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A founder under the sign of the bear

He smiles mischievously, his alert brown eyes look to the left. His wavy brown shoulder length hair is neatly parted. Over his black coat he wears a big, white rectangular collar. In his right hand he shows the viewer a round medallion with the family emblem, the bear. Cornelius Berenberg is the first in the family line that we have a portrait of. At the turn of the 18th century, getting one’s portrait done in oil was a rare luxury. It showed that one was an important and wealthy individual.

Born in Hamburg in 1634, Cornelius was just 6 years old when his father Hans Berenberg Jr. died in 1640. Cornelius left school and started to work in the family company, which was led by his other brothers Rudolf and Johann and his uncle Andreas. Young Cornelius soon proved himself a far-sighted, daring merchant and a man of character who opened up new horizons for the Berenberg company. His sense of tradition was paired with a true Hanseatic outlook, as the third generation of his family to be merchants in Hamburg. His grandfather Hans and his brother Paul had come to Hamburg towards the end of the 16th century from Holland, as did other families later to become city leaders like the Amsincks, Verpoortens and Groenedals. The Berenbergs opened a trading company in 1590.

Thanks to good contacts throughout Europe the brothers enjoyed success dealing in cloth, grain, spices and salt. Within a few years their trading house had grown to one of the city’s highest-earning companies. Even in the murderous turmoil of the 30 Years’ War, through skilful diplomacy Hamburg remained neutral to the benefit of its merchants. The Berenbergs tripled their revenues. The first two generations of Berenbergs had thought of themselves as Dutchmen in Hamburg, but Cornelius was the first who considered himself entirely a native of Hamburg. For him, the family history had started with the founding of the company in 1590, and he wanted to demonstrate his Hanseatic consciousness to the world.

On 20 June 1684 he was the first Berenberg to take the Hamburg oath of citizenship. From now on, his descendants would be able to hold public office, as the City of Hamburg permitted its new citizens to hold office if they were of means and owned an inherited house.

The Dutch fleet ruled the waves and controlled overseas trade, but Cornelius Berenberg used every opportunity to expand his international business activities. Thus, he was involved in 1670 when Hamburg sent 40 whaling ships to Greenland for the first time. As a “share shipper” he not only had a share in whaling and trading trips, he also bought whale oil, had it processed to lubricating and lamp oil, soap, pomades and medical salves, and exported the finished products.

Cornelius Berenberg also had interests in sea insurance, which took in premiums and paid out benefits for certain kinds of damages. The family belonged to the the association of Hamburg Insurers and co-founded the “Commerce Deputation” of the “Merchants Trading at Sea,” later to become the Chamber of Commerce. International business and banking activities Cornelius was the first Berenberg who can be proven to have acted as a banker.

The Hamburg Bank was founded in 1619 and the Berenbergs were among the shareholders. At that time there were hundreds of currencies within the “Roman Empire of German Nation,” with fluctuating exchange rates. The Hamburg “Mark Banco” was tied to the silver standard and was one of the most stable currencies in Europe for generations, as was the Dutch guilder, which for 200 years was minted of 9.6 grams of fine silver. Europe already had a system for cashless payment, so cash was not shipped over long distances from Hamburg. Instead, a creditor in Leipzig could demand payment from a trader with debts in Hamburg, and the transaction would be handled on the exchange. Amsterdam was the largest exchange at the time. Later London would take over that position. In Germany, Hamburg as a commercial centre was also a financial centre.

Cornelius Berenberg financed his colleagues’ business endeavours and made out mortgage loans. Since stock as we know it did not exist at the time, mortgages were a way to invest unneeded capital to earn interest, or boost liquidity with mortgage credit. Cornelius Berenberg also did well on exchange transactions between the many German and European currencies. As a person who enjoyed great respect, he was entrusted with many executorships and appointed to many boards of trustees.

When Cornelius Berenberg died in 1711 at the age of 77, he left his sons Rudolf and Johann a flourishing business.