Swedes on the High Seas: the Maritime History of a Nation in Stockholm

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Maritime Museum, Sjöhistoriska museet, Stockholm, Sweden

Maritime history, and the way that people have used the sea for exploration and trade, is fascinating.  I never really got it until I visited the oh-so wonderful Maritime Museum in Amsterdam.  Since then, if there is a museum on the subject, I’m there.

Unfortunately none of the ones I’ve visited since have really lived up to Amsterdam. But then, the Dutch were awesome seafarers, and are awesome museum-creators, so it’s fair enough.  Stockholm’s Maritime Museum perhaps has done the best job with the fewest resources.

Anyway, the museum’s origins go back to the early 20th century.  The Association for Swedish Maritime Museums decided, at their first meeting in 1913, that they should immediately start work on a museum in Stockholm that focussed on the country’s maritime history.  In 1914, a small collection was presented to the public on the ground floor of a building in Gamla Stan, but in 1931, the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation offered money to construct a new museum for the maritime collection.  There were conditions – the state had to donate a site, the remnants of the Amphion had to be given a prominent position in the exhibition space, and the building was not to be built in the functionalist style.  In 1938, King Gustav V officially opened the new museum, a building designed by the famous Ragnar Östberg, in a modern neoclassical style.

The museum is basically spread over two floors.  We started by walking forwards, towards the enticing display of the Amphion, which is a good place to start.

Now, for a seafaring nation, and considering just how much sea is around their country, the Swedes have had really bad luck with their ships (yes, Vasa, I’m looking at you – but I’m also looking at you Riddarholm).  The Amphion was designed by Fredrik Henrik af Chapman and launched in 1778 with the intention of being Gustav III’s personal ship.  But it was badly designed.  Its maiden voyage was a disaster, with a seasick royal family desperately keen to get off it.  She was then was shipwrecked in bad weather, and that was that.  The Amphion was used for occasional trips out on Lake Mälaren and incredibly they dared to pull her into service during the Russo-Swedish war of 1788-90.  She survived that, too, but was not loved.  She was used as a cholera quarantine ship, then as a barracks ship, and in 1884 was broken up for firewood.  The only parts that survived are now in the Maritime museum, and they do a good job of making the story come across as a tragi-comedy, with things going from bad to worse…

Battle Stations!

There are lots of miniature ships on display in the next gallery, and if you’re keen on such things then you’ll have a fine time exploring them, but there are other objects on show too, like weapons, and fragments of a destroyed Swedish submarine which is an important reminder of Sweden’s uncomfortable position during the Second World War.  For me there were some interesting models, but the highlight  was the wonderful sculpture of Karl XI from the stern of the Carolus X.  It dates from 1678 and is in incredible condition with subdued and realistic colours.

The Voyagers – The Swedish East India Company

Without doubt the most interesting of all the galleries, for me, was the one looking at the Swedish East India Company.  The company was established in 1731 in order (in the blunt/realistic words of the museum curators) ‘to make a lot of money’ by sailing to China to purchase eastern products.

Sweden wasn’t one of the major players in global trade but it hoped to get some of the success of the Dutch and British East India Companies.  The company came about after almost a century of hiccups and failed attempts – the most amusing story is of pirates who made a lot of money and wanted a place to legitimately settle.  They offered their services and their ships to the Swedish king, Charles XII, in return for being allowed to settle in Gothenburg and to start trade in the East Indies under the Swedish flag.  Things were going well until the king was killed, and the whole thing folded.

After the disasters of the Great Northern War, Sweden was in dire need of money.  They were justly cautious in setting up their East India project, but the whole scheme was shored up by British and Dutch traders and merchants who were no longer working for their own countries.  The majority of the investors, crew and indeed the purchasers of the imported goods, was foreign.

What is interesting about the original royal charter issued to Henrik König & Compagnie was that it was set to 15 years, and had definite rules as to how business was to be conducted.  They tried to make it clear that they didn’t want to tread on the toes of the other trading nations, but still the first two east-bound ships were respectively seized and attacked.  The company initially went to India, but after some unpleasantness with the dominant English and Dutch companies, the Swedes decided to concentrate on trading with China.

The company carried out 131 voyages until its closure in 1813.  The ships made a profit of about 25/30% but the success of the trip depended on merchants and captains, who were responsible for arranging favourable deals in Canton and Macao.  in 1780, the French, Dutch and Spanish turned against England, which was now unable to trade in China.  This gave the Swedes a massive advantage, as the price of tea fell in Canton due to a lack of traders, but demand in Europe went up.  As practically the only supplier of tea, the company’s profits were 58% higher than before, and tea was smuggled to England.  The company’s profits declined, in part due to new regulations regarding tea imports into England, and after a substantial slowing down of business, the company was declared bankrupt in 1813.

In the meantime, the eastern trade had a big influence on Swedish society.   Not only did it popularise tea, but also arrack, porcelain and eastern knick-knacks.  The Chinese Pavilion at Drottningholm Palace shows some of this 18th century obsession, and you can also see it in some of the objects in the Nordic Museum.

Shipping and Shopping

This gallery was mainly aimed at children and had some fun activities for them to do, and they certainly enjoyed running around the displays – many of which were low down or actually under glass on the floor.  But there was also a fair bit for adults, including a very serious section on the destroyed ship, the Hansa.

Ship Portraits

Another little exhibition was on ship portraits, also known as pier-head paintings.  These were popularised in the 19th century and were commissioned by crew members and had to be painted quickly while the ship was in harbour.  The museum has apparently got a large collection of ship portraits through donations, and some of these were on show.

So In Summary

While the museum was not the most interesting in Stockholm, if you like looking at little reproductions of boats then this is the place for you.  For me, the trade aspect of seafaring is most interesting, so learning about the Swedish East India Company was fascinating.  It was a very well done museum anyway, but this section was particularly fine – especially considering the fact that they didn’t have that much on display.

Further Information

The museum is free to enter.  There is a cute gift shop, which allows you to donate an equivalent entry fee by buying a nice object you can take home!

There are lots of activities aimed at children and a play area which looks like a wonderful place to leave your little ones to roam for a while.

How To Get There

The museum is a little way out of the centre of Stockholm, but is easily accessible by public transport.   It is one of a group of museums which are in a museum park in Djurgården.  While you’re there, you can also visit the National Museum of Science and Technology, the Police Museum and the Ethnographic Museum.

The transport information is available here: www.sl.se


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