Cross-border E-commerce

Hamburg – City of merchants (Episode 1)

Published on 11 September 2018
Maxi Lina Weber
Maxi Lina Weber
Social Media Manager

Is it a coincidence that our company and its approach to connecting the world through trade were born in Hamburg? Probably not. Along with an entrepreneurial spirit and cosmopolitan vibe, trade has been the lifeblood of the city for centuries. We love our home city, and so we set out to show you its rich history and learn a little more about it ourselves in the process!

How it all began

Until today, much of Hamburg’s buzz centres around the rivers Elbe and Alster. Even though for most, the history of Hamburg begins with the construction of the ‘Hammaburg’ between those two rivers, there have been less permanent settlements in the area since the stone age. Before the river Alster was dammed in the 12th century and took the lake-like shape it has today, it had a ford close to which these first settlements were strategically placed as it was the only possible crossing. More permanent settlement started in the 8th century, and soon after, the fortifications of Hammaburg were built in this same area, close to where the Alster meets the Elbe. Recently, the location of the Hammaburg has been pinpointed to the Domplatz park just south of the popular shopping street Mönckebergstraße. With its location near important rivers and land trade routes, one could say Hamburg was destined to become an important trading city from its very foundation.

The ‘Domplatz’ in the city centre of Hamburg, where the original Hammaburg was located.

After defeating the Saxons, Charlemagne took charge of the area and his son, Louis I (the Pious), appointed the monk Ansgar as bishop in the 830s. From Hammaburg, he was to lead the Christianization of the tribes north of the Elbe river. But in 845, the Vikings attacked the Hammaburg, Ansgar fled to Bremen, the settlement was destroyed and much of its population enslaved. Ansgar was made bishop of Bremen as well, uniting the dioceses of Hamburg and Bremen, but he never returned to Hamburg and died in Bremen in 865. The settlement of the Hammaburg was soon rebuilt, and in 864 Pope Nicholas I. made Hamburg an archdiocese in its own right. This gave Hamburg independence from the powerful archdiocese of Cologne. Towards the end of the 9th century, the settlement grew and flourished, the fortifications were strengthened and the port expanded.

The rise of trade

Because of its location close to the borders of the Empire, Hamburg was a frequent target of attacks. Yet it was rebuilt time and time again, and trade gained in significance, while Hamburg’s religious role had diminished. The Neustadt (new town) was established west of the original settlement of the Hammaburg. It attracted more and more merchants and craftsmen and should soon become a powerful business district.

The ‘Trostbrücke’ has been connecting the old town and the new town (‘Neustadt’) since the 13th century, although the bridge we see today was built in 1881.

To secure Hamburg’s rights for the operation of its port and to strengthen its position as a trading town, the emperor Frederick Barbarossa allegedly granted the town customs and trading privileges. However, it is now assumed that the emperor died before he could sign any such document, so it was subsequently falsified and backdated, and to this day the famous Hafengeburtstag (harbour birthday) is celebrated on the date of the counterfeit document (May 7th, 1189). Nevertheless, these privileges were crucial for Hamburg’s success as a trading town and secured its dominion over the Elbe river, an important route for trade with Flanders, England and Scandinavia. Fun fact: the so-called ‘Barbarossa-privilege’ also served to override a staple right granted to the nearby town of Stade in 1259, which forced all merchants to offer their goods for sale there before being allowed to proceed on their journey. It was only in 2009 that the mayors of the two cities formally made peace, even though of course, the little trade war between them had already ended long before.

Charlemagne (on the left) and Frederick I (‘Barbarossa’, on the right) above the entrance of Hamburg’s town hall.

During the 13th and 14th century, the city council of Hamburg secured an increasing number of privileges and acquired large stretches of land from the noble ruling Schauenburg family. It took control of trade on the lower Elbe river and drove the development of new areas, such as the island Neuwerk. The harbour, then still located in the Alster river, grew, and from approximately 1291 a loading crane helped to improve efficiency. Corn, fabrics, wood and metal were the most important goods traded in the harbour at the time, and during the 14th century the town’s brewery sector was thriving, making beer one of Hamburg’s most important exports. It was also during this time that Hamburg strengthened its ties with the rapidly growing city of Lübeck, a strategically important gate to the Baltic sea. Initially, they only worked together to protect the increasingly important trade routes connecting them, but soon they decided on a shared currency and often collaborated closely on foreign affairs. Together, they secured trading privileges from the areas of Flanders, England and Sweden, and grew into a union of trading cities that should become famous as the Hanseatic League.

Sources: Geschichtsbuch Hamburg, Hamburger Abendblatt: Barbarossas Freibrief, Hamburger Abendblatt: Hamburg & Stade, Hamburger Sammelsurium: Trostbrücke

Maxi Lina Weber
Maxi Lina Weber
Social Media Manager