Beginnings in the early 1980s

Back in the early 1980s, both Anders Wästfelt and I, unknowingly of each other, began activities that would inevitably make our paths cross.

Already in 1976, I started to become seriously interested in China. I was amazed to discover that in the city where I lived, there had been the head office of the 18th-century Swedish East India Company. Moreover, not only was the head office building still standing, but there were also a whole host of other buildings and places left from that time.

Eventually, I began delving into the history of the Swedish East India Company (1731-1813), and the mystery that seemed to shroud the sinking of the Götheborg in 1745. By this time, I had also started collecting Chinese porcelain from the period, occasionally finding pieces that must have come from the East Indiaman.

In 1981, I was invited to participate in the planning of the Gothenburg Historical Museum's celebration of the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Swedish East India Company. Coincidentally, the museum was also housed in the former head office of the Company, at Norra Hamngatan, which made it all the more interesting. The museum director, Dr. Ingmar Hasselgreen, specialized in architecture and was not particularly that much into porcelain, which meant that this aspect was pretty much left to me. Some porcelain for the exhibition was brought from the museum's affiliate, Lilla Änggården. I accompanied them to check out a blue and white service that was kept there.

Model of a 18th century East Indiaman being built - aft towards the water - exhibited at the Swedish East India Company 250 year anniversary at the Gothenburg Historical Museum in 1981. Photo: Jan-Erik Nilsson, 1981.

Part of the most interesting exhibits in the museum to me, was the porcelain donated to the Museum in 1919 (GM:7443) by James Keiller who in 1906 to 19007 had thoroughly salvaged what he felt was worth salvaging from the East Indiaman Götheborg.

Naturally well featured in the exhibition was porcelain from the Gotheborg that was brought up and donated by James Keiller in 1906.
The sign also offers an exhibition of a model of the 'East Indiaman Gotheborg' and Chinese armorial porcelain from the Strokirk collection.
Photo: Jan-Erik Nilsson, 1981.

When collecting anything, it is normal that you also want to know more about it. It appeared to me as if, on the muddy bottom of the Göta River, there rested a fantastically exciting treasure that could help me understand the life and motivations of the 18th-century people who brought this exciting porcelain back home to Sweden in the first place.

To me, it was also obvious that this cargo could prove an invaluable help towards the dating of otherwise un-datable Chinese export porcelain, still available in droves in Swedish antique shops. One thing to remember is that this happened in the early 1980s, which was much before people like Michael Hatcher had started to pick up whole porcelain cargoes in the South East Asian waters.

One question that intrigued me, and to which I could not find an answer, was how come the Gotheborg sank so close to home in the first place? It just must have left some kind of impression in the literature, somewhere?

The local Gothenburg lore was full of memories and myths from the time of the mysterious sinking of the Swedish East Indiaman Gotheborg 240 years earlier. If you had asked anyone at that time, everybody was certain that there had been something funny going on, and that there must have been some monkey business involved. But nobody could tell what. It was just 'felt' that something was wrong

I looked everywhere for answers.

The Regional Archive (Landsarkivet) had a large collection of documents, but nothing that answered this simple question. The Museum of Maritime History in Gothenburg had some documents too, many of which were related to the salvage operation by James Keiller and Carl Lyon around 1906. The one sentence "due to the shortcomings of the pilot" that appeared in Sven T Kjellberg's (1972) book about the Swedish East India Company, remained the only clue there was. Eventually, I did find this actual source - this tiny line in a small neatly handwritten comment in the "Ledger A of the SOIC" at the Regional Archive in Göteborg. But besides this, all else remained in infuriating darkness.

