February 28, 2014
A little hard to believe now since Sweden has adopted a neutrality stance for almost 200 years until the end of the Cold War, but in the 17th century this previously impoverished nation-state was a militaristic superpower that expanded into the third largest country in Europe, behind only Russia and Spain. How could Sweden, with its limited population and natural resources, become so powerful?
With a well-managed economy and a booming iron industry, Sweden managed to take advantage of a power vacuum in the Baltic Sea thanked to the Thirty Years’ War in the Holy Roman Empire and the Polish–Muscovite War in Russia. Under the leadership of king Gustavus Adolphus, the Swedish Empire included Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and parts of northern Germany.
The Vasa was a product of this era of expansion. In 1628 Gustavus Adolphus launched this newly built warship towards Poland. Measuring 69 m in length, 11.7 m at the beam and 52.5 m in height, the Vasa was the largest and most powerful ship built by Sweden at the time. It was a symbol of a turnaround for the Swedish navy, which had suffered consecutive defeats at the hand of the Poles.
Unfortunately the Vasa sank within an hour of its maiden voyage, killing 30 of those 150 on board. The commonly stated reason that the 72 cannons on board overwhelmed the warship’s capacity was only half correct — if the Vasa were simply a little wider its fate would be completely different. Its sister ship the Äpplet, completely identical except for being 1.5 meters wider, roamed the Baltic for more than three decades.
Indefinitely the Vasa remained in the sea. In 1959 the technology finally became advance enough to undertake the extremely challenging task of lifting this delicate artifact from the seabed, and on April 24, 1961 it was reintroduced to the world after 333 years. The reason why it managed to stay in such good condition while most wooden ships quickly decay in the sea was because the water of Strömmen (the innermost part of the bay that surrounds Stockholm) was until the late 20th century so toxic that most wood-devouring microorganisms couldn’t survive.
Today the Vasa sits in a specially designed museum as a symbol of the bygone Swedish Empire, but the daunting task of keeping it intact continues. For 17 years the Vasa was sprayed with a chemical coating called polyethylene glycol for protection against oxidation and deterioration.
The battle to save the Vasa is very much still ongoing. The most urgent matter is to replace the ship’s 5,000 rusty bolts with specially designed ones, each cost around €250. Most of this large sum of money will have to come from the museum, severely underfunded at the moment.
Make sure to visit the Vasa Museum when you find yourself in Stockholm. You won’t find another ship quite like the Vasa elsewhere, and you can contribute to a worthy cause to ensure it can remain intact for our future generations to see.