Eighteenth-century merchant ship is reborn

by AFP/Jean Liou, Jan 21, 2003 | Destinations: China / Beijing

Gothenburg, Sweden, Jan 21, 2003 - The smell of wood-chips fills the air as workers using traditional tools and methods put the final touches to a replica of a merchant ship that sank in 1745 within sight of its home port of Gothenburg, as it returned from a voyage to China. The vessel, which is being entirely constructed using methods believed to have been in use in the 18th century, is later to make a world tour as an advertisement for Swedish know-how.

The original, the East Indiaman Goetheborg, set sail from the port for the Swedish East India Company in March 1743, headed for the southeastern Chinese city of Canton. But as the return voyage concluded on September 12, 1745, the ship, for reasons still not known, struck an underwater rock as it neared its home port. Within view of the harbour, and to everyone's amazement, it slowly sank in shallow waters.

Were the captain and crew drunk? Was it an insurance scam? The real cause of the disaster will probably never be known. No one died in the accident, and a third of the cargo was salvaged and sold, making the expedition a profitable one despite the tragedy. Much of the rest of the cargo, including almost nine tonnes of chinaware, was recovered from the seabed in the late 1980s by amateur and volunteer divers, led by Joakim Severinson.

The idea of building a replica of the Goetheborg - named after its home port - was born, and little by little became a reality. "Although the idea of a present-day East Indiaman was there from early on, I could never in my wildest dreams have imagined that it would all develop into what we've got here today," Severinson told AFP.

The dream was to build an 18th-century wooden vessel 40.5 meters (133 feet) long and 10.3 meters (34 feet) wide, and with masts towering 47 meters (154 feet) above the sea -- using shipbuilding techniques from the time. The project was an expensive one, requiring investment of some 300 million kronor (33 million euros, 35 million dollars).

A new Swedish East India Company (SOIC) was created to raise the money, attracting financial backers from Gothenburg's biggest industries as well as European investors. In addition, tickets were sold to visitors keen to follow the ship's construction. Last year, 120,000 people paid to catch a sneak preview.

Begun in 1995, construction is now in the final stages and the vessel is due to be launched on June 6. In the meantime, the last of the 56,000 nails are being forged, the masts are being raised and the stitches are being hand-sewn on 1,900 square meters (21,000 square feet) of sails.

"We have to rediscover old knowledge, skills and methods. It's a case of researching and shipbuilding at the same time," Severinson said. There are however limits to how faithful the replica will be to the original: this time around, the crew will not have to share space with cattle, and they will enjoy the luxury of showers and toilets. Other modern amenities on board the new Goetheborg will be water tanks, smoke detectors and even five marine engines donated by the Volvo company, whose headquarters are located in Gothenburg. "Due to international safety regulations we had to make some changes, otherwise we would not have been allowed to sail," said Annica Magnusson of SOIC, adding: "Above the water line it will be historical, but under the water line it will be modern."

But even for the historical part, some imagination was necessary on the part of British sculptor Andy Peters, the carpenter designing the ship's ornaments. "The only one we know for sure is a cockerel. We found it in the wreck. The other designs resemble the fashion in Sweden, which was very much French baroque at the time," he said. In the months before the launch, Peters must complete the figurehead, a 3.5 meter (11 foot) lion, which he says will take him right up until the last minute to finish.

After its launch, the vessel is due to set sail for its maiden voyage to Canton in the autumn of 2004, with stops in Spain, Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia. "The purpose is to make a travelling exhibition. We will show the best of Sweden," Annica Magnusson said.

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