SWEDISH SEA STORIES

Reaching the end of a book is a double-edged sword.  There’s a certain feeling of relief, of course, but also sadness that the project is finished.  And the only way to combat that is to start another one!  Despite a planned break over the summer new thoughts are already swirling around.  And there are new places to visit.  In our case, our next trip to Sweden is going to include an excursion to Tallin in Estonia.

Tallin has had a lasting impact on Sweden’s psyche with the MS Estonia tragedy in 1994, which saw the loss of 852 passengers and crew, of which 501 of the victims were Swedish.  And it was with interest that I caught a documentary the other night on another Swedish maritime disaster, the sinking of the Mars.  The programme covered the finding and excavation of the wreck which had gone down a few kilometres north of the Baltic island of Öland in 1564.  Mars was a sophisticated warship.  It was the main vessel in the navy being built by the young and ambitious king of Sweden, Eric XIV.  He wanted to dominate northern Europe and that meant taking on the might of the Hanseatic League, which was a commercial confederation of merchant guilds and their market towns.  This friction led to the Seven Years’ War (1563-1570) between Sweden and the combined forces of Denmark, Poland and the city of Lübeck.  Mars – or Makalös (“peerless”) – was going to put the emerging kingdom of Sweden on the map.  Built to intimidate – 48 metres long with 107 guns (some estimate it may have had 173 cannon of various sizes), it was one of the largest ships ever constructed at the time.  And it nearly worked.  It earned its place in the history of naval warfare by being the first ship to sink another with gunfire.  Unfortunately, it didn’t achieve the Swedish monarch’s dreams when it faced the Danish-Lübecker fleet at the first Battle of Öland, as this magnificent ship caught fire and exploded.  Most of the crew were lost, though the Swedish admiral, Jakob Bagge, was captured and remained in captivity for many years.

At least Mars saw some action before its demise unlike Sweden’s other great tragic ship, Vasa.  No visit to Stockholm is complete without a visit to the Vasa Museum (www.vasamuseet.se) in which you can see the whole ship which was miraculously raised from a busy shipping lane just outside Stockholm harbour in 1961.  Lost on August 10th, 1628, it had lain undetected until the late 1950s.  It had been constructed on the orders of arguably Sweden’s most famous monarch, Gustavus Adolphus.  Under his rule, Sweden became one of the great powers of Europe.  Like its predecessor Mars, Vasa was to be part of Sweden’s military expansion in northern Europe, specifically as part of the war against Poland-Lithuania.  It was a truly extraordinary ship with all the latest technology, stunning decorative features throughout and an impressive array of cannon.  Yet when it took to the water on its maiden voyage the horrified onlookers could do nothing as they watched the mighty vessel sink within twenty minutes of setting off. Wind and an unwieldy design combined to create the disaster.  Given the circumstances, it was amazing that only thirty people perished.

Vasa may have been a catastrophe for Sweden and a blow to Gustavus Adolphus’s prestige, but its discovery has been an archaeological treasure trove.  And that’s what I’ve enjoyed doing with the Anita Sundström stories; finding interesting aspects of Sweden’s past and working them into her modern world.  We’ll see what Tallin throws up.