic and presented a natural harbour inhabited by a comparatively numerous population of fishermen. The Duke to whom this part of the island belonged allowed the proprietor of his farm "Gudsgave", to sell farm products to these fishermen who resold them in the Kingdom and the duchies. They were easily accessible through the channel to the Baltic that originally founded the settlement. This channel is still of great importance and dredged concurrently with the development in time towards larger vessels.

The people of Marstal were very active which often made them fall out with the authorities. All trade was supposed to pass through the privileged market towns - which Marstal was not - and this ircumstance resulted in vivid illicit traffic. Also there was the odd consequence of the nationality of the island that the ships from Ærø were regarded Danish in the duchies - and Slesvig duchy in the Kingdom. That meant something in relation to harbour fees and customs duties, and in fact placed Ærø in an unfortunate position to the Dutchmen who were permitted equal terms with the Danes. As far as the town privileges were concerned they were comparatively easy to evade. The privileges made goods expensive, and the farmers were more than willing to by-pass regulations that cost themselves money. So Ærøskøbing with its monopoly often complained about the trade of Marstal, and so did at one time all the market towns of the islands Lolland and Falster. Understandably as the tonnage of their towns were decreasing at the speed Marstal increased theirs. The illicit trade was the foundation of Marstal and thus both recognised and accepted by the people themselves. A circumstance that lasted until 1729 when the two points Gudsgave and Søbygaard passed on to the King. The central part of the island followed in 1750, and from that year Ærø was united. Again Marstal exploited the situation of being recognised as royal vessels some twenty years before Ærøskøbing obtained the same privilege.
Around 1750 Ærø appeared much different from today. The farms were joined in villages as from time immemorial, and the land was cultivated by inexpedient methods that did not reach the standards of the rest of the country. The peasants were impoverished by the war with Sweden in 1658-59, when the occupying armies had exploited and looted the population. A catastrophe that it took years to overcome. Most of the old forests were felled, including Gudsgave, and what was left i.e. at Borgnæs the Swedes chopped up as firewood. They left a ruined landscape and did not even spare the timber of the buildings and houses.

A major part of the farmland was managed by four estates through villeinage, but in the 1760'es the government parted with them and they were divided into smaller lots - with the exception of a couple of larger farms. These smaller lots were hired to the local population against annual fees. In 1767 the estates of Graasten and Voderup were sold, the farms demolished and the same year Gudsgave burned down to the ground and the land was leased the following year. In 1772 the same leasing system happened to Søbygaard, leaving only part of the land to the farm itself.

The next decade brought the reformation of agriculture in Denmark, which meant that the island could support a larger population. On the 10th of January 1787 the King Christian the VIIth donated the copyhold farms of the island to the copyholds themselves free of charge!
The favourable conditions of trade and shipping towards the turning of the century meant simultaneous prosperity to Marstal and Ærøskøbing, both expanded their commercial fleets. In Ærøskøbing the town square and the church were placed in the centre of the town by the Brandenburger margraves.
Through the years its many merchants and high officials added beautiful town houses to the city. Many of which are protected today and adds to the unique atmosphere of Ærøskøbing.
Somewhat different was the ground-plan - or rather the lack of it - in the rapidly expanding maritime community on the eastern corner of the island. The harbour was the centre of building activities, and in itself protected by banks of sand and natural shelter.
For years it was left at that, but as the fleet of sailing ships and schooners grew, a giant breakwater building began in 1825. Founded on voluntary labour it featured dock space and quays and created the profile Marstal displays today. The town did not grow around a square or a church, its houses were simply erected along the paths leading upwards from the jetties. As the town grew transverse ring-roads were added, and the narrowness of the settlement often meant that the houses were placed somewhat coincidentally.

The frugal maritime population did not erect resplendent buildings, a consequence of which none of the houses in Marstal are protected by law today. The significance of the town is the manyfold, uncivilised, colourful charm of it. In naval respects Marstal became the dominating factor.
In 1864 the old ties to the duchies and Slesvig ceased, the island was again incorporated in the Kingdom and the duchies became foreign states. The extensive shipping in this part of the Baltic suffered by this, but it meant no decline to Marstal. They looked outwards, building larger ships - and the passage of the Marstal schooners on the seven seas became factual. The jagt, a small chubby vessel with one mast, had up till then been almost absolute. Now it was gradually supplemented by 2- masted schooners and schoonerbrigs - and the jagt was lengthened to ketches. From the 1880'es they built 3-mast vessels, the barkentines were deployed in the South American traffic, and the characteristic jagt-built hulls were frequent visitors in ports all over the world. Shipyard after shipyard were built, at one time 8 of them were in operation. In the 1890'es the fleet culminated with about 340 sailing ships - an impressive sight in the harbour, and crucial to the economy of the town itself.
The First World War put an end to optimism and changed the glorious maritime traditions of Marstal. 42 ships from Marstal were sunk at the loss of 53 seamen, and a new phenomenon was appearing - the steamships. The inter-war period was a constant fight to survive and the sailing ships were superseded from their last ports of call. Only the dangers of the New Foundland trade was too hostile and uneconomical for the enterprising steamships. A large fleet of two-and threemasted schooners from Marstal operated in these parts along the extensive coasts of Labrador and New Foundland. Over there the small schooners and their crews became better known than in the country they set out from. But a major part of the well over 100 Marstal schooners that crossed the Atlantic ocean from 1900-30 became prey of the sea. Nature is rough - and so are the deeds of Man.

The Second World War deprived the small naval community of 80 of its young boys and seamen. In spite of this the island has maintained itself in Danish shipping. More than a fifth of the Danish coaster-fleet is registered in Marstal, and one of the two nautical schools of the country is situated there. A pillar in Marstal, a pillar for the island. The fishing town of Søby is also part of the recent history of the island. Its shipyard is the biggest place of work on the island, and the port is in constant development. An optimistic signal for the future of Ærø.

Erik B. Kromann
Marstal Maritime Museum



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