Vasa Ship: The 17th Century Secret-Yielding Ship in Sweden Museum

Vasa was a Swedish warship that sank on her maiden voyage in 1628. She was the mightiest battleship at the time and seemed destined for greatness. 30-150 people drowned with her, along with bronze cannons and other valuables. Vasa was salvaged in the late 1950s in a busy shipping area in Stockholm harbor. She is now preserved at the Vasa Museum in the Royal National City Park in the Swedish capital.

History of Vasa

Before the 17th century, Sweden was one of Europe’s most sparsely populated and impoverished countries. That quickly changed when King Gustavus Adolphus took power; he catapulted it into one of the major powers in continental politics in the 17th century and beyond.

As the Thirty Years’ War, one of the longest and most destructive conflicts in European history, was raging in Europe, King Gustavus Adolphus ordered five heavy-duty warships built. Among them was the 226-foot-long Vasa, the biggest of them all.

The king instructed builders to install two gun decks and 64 bronze cannons on the vessel, allowing her to hurl about 250 kg (550 pounds) of shot. He also wanted it to be operated by a 450-man crew, so the ship was quite heavy.

King Gustavus Adolphus personally oversaw the building of Vasa. Despite demanding constant modifications and interfering with the builders’ plans, the royal pressed for a quick turnaround. The shortage of resources led to more delays and pressure, which often agitated the king.

The Sinking of Vasa

The gun holes on Vasa ship believed to have caused her sinking. Photo credit.

On August 28, 1628, the day was calm, and the breeze was light – everything seemed set for Vasa’s maiden voyage. Unfortunately, after sailing only 1,130 meters (3,700 feet), the vessel sank despite the captain’s efforts to salvage it.

While the real reason for Vasa’s sinking is constantly debated, the most acceptable version is that she sank because the water was poured into the open gun ports. Eventually, the water caused the vessel to topple sideways and eventually sink about 120 meters (393) from land. Thousands of viewers witnessed the incident.

The Aftermath of the Sinking of Vasa

As expected, King Gustavus was enraged by the incident. He ordered the arrest of the ship’s captain, Sofring Hansson before his clothes were even dry. Sofring was interrogated by the Council of State, where he swore that he was sober when the incident happened.

Many of the people who knew the ins and outs of the ship died in the catastrophe, so investigations didn’t yield much. However, what was clear was that Vasa’s design played a huge role in her sinking. Her upper side (the one above the water) was significantly bigger than the one below the water.

The fact that King Gustavus himself oversaw and approved the designs meant he was also to blame, but that was discussed in hushed tones.

The Retrieval of Vasa

Within three days after the sinking of Vasa, it was decided that the vessel should be raised, so a contract was signed. Unfortunately, the efforts proved futile as technology was not as developed at the time. An English engineer, Ian Bulmer, was among the first to attempt to raise the ship. Although he managed to right it, Ian got Vasa securely stuck in the mud.

After more than 300 years, a successful project to raise Vasa was launched in 1958. Three years later, the entire warship had been lifted from the depths of Stockholm harbor. The ship’s iron bolts holding the beakhead were among the most decomposed.

While the majority of the iron parts had rusted a few years after Vasa sunk, the large objects, including anchors and cannonballs, were in surprisingly good shape. Wood, leather, and cloth were also still in very good condition.

Why Was Vasa So Well Preserved When it Sank?

The interior of the Vasa ship

Vasa vessel sank in 1628 but was retrieved in the late 1950s. Given that she was made mainly of wood, the common expectation is that most of her parts should have been dilapidated and rotted by then. Surprisingly, Vasa was still in perfect shape when she was retrieved more than three centuries later.

Experts attribute this to the ship’s sinking location. She sank in cold, dark, and almost oxygen-free waters, the perfect conditions for preservation. The shipworm that usually devours wooden ships was absent. Only the outer wood had been degraded by bacteria when she was retrieved.

Why Vasa Is a Huge Part of Swedish History and Tourism

It is not every day that people recover items that have drowned for a few years, let alone more than three centuries. As such, Vasa became so popular and widely recognized when she was raised. She was a historical narrative that Swedish authorities were unwilling to let go of.

Today, Vasa is on display at the Vasamuseet (Vasa Museum) on Djurgaden island in central Stockholm. She is one of Sweden’s most popular tourist attractions, with an estimated 35 million visitors since she was raised in 1961. It is hard to talk about the Swedish Empire without recognizing Vasa.

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