In the collection of the Historical Museum of Gothenburg, there were also some artifacts that were said to have been made from blackened oak from the hull of the original Gotheborg. On these items, there occasionally occurred small handwritten messages glued or stapled onto them, suggesting that there had been something not quite regular with this sinking. The word used was "underslef," meaning fraud or embezzlement - literally that you deliver less than you charge for. However, nowhere was there any substantial information to be found. Other sources talked about hidden compartments in the hull that had been used for smuggling silk or porcelain but failed to connect the dots to anything like a coherent explanation.

box made from blackened oak from the keel

The artifacts could look like this, this box measures 12 times 7 times 3.5 inches (30x18x9 cm) and is "made from blackened oak from the keel". The Historical Museum had a chair and a mirror frame inscribed in a similar way. Maybe one particular carpenter had got his hands on the keel and was specializing on this kind of memorabilia as long as the wood lasted?

In this process, I had started to track down and read every single book that could possibly mention this "accident." My hope was that somewhere in a fleeting observation, there would be a recorded contemporary meaning about what had happened, or at least something. Most hope I had put into contemporary newspapers or travelogues, or published diaries that covered the period, but found nothing. One of the reasons being that at this time, there were hardly any newspapers printed in the first place.

The result of this endeavor is available here as a bibliography, listing 553 titles.

By now, I had started to become convinced that there indeed must be something hidden here. I found it hard to believe that a financial loss of this magnitude, with ship and cargo, could have happened within sight of the home harbor, without it leaving any clear explanation anywhere, in any document. With a crew of 200 and a city population of about 5,000, there could not have been many families that did not have a relative or a neighbor on board. Why was there no explanation?

Then suddenly one reference appeared. It said that "in 1745 the captain Moreen himself was to come down to the City Magistrate to, with 'hand on pen,' sign an explanation to what had transpired." This was good news, but then again, nowhere in the archives could this specific document be found.

Then, as fate would have it, the antiques dealer Björn Gremner at AntikWest AB, introduced me to "a diver who had been down to the ship you are so interested in," as Björn put it. This was around the time of Christmas in 1982. And yes, I was interested in meeting with him. His name was Anders Wästfelt, and he appeared with a box of shards and some wooden sticks. No doubt, these were porcelain shards and wood from the tea and porcelain chests of the lost East Indiaman Gotheborg. This, nobody had seen for a very long time.

First Dive december 1984

First dive in December 1984. Anders Lyckdal (left) and Anders Lindvall (right) coming up with the first finds
I could eventually confirm; that the wreck of the list East Indiaman Gotheborg had been found.
Photo: Anders Wästfelt, 1984

At this time, Anders and Berit Wästfelt had just come back from Eilat in Israel, where they had successfully run a diving school. Well back in Sweden, he had founded Marinarkeologiska Sällskapet, Göteborgskretsen (MASG) and was looking for an interesting enough wreck site that could be used for teaching marine archaeological competence and diving skills.

The Western Swedish Archipelago offers many possible wreck sites from the Viking age and onwards. In December 1982 as luck would have it he received a telephone call from the marine archaeological author Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg who was researching famous Swedish ship wrecks, and wanted to know if Anders knew anything about the East Indiaman Götheborg that obviously had foundered and sunk at Nya Elfsborg basically just outside of the Gothenburg harbor.

From then on we met regularly. Anders and his divers cum maritime archaeologists team did a lot of ground breaking research as the excavation project progressed. Several books got published and the general interest in the Swedish 18th century as a period of peace, trade, science and general progress was very much promoted.

Eventually in 1992, ten years later the opportunity arrived that my ten years of research, could be combined with the enormous network, publicity and goodwill Anders and Berit had created with their excavation project, into the founding of the second phase of the project, the reconstruction and rebuilding of a sailing replica of the Gotheborg.

Without my reading up of every single - printed or handwritten document source - about the Swedish East India Company, very few other would have been able to guarantee that the project would be a genuinely positive historical reference so that it could attract sponsors, and that no dark secrets would be falling out of any cabinets halfway through the project.

Except possible with some luck, the answer to why the original Gotheborg sank.

[Note to the above. In 2006, the missing document explaining the accident by Captain Moreen was found, explaining the accident as an - accident. His Declaration of Maritime Accident, 1745, is Available here.]