The Vasa, Sweden’s Titanic

“They didn’t measure the weight of the ship properly,” said my mother upon entering the museum proper. It was a beautiful ship but even without reading the story she guessed the reasons for this Swedish naval flagship sinking. We were at the Vasa Museum to catch a glimpse of the Vasa – Sweden’s Titanic.

This was the museum that the locals said was a must-see, the flagship of Stockholm, and I finally got around to it now that my family had come for a visit.

It was the new large impregnable fortress of the Swedish navy. The large ship that would impress the Swedes and send shivers down the hearts of the Poles and Danes. It was, and still is, the most expensive naval construction in the history of Sweden.

The ship sank barely a few kilometres from shore, within minutes of its commissioning.

This chapter of history was one of the opening plays of Sweden’s Great Empire period (the Stormarkstiden). It began with the then king Gustav II Adolf Vasa.

Gustav II Adolf Vasa in a picture on the ship depicting him in the likeness of an emperor from the Holy Roman Empire

Gustav Adolf had visions of grandness for himself and for Sweden and thought of himself as the successor of the Roman kings of old and rightful heir to the former Holy Roman Empire. Despite all this, he would turn Sweden into one of the Great Powers of Europe and an important nation of the time.

Wikipedia

His ascension to the throne of Sweden in 1611 and his reign was characterised by unceasing warfare. Sweden was already at war with the Danes, Poles and Russians and yet he would swiftly negotiate a ceasfire with the Danes in 1613 (via the Treaty of Knared) and with the Russians in 1617 (via the Treaty of Stolbovo). Leaving only the Poles as the enemy.

The Poles were the last enemy standing. This was a complicated battle. King Gustav Adolf and his father had taken over the Swedish Crown from King Sigismund Vasa.

Gustav II Adolf wanted to make himself seen and accepted as the successor in a line of Roman Empires

This was the same King Sigismund that founded Warsaw and tried to form a personal union.

Sigismund’s Column outside the old town of Warsaw, Poland

Gustav Adolf was thus seen as a usurper and pretender to the throne. The weaker Swedish military was unable to beat the stronger and larger Polish-Lithuanian force while Gustav Adolf’s father was alive. Hence to secure his position, he needed to force Sigismund to official reliquish control of Sweden. He raised an army after going through huge reforms and led his troops into battle.

This resulted in the invasion of Livornia (present day Latvia) and the occupation of Riga.

Riga Old Town today

This invasion was done over 1621 to 1622 when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was itself embroiled in a way withthe Ottoman Empire. Still, the Swedes were only able to drag the war to a stalemate. The Commonwealth army, taken by surprise and without troops to spare sued for a truce that lasted for three years. War resumed from 1625 to 1629 with victories and losses on both sides. Naval battles were a huge weakness for the Swedes with constant losses to the Poles. It wasn’t just the Poles, there were threats from all around including Muscovy and Denmark facing Catholic invasion. All this necessitated a stronger navy.

It was during this time that Gustav Adolf instructed the building of the Vasa and a number of other large naval flagships. Gustav Adolf did not just want a ship, he wanted majesty. He wanted a battlefield museum that would be the flagship of the new and more lethal Swedish Navy. And so he hired the best architects and engineers from the Netherlands, led by Henrik Hybertsson, and set them to work.

But Gustav Adolf constantly changed in what he wanted for the ship, first he wanted a warship, then he wanted more cannons on the warship, then he wanted a longer and larger ship, then he wanted beautiful art pieces on the ship…

and being a king, no ordinary person dared to disagree with his desires – everyone wanted their head to remain on top of their body. It did not help that no one at the time had developed ways to calculate the math in building a ship and the Hybertsson died before the construction was complete. The ship was to also have insulting features against the Poles, such as this of a Polish noble kneeling and covering in fear.

Gustav Adolf did not just want the ship grand, he wanted it fast which put extra strain on the builders. Money was no object, the only object was physics and no one was the wiser. Despite failing a stability test just before commissioning, on 10 August 1628, the ship was pushed out to the public with a large celebration that included royalty, nobility, commoners and foreign dignitaries.

The ship sunk barely 20 minutes into its journey and more than a hundred sailors perished just off the coast of Sweden before a single bullet was fired. To protect themselves, the captain of the ship was scapegoated and later it was decided that this was merely one of those things, a misadventure. The valuable bronze cannons were salvaged and the wreck was forgotten, and episode that was closed as quickly as possible. How those bronze cannons were lifted in the 17th century is to me an engineering marvel. The Swedish navy however would not collapse after this, more ships of the same sort were built and these were vital in making Sweden the Great Regional Power of the time.

It was only 300 years later in 1961 that the whole ship was salvaged. The high salinity of the sea water, thick mud and extreme cold had prevented molluscs and other sea shells from growing on the ship. It was an amazing time capsule.

The ship was not however put out for the public to see. Close to 20 years of repair works had to take place before a museum would be open. And this is the result, the Vasamuseum. This is the museum that the locals say is the must see. It’s on every tourist brochure and practically every tour of Stockholm. We entered into a museum that was full, easily a thousand people were inside, squeezing to take a look at the ship. Tour groups were being guided through, individual tourist like us waited to pay the pricey ticket to take a look.

I’m not sure how I feel about it except that it was a grand ship and a grand tour in history. It’s such an amazing sight that it’s easy to forget that this was a ship that failed because of one man’s vanity. Were the hundred lives lost worth the limits of one individual’s vision of grandeur? I don’t know…

ON THE MAP

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