As a local and environmental historian, my recent visit to Stockholm (via work meetings in Umea, Sweden) was ‘anchored’ by a fabulous visit to view one of the most intriguing historical artefacts I have ever had the privilege of viewing: the seventeenth century Swedish warship, the Vasa.
At the height of a massive war between Poland and Sweden (where feuding cousins sat on the respective thrones of each country), the war fleet of the Swedish king was being expanded. At the shipyards in Stockholm, work began on a new ship of war to help fight the naval battles and take troops to and from the scenes of war. The Vasa was built as the crown jewel of this fleet: over 1000 of the King’s Oaks were felled to build the ship. At 47.5 meters long from prow to stern, she carried 64 guns, 145 seamen and 300 soldiers under 10 sails on four masts. Intricately carved and adorned with rich artistic symbolism, she was also richly painted (a detail I hadnt thought of; it seems as though Hollywood’s recreation of sailing ships tends toward the plain, unadorned and unpainted).
But disaster struck. As beautiful as she was, she had a major design flaw. Before her maiden voyage, her stability was tested by 30 men who ran in unison across the ship, deliberately checking her balance. After the third run, they stopped, as she nearly toppled and crushed the dock. Despite failing the test, the demands of war pushed those in charge to continue to arm and man the ship. She sailed on her maiden voyage on August 10th, 1628 from Stockholm.
A wind keeled her over, but she partially righted and kept going until another wind keeled her over again. This time, water rushed in through the gunports and in front of astonished eyewitnesses, she sank about a kilometer out in Stockholm harbour. An estimated 30 to 50 people died when the ship went down.
Although partially salvaged for her guns, the Vasa could not be raised. Over time, her whereabouts was mostly forgotten until 1956 when she was rediscovered. What followed was a modern feat of salvage, engineering, and marine archaeology on a vast scale. Vasa had withstood her watery grave remarkably intact: the brackish waters of the Baltic do not host the saline shipworm which feasts on most sunken wooden ships. The Vasa could, and was, brought forth from the depths in 1961 to huge international acclaim. Over the next fifty years, she was stripped of the mud, excavated, her contents catalogued and preserved, and the ship’s pieces preserved in polyethylene glygol before being put back together like an enormous jigsaw puzzle. Such a remarkable historical and archaeological find yielded astounding insight into Swedish, Stockholm, and maritime history from the early 1600s, from food to clothing to games to money to health.
Now, Vasa can be viewed from her new home on the edge of Stockholm harbor, not far from where she was built and where she sank. And if you’re ever in Stockholm, I insist that you go. It is an impressive sight.