In 2,500BC Indo-European tribes arrive on the Baltic Sea. In Latvia the inhabitants split into several tribes: Zemgaļi, Sēļi, Latgaļi and Kurši. Among surviving tongues, Latvian and Lithuanian are the closest to the original tribal languages. The Livonians, a Finno-Ugric group, are equally ancient settlers.
12th - 15th Century
In the 1100s, German traders search for a trade route with the East. They choose Riga for its strategic location at the outlet of the Daugava and prepare to conquer with both Bible and sword. Pitched battles near Riga ensue between the invaders and Livonian settlers. A holy war against the Baltic heathens is launched.
Riga is founded in 1201, when Bishop Albert builds a castle on the site. In 1202, the military Order of the Brothers of the Sword is founded, and over the coming decades they crush and convert the warlike, but fatally divided, Latvian and Livonian tribes. The foundations of the Dome cathedral are laid in 1211. The last stand of the Latvian tribes is crushed in 1290.
Over the next 200 years, rivalry and warfare rage between the Church, the Teutonic Order, and Riga in a fight for trade and territory. The Order gains the upper hand.
German preachers bring the reformation to Latvia in 1522. Social unrest breaks out in 1524, churches are vandalised and monks are exiled from Riga.
In the Polish-Swedish war (1600 - 1629), Sweden wins northern Latvia, while the provinces of Kurzeme and Zemgale are united into a duchy loyal to the Polish-Lithuanian empire. Trade is expanded to all corners of the world: Latvian pines become masts for English warships. The duchy gains the island of Tobago, later exchanged for Gambia. During Swedish occupation schools are opened, oppression of the peasants lessened and the Bible is translated into Latvian.
From 1700 until 1721 Sweden and Russia fight for control of Livonia. At first the Swedes find success, but their armies are defeated in Moscow. The Russians occupy Latgale in 1795, and control the entire country until WWI. The wars devastate Latvia. After the Russians capture Riga in 1710, 90,000 people are left in all of Livonia.
Poverty leads to a peasant rebellion in 1802, which is brutally crushed. Another revolt, meeting a similar fate, occurs in 1840. Serfdom is abolished in Latvia between 1817 and 1819, but while Latvians are free to go where they wish, the land remains in the hands of its previous owners.
In the second half of the century, a group of Latvian students in St. Petersburg, the Jaunlatvieši (Young Latvians), forge a rebellion. Their St. Petersburg Paper, published 1862 - 1865, raises Latvian national consciousness.
One of the most significant events of this rise of national consciousness is the first all-Latvian song festival held in Riga in 1873.
Commerce and industry develop rapidly in Riga, making it the third most vital industrial city in Tsarist Russia.
This mixture of national feelings, with the demands of the new industrial proletariat, make Latvia a hot spot in the 1905 revolution. In January 24, 1905, a general strike is called and 50,000 workers protest in the streets. Eighty people are killed in clashes with Tsarist troops.
On October 30, 1905, the Tsar allows free speech and the formation of a Constituent Assembly. Two months later Russian ‘punishment brigades’ execute almost 2,000 Latvians. Many prominent citizens are forced into exile, including the national poet Janis Rainis.