Vasa, Swedish Warship
12 October, 2012
Stockholm, Sweden

Like a pilgrim visiting a holy shrine, I finally made the journey to Stockholm to visit the Vasa Museum, a reliquary of artifacts and Swedish might of the early 17th century. I exhausted a day engrossed in the well presented displays – and in awe of the ship, the entire ship.

For those of you unacquainted with the Vasa, she was a warship commissioned by the Swedish King, Gustav II Adolf, a.k.a., Gustavus Adolphus. She was one of the first warships specifically designed and built to carry two decks of cannon, 72 24-pounders in all. During the planning, the King had such vision for how his war ship could project Swedish power in the Baltic, he had it named for his family crest: the Vasa.

By the third decade of the 17th century, Sweden was vying for control in the Baltic, a route for highly profitable trade between western merchants such as the Dutch and suppliers of timber, grain and other raw materials from the eastern and southern shores of the Baltic. Taxing this trade was extremely lucrative. This trade was literally constricted by the presence of Denmark, jutting up and into the passage between the North Sea and the Baltic, charging handsomely for every ship to pass though its narrow waters. Furthermore, from Sweden’s perspective, that Protestant country had separated itself from Catholic Poland under the leadership of the father of Gustavus Adolphus – not long beforehand – and Poland had its grip on much of the land supplying the fruitful trade. A growing threat was the expansion of Habsburg Imperial power following victories in one battle after another in what is now termed the 30 Years War. The King and his people could not sit on their hands whilst a lot of money and power were moving in the sea next to them.

Sweden already had a viable navy, capable of challenging another Baltic force. An enlarged navy would ensure Sweden being able to project its power. A powerful centerpiece to that navy could strike respect and awe among friends and foes, much like super carriers of today serve that purpose. Such a warship appearing outside the port of any country would have given pause for negotiation. Plans were made to create the Vasa.

In the 1620’s ship design was still an engineering art, not yet a science. Very few ships had been built by then to have two gun decks running the ship’s length; designing such a warship was “mare incognita.” A Dutch merchant and shipwright, Henrik Hybertsson and his brother Arendt were awarded the contract in 1624 to construct the ship in Stockholm. Evidently a concern for Henrik was supporting and bracing for 72 heavy cannon – imagine the shock to the ship’s structure when she fired a broadside. His design had thick and thorough strengthening for the two gun decks, with plenty of headroom for the gun crews. Therein was the malignant embryo of the problem.

As construction neared completion, some naval experts expressed concern for the ship’s stability; as she was being fitted, an officer had 30 men run from one side of the top deck to the other, back and forth. The ship was too slow to right herself from each imbalance. Eager to have the king pleased and to get this great ship out into the Baltic, others tucked his findings out of sight. 10 August, 1628, the Vasa went out from the shipyard onto her maiden voyage, with about 200 crew and guests aboard.. At first there was no wind, with the ship being moved by the current. All her cannon fired a celebratory salute. A little gust hit her topsails and she rolled, recovering all too slowly. A second gust, a second roll, this time far to port – far enough to have the Baltic wash into the still open gun ports. The Vasa did not recover. Nearly on her side, she swiftly went under. Fortunately for those on board, land was just a few meters away, very swimmable. In addition, a small flotilla of little boats had accompanied the Vasa and they rushed to rescue many in the water. When the hull reached the bottom, the very tops of the masts protruded above the waves. Only an estimated 30 people perished.

Of course a hearing was ordered by the king when he read the news two weeks later while on campaign in Poland. The conclusion drawn then was the same as archeologists and modern shipwrights made 333 years later inspecting the raised hull: there was too much ship above the waterline and too little ship below.

The Vasa today in the museum has been touted for its excellent preservation. Unlike the Mary Rose, of which only a third of the ship remains, nearly 95 percent of the Vasa’s hull survived the centuries underwater. One reason for such remarkable preservation is the absence of shipworms (Tenebro) in the Baltic, that sea simply is not sufficiently salty to support that life form. That’s the reason commonly provided in descriptions. Another, usually uncited, reason for such preservation: sewage. Decades upon decades of sewage dumped into the sea outside Stockholm lowered the water’s oxygen content and raised the level of hydrogen sulphide, both acting to retard decomposition of wood.

Sunlight again lit the top deck of the Vasa in 1961 as she was raised. But the sunlight was short lived. Right away she went back into the dark to be bathed for years in a shower of ethylene glycol to replace slowly the water logging the old wood. Were the ship left to dry out without that shower, it would literally have shriveled and cracked by every plank and beam.

Coming up with the Vasa was a trove of artifacts; like those artifacts found with the Mary Rose, they could be dated right down to the day. One set of artifacts is all the carved wood sculpture that adorned the stern and bow. Over three centuries under water had reduced the art into dull, dark gray, but here and there were traces of paint that allowed historians to reconstruct the original appearance of the Vasa. When I beheld the painted reproductions, I thought “Well, pimp this ride!” Her colors were bright and varied, part of the effort to impress one and all with Sweden’s might. One floor of the museum was dedicated to explaining the symbolism behind the carvings and their colors.

The reconstruction at the left may be one of the two captains aboard at the time, judging by the quality of clothing found with the skeleton, and one (Hans Jonsson) was reported to have went down with the ship. Below is a wooden combination lock for a wooden box.  Below left, tankards with spouts for sharing.  Those tankards appear to be able to hold almost a liter.  Below right a turned hardwood jar and a canteen.  I estimate the jar to be about a quarter of a meter tall.


Another set of displays featured a study of those few who died when the Vasa sank. Two of those found were women (on the maiden voyage, guests were aboard). Some remains are displayed and had been forensically analyzed. Not surprising, they revealed a variety of healed bones and eroded teeth, like other period remains. In this museum (and other museums I visited) the Swedish curators had reconstructed life-sized reproductions of the dead. Effort was made to render the reconstructions so accurate that, were any next of kin still alive, they could have identified the deceased. Of course hair color and style are conjectural but some clothing is not; bits of fabrics were found with the bones. These reconstructions help bridge the gulf between museum exhibit and living people of that time.

Many other exhibits featured artifacts of everyday life in 1628, just the thing to quicken the pulse of any re-enactor. Displays of weapons were a bit short on items because many of the bronze cannon had been salvaged in the years following the sinking, and steel corroded away in the water. Muskets were aboard but all that has been found are the wooden stocks.

From the standpoint of a history enthusiast and re-enactor, the displays are grand but show too few artifacts. So much is out of sight in storage. (Approximately 46,000 artifacts were found, of which 2,000 are displayed.) The museum for the Mary Rose is the same. But there is one very outstanding difference between the two museums: books cataloguing the artifacts, with accurate drawings and measurements are available for the Mary Rose but NOT for the Vasa. The absence frustrates. (The full collection is currently being inventoried - we can hope for an eventual catalog.) The gift shop in the Vasa museum does sell a few titles, but they are overviews and discussions, not catalogs. One book I found to be particularly informative of the history of the Vasa, including her recovery and present museum, is Vasa, A Swedish Warship, by Fred Hocker. The book is replete with pictures, enough to tease you of what remains out of sight. Whether or not you can look at that book, be sure to visit the Web site for the Vasa Museum:, which has more and better pictures than I offer, plus discussions.

But the finest and most spectacular artifact is there on display, the ship itself: the Vasa.