Back from the Walloon country

Just back in Uppsala from our trip to the Walloon iron-making area, full of images of elegant country houses with water features and gardens within a few hundred metres of locations for hard dirty manual labour and pokey rooms, “labbies” where the work force slept during the working week. Were the country houses a later addition? I must try and check this.

I was also struck by the time scale. Iron-working facilities from the mid-seventeenth century, with well-resourced foreign entrepreneurs, swiftly naturalised, who imported skilled labour for rapid technical progress, recruited on the basis of contracts with paid travel and compensation fixed in money terms. This was at least two hundred years before Sweden industrialised in earnest.

It would be interesting to know what these early entrepreneurs did with their accumulated resources.

Part of the key to understanding this is that, although private entrepreneurs were used, the process was driven by the Crown (State) with the aim of providing funds and weaponry for Sweden’s ambitions to be a great European power. The main emphasis in other words is on obtaining articles of use rather than on the circulation of capital in search of continual expansion. It looks like full-blown capitalism with an industrial proletariat, technical advances, large sums invested but it isn’t.

It’s not clear from my sources the extent to which the De Geers had a monopoly of iron working in the areas where they were active. According to Kilbom’s “Vallonerna”, there seem to have been competitors and the poaching of imported labour was a problem. The Walloons were better compensated than the surrounding rural workers (unclear to what extent money was used for the latter or whether they rented farms partly in return for days of labour). The introduction by the De Geers of a certificate of good conduct as a prerequisite for employment gives an indication that the Walloon labour force may have engaged in collective activities not to their employer’s taste.

It took a long time before the Walloons were integrated into Swedish society. I’d like to know more about the social relations in the countryside. Local labour was needed by the Walloon enterprises for transport and preparing charcoal stacks, among other things. Who provided this labour and on what conditions and how was it compensated (tenant farmers with an obligation to provide labour?). I’ve read that Sweden didn’t experience a fully-developed feudal mode of production but I’d like to know more about what this description is based on and what it meant.

I found much of interest in Karl Kilbom’s “Vallonerna”, which, although it has considerable limitations (no footnotes), does take up interesting questions.

I couldn’t place him to start with but later realised that Kilbom was one of the founders of the Swedish Communist Party (before falling out of favour with the stalinists in the 1930s and eventually moving back to social democracy). He was of Walloon descent himself and this book was written late in life.

Kilbom writes a lot about the reasons for the Walloons coming to Sweden, and how this at one time was integrated into an anti-catholic dialogue, the Walloons being persecuted protestants finding a safe haven in protestant Sweden. I think he’s right to be critical of this perspective (the emphasis given to the religious aspects) although it would have been easier to convince me if he had not been so eager to prove the primacy of economic factors.

He also describes the changing attitudes of the Swedish church on how to deal with Calvinism among the immigrants and how the church was restrained from imposing orthodoxy if it led to discontent and turbulence among imported labour (at least until Queen Kristina’s flight to Rome, when there was a general tightening up of religious orthodoxy).

I found a closed museum of metallurgy but no museum which took up the history of the Walloon immigrants, their impact on the Swedish economy with a critical approach to the issues involved. Perhaps there is one – it was hard to judge as much was currently not open. But my general impression was that much more could be made of an area that is of great pedagogic, social and aesthetic interest, which at present has rather weak transport links and where it requires effort to extract information.

It’s anyway a good sign to return from a trip with more questions than when starting. And I feel in pleasantly good form after a week with a high level of physical activity (cycling and walking).

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