Shipyard, Rebuilding and to China and Back

Beginnings in the early 1980s

Back in the early 1980s both I and Anders Wästfelt had unknowingly of each other begun activities that would inevitably make our roads cross.

Already in 1976 I started to get seriously interested in China and was amazed by the fact that in the city where I actually lived, there had been the head office of the 18th century Swedish East India Company, and that besides that the head office building was still standing, there were a whole lot of other buildings and places left from that time.

Eventually I started to look into the history of the Swedish East India Company (1731-1813), and the mystery that appeared to cloud the foundering of the Götheborg in 1745. I had at this time even started to collect Chinese porcelain from the period, occasionally finding pieces that must have come from the East Indiaman.

In 1981 I was invited to take part in the planning of the Gothenburg Historical Museums celebration of the 250 years anniversary of the founding of the Swedish East India Company. Incidentally the museum was also housed in the former head office of the Company, at the Norra Hamngatan which made it all the more interesting. Dr. Ingmar Hasselgreen, the museum director at that time, was specializing in architecture and not particularly that much into porcelain why this was pretty much left to me.

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 by James Keiller who in 1906 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 antiques 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 I could not find any answer to was how come that the Gotheborg sank that 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 foundering of the Swedish East Indiaman Gotheborg 240 years earlier. If you at that time had asked anyone, everybody were 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 of which a lot were related to the salvage operation by James Keiller and Carl Lyon in around 1906. The one sentence "due to the shortcomings of the pilot" that appeared in the Sven T Kjellberg (1972) book about the Swedish East India Company, remained the one clue there were. Eventually I did myself find this actual source - this tiny line in a small handwritten comment in the "Ledger A of the SOIC" at the Regional Archive in Göteborg but beside this, all else remained in infuriating darkness.

In the collection of the Historical Museum of Gothenburg were also some artefacts 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, to the effect that there had been something not quite regular with this foundering. The word used was "underslef" meaning - fraud or embezzlement - meaning literally that you deliver less than you charge for, but nowhere was there any real 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 an 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 recorded a 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 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, cargo and all, 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 has 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.

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.