It’s remarkable to think of it today, but for just over a hundred years in the 17th and 18th centuries Sweden, with a tiny population, not only created an empire that came to dominate the Baltic region, it was one of the most powerful nations in Europe. Swedish armies were feared across the continent, and Sweden was a power broker to rival even The Sun King, Louis XIV of France. The high point of Swedish power came at the end of the Thirty Years’ War at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The treaty that also secured Dutch Independence from Spain.
Swedish power dramatically collapsed in 1709, defeated by the armies of Peter the Great of Russia at the Battle of Poltava. Feared on land, the Swedish navy also played a vital role in the military fortunes of the country. It was against the backdrop of the Thirty Years’ War, and Sweden’s growing power, that the King, Gustavus Adolphus, commissioned a great battleship. Intended as a symbol of Sweden’s imperial ambition, the Vasa was to be the most powerful ship in the Baltic.
On 10 August 1628, thousands gathered in Stockholm to watch the maiden voyage of this enormous ship with all the pomp and ceremony the Swedish crown could muster. The bells of Stockholm’s churches rang out as the Vasa, richly carved with symbols of power and gloriously painted in bright reds and golds, set sail into Stockholm harbour. Almost immediately it became clear that something was wrong, a light wind tilted the ship wildly to one side. The Vasa righted itself and continued into open waters.
After sailing 1,300 metres, another gust of wind caught the Vasa’s sails and it began to flounder and sink. In a chaotic few minutes the pride of the Swedish navy lay on the sea bed 32 metres under water and only 120 metres from land, the sails sticking out of the water. Many of the crew, their families and guests who’d been given permission to sail on the maiden voyage, swam to shore. Thirty people weren’t so lucky, and went down with the ship.
In front of so many people, and presumably spies from competing European nations, the sinking of the Vasa was a national disaster. The immediate question was how could such a tragedy occur and who was to blame? It would take 333 years to fully uncover the truth, but even in 1628 people thought there was something wrong with the ship. A few months before its fateful first and final voyage, the ship’s captain demonstrated its instability, having thirty men run from side to side of the deck. The ship rolled wildly even at anchor.
Under pressure from the King, the ship was ordered to sail anyway. The rest, as they say, is history. A history brilliantly told at the Vasamuseet, where the fully restored Vasa sits in a specially constructed, dimly lit, climate controlled building to preserve it for future generations. The exhibition that accompanies the ship sets the historical scene for the disaster, explains how the ship came to be salvaged and the truly unique challenges of preserving it.
It took four years between 1957 and 1961 to raise the Vasa from the seabed, when it finally surfaced it was in remarkably good shape. About 90% of the ship you see today is original, but it took decades to preserve and stabilise sufficiently to go on permanent display. There are several reconstructions of the people who drowned on the boat. We don’t know who they are, but scientific studies have revealed much about them.
It’s fascinating and, in a city of excellent museums, the Vasamuseet is something very special. So why did it sink and who was to blame? The ship was built by an experienced shipbuilder, Henrik Hybertsson, but the Vasa was much bigger than anything he’d built before, and more heavily armed. He had no way of testing the ship before it went into the ocean, but it was normal and accepted practice that new ships were often unstable and would be fixed after being put to sea.
The Vasa, though, was too unstable: the hull below the waterline was too small to support the huge size and weight of the decks above, and carried too little ballast to give it stability. Still, there were numerous chances to prevent the disaster, including a fateful decision by the captain to sail with the gun ports open. Had they been closed water wouldn’t have rushed in and sunk the boat. In the end, the design was to blame, but the design had been approved by the King, and he couldn’t be implicated.
Luckily, the designer Henrik Hybertsson had died a year earlier and provided the Royal inquest with the perfect scapegoat. No one else need be blamed, and Hybertsson’s death meant no one needed to be punished. In fact, most of those involved went on to hold even more powerful positions in future … including Sweden itself.