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 East Indiaman 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.
Since that initial trip to China, the Götheborg has made many voyages to other parts of Europe (including Scandinavia, the Baltic Sea, the Netherlands, France, Germany, and the UK), completing nine expeditions in ten years. When it is in port, whether at home in Sweden or while traveling, it welcomes visitors on board for tours, and has hosted more than a million people over the years.
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.
Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on September 13, 2006.