Ostrobothnia is the largest of Finland’s historical provinces. The different regions of its vast area have always had their own local distinctive features. Often, however, the whole Ostrobothnian mentality becomes defined through South Ostrobothnian mentality in particular. Why is that?
CLOSE CONNECTIONS TO THE WEST
Ostrobothnia’s connections to the west have always been close. Up until 1809, Ostrobothnian regions continued to the Swedish side in the counties of Norrbotten and Västerbotten. Since then, Österbotten was a single large province until the end of the 19th century. The seclusion of the province lasted for a long time. It only became part of the Finland we know today during the 19th century.
Ostrobothnians are frequently associated with strong mental images of entrepreneurship, independent peasantry, rebelliousness, a desire to show off, and patriotism. What is the history behind them?
The roots of the mental images extend back to the 16th century Cudgel War, one of the biggest peasant uprisings in Europe, where Ostrobothnian peasants organised a military uprising against the increasing power of the nobility. The majority of the leaders were South Ostrobothnian. The Cudgel War was one of the reasons why actual serfdom did not exist in Finland and Sweden unlike in much of the rest of Europe. Land ownership has been of major significance in South Ostrobothnia throughout history, and everything that has threatened it – the nobility, wars, falling out of the land-owning class, or communism – has provoked a fierce defensive reaction.
Wealth has come from different sources at different times – from fur, sailing and trading, tar burning, bog clearing – and been backed by successfully keeping farms in own hands. Ostrobothnia was a peasant province where the nobility never succeeded in establishing itself to any major extent.
Diligence and entrepreneurship brought not only merit but also community appreciation. Ostrobothnian carpenters established their reputation as shipbuilders, church builders and builders of handsome houses. The biggest peasant houses were built in South Ostrobothnia. In terms of splendour, they outshined many of the regular manor houses elsewhere.
A staggering number of South Ostrobothnians who emigrated to America proved their work ethic in forestry sites, buildings, mines and households. Many of those who returned brought with them enough money to buy a farm of their own, to improve an existing one, or to set up a new business.
The Battle of Napue in Isokyrö, Southern Ostrobothnia in 1714 was the last major land battle in the Great Northern War (1700–21), which ended Sweden’s position as a great power. The involvement of peasant militia in the battle marked a great exception to the methods of warfare of the era. The Russian occupier destroyed the strategically important Ostrobothnian coast within a radius of one hundred kilometres, extending all the way to inland, burning down towns and villages, looting, torturing and murdering, and capturing hundreds of people to slavery. The resulting seven-year military occupation became known as the Great Wrath, leavings scars that were remembered through the centuries that followed.
In the Finnish War of 1808–09, Sweden lost much of the Ostrobothnian territories and Finland to Russia, out of which Tsar Alexander II formed an autonomous Grand Duchy. In Sweden, the king was exiled and replaced by the first king of the present Bernadotte family.
The häjy knife-fighter and criminal phenomenon that grew in South Ostrobothnia during the 19th century was not solely considered a bad thing, as the häjys also defied the Russian officialdom. ‘The ancient foe’ was not viewed in a good light, especially during the periods of Russification that began in the late 19th century, with Russia seeking to end Finland’s autonomy and make the country a part of Russia. There was strong support for the pursuit of independence in Ostrobothnia. In 1914, the Jaeger movement was started, which was a secret operation to transport Finnish men to military training in Germany. Southern Ostrobothnia was a major support area for Jaeger recruitment, and about 40% of all those who left to become Jaegers were Ostrobothnians. The goal was armed resistance to support Finland’s independence.
Russian soldiers in Lapua commercial street. Photo taken between 1912 – 1917.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 had already caused Finland to become independent when the Jaegers returned via Ostrobothnia. The situation had changed, with the Finnish Reds who supported communism wanting a revolution in Finland as well, and this led to the Civil War. During the Civil War of 1918, the Finnish White Senate and army headquarters withdrew to South Ostrobothnia, where the disarmament of Russian soldiers who supported the Reds was started. Acknowledged as a new peasant chief, Matti Laurila with his sons rose from the Lapua White Guard.
Digging a ditch in Lapua Alajoki.
Led from Russia, communism in Finland was still perceived as a threat after the Civil War. For this reason, the anti-communist Lapua movement, which started in South Ostrobothnia in 1929 and remained active until 1932, received strong nationwide support until it turned into a radical right-wing movement. Jaegers were of major significance in the Winter War of 1939–40, in the Continuation War of 1941–44 and in the Lapland War of 1944–45 for the preservation of Finland’s independence.
The character traits frequently associated with Ostrobothnians are deeply rooted in the historical events in which the people of South Ostrobothnia took a leading role, or that were related to the things valued in the communities and culture of the region. There still remains a certain assertive attitude in the folk culture, an appreciation of self-sufficiency, outspokenness, a sense of drama and self-ironic boasting that is sometimes difficult for others to understand.
Even today, South Ostrobothnia profiles itself as a strong entrepreneurial region and a food province, as well as through its distinctive culture.
Other images source: Lapua city museums, Pyhälahden valokuvaamo, copying prohibited