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Frederick William was King of Prussia between 1713 and 1740. He gained fame, or perhaps infamy, in Europe both for an austere lifestyle, and for his short temper (beheading his son’s male lovers at the slightest provocation for example). However, his careful financial management included a deal of canny investment. The surplus that he accumulated was then further employed by his son Frederick the Great, both to expand Prussia’s borders and to engage in merchant adventurism across the globe.
Frederick William inherited a kingdom devastated by the Plague to such an extent that the entirety of East Prussia had reverted to little more than uninhabited marshland. He began by investing to repopulate this area, in the words of one historian he ‘encouraged farming, reclaimed marshes, stored grain in good times and sold it in bad times’. This quickly bore fruit, as the revenues of the royal estate (the kings’ chief source of cash) increased in 10 years by 50%, from 6m marks to 9m marks. This led him in turn to invest in improved technology for the army, introducing the first iron ramrods used in European muskets. Frederick the Great was able to use this army to conquer first Silesia (the richest province of the Austrian Habsburg Empire) and later Saxony. The plunder from these expeditions was in part used to found the Emden Company, which during its few years of existence proved one of the most profitable trading companies in the Far East, growing much faster than the British or Dutch East India Companies.
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