Not long ago I had the chance to view an exhibit of artifacts raised from the wreck of the Titanic. These artifacts included personal possessions of the passengers, such as glasses, hats and jewelry, as well as glassware and plates from the ship’s stores. To give context to these items, the exhibit’s creators had reproduced different parts of the ship, including the Dining Room and the Grand Staircase.
The centerpiece of the exhibit was a colossal piece of the ship’s hull, weighing 30,000 pounds, and taking up the majority of the large room that housed it. Although it seemed enormous, diagrams indicating its position on the intact ship showed the piece to be just one tiny part of the whole.
Reflecting on this incredible artifact, I felt awe at the ingenuity and workmanship of Titanic’s builders, but also sadness for the fate of its passengers and for the destruction of the once-mighty ship. It was a great opportunity to be immersed in history, to see first-hand an approximation of history’s details.
In a similar vein, a project underway in Sweden to bring history into the modern world also involves a ship that sank—the East Indiaman Götheborg.
That Sinking Feeling
In 1731 the Swedish East India Company was founded to pursue trade in southeast Asia, exchanging Swedish timber, tar, iron, and copper for silver, tea, porcelain, and silk. Over the course of its 82-year history, it launched 38 ships on 132 expeditions. One of those ships was the Götheborg.
The Götheborg had made three voyages to China when it made its final approach to its home port, Göteborg, on September 12, 1745. After 30 months at sea and within sight of its ultimate destination, for reasons still unknown, the Götheborg ran aground and began to sink. Luckily, the entire crew was rescued by the numerous bystanders who had gathered to watch the ship’s entry into port. However, the ship’s precious cargo—estimated to be worth as much as the national budget—was lost, and the ship sank to the ocean floor.
Shaping the Timbers
The Götheborg was largely forgotten until 1984, when divers began reexamining the wreck and found remnants of the ship under layers of clay. Their discoveries kindled public interest in the ship, and inspired a plan to build a replica ship that would once again sail to China.
In 1993, a new organization called the Swedish East India Company was formed to make this plan a reality. Construction on the ship began in 1995, when the keel was laid, and continued through the ship’s first sea trial in May 2005.
Throughout the process, great care was taken to emulate the shipbuilding techniques that formed the first Götheborg, with a few key exceptions. While the exterior of the ship was built using the classic 18th-century materials of oak, pine, spruce, and elm, the interior of the ship is much more 21st century. Due to modern regulations requiring the inclusion of a propulsion system, the new Götheborg had to be fitted with two engines and two main generators plus an emergency generator, although its default power source is the wind. In addition, the ship has been equipped with five watertight steel bulkheads to comply with international seaworthiness standards.
Slow Boat to China
On October 2, 2005, the Swedish Ship Götheborg (as it is officially called) set sail from Sweden, headed toward Shanghai, China by way of Spain, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, and Indonesia. The ship reached Shanghai on August 29, 2006, for a two-month stay before returning to Sweden.
Like my visit to the Titanic exhibit, the Götheborg project has given many people a chance to see history first-hand, and to experience what life was like so long ago. But more than that, it has combined the strength of tradition with the innovation of the present—a rare and valuable thing to behold. —Morgen Jahnke
Thanks to reader Jörgen Olssen for suggesting today’s topic!
The official site of the Swedish Ship Götheborg provides a wealth of information about the history, construction and journeys of the ship.
I visited Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition at the Metreon in San Francisco.