History Wednesday: That Sinking Feeling

Believe it or not, there was a time when using the terms “Sweden” and “aggressive military power” in the same sentence didn’t sound inherently silly.


The Swedes having long since embraced more civilized ways to irritate the rest of the world.
Image credit: RetroLand U.S.A.

For most of the 17th Century Sweden was one of Europe’s major players. They pulled it off with inspired leadership and military might. They also did it in spite of one of the truly epic fails in all of maritime history.

Unlike most historical figures History Wednesday mentions, Gustavus Adolphus was a legitimately strong leader. The Swedes were almost constantly at war throughout his 21-year reign, and in the process developed a fearsome reputation as a military juggernaut. Gustavus Adolphus himself was by all accounts a gifted military strategist, particularly noted for his innovative uses of cavalry and artillery. By the time he died in 1632 – quite appropriately in a battle the Swedes won anyway – Gustavus Adolphus had conquered much of present-day Estonia and Latvia, as well as assured Protestantism would remain dominant throughout much of northern Europe.


He was also apparently into My Little Pony.

Although the Swedish Army under Gustavus Adolphus kicked serious amounts of ass, its navy often struggled. In 1625, 10 ships were lost in a storm in the Gulf of Riga. Two years later, the Swedish Navy suffered an embarrassing loss against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Not used to these sorts of setbacks, Gustavus Adolphus soon made it clear to just about everyone that he wanted new warships built yesterday. And ships with lots of cannons, dammit!

To that end, the king ordered the construction of what would eventually be five capital ships. The first of these ships, the Vasa, was named after the royal house and intended to be the largest and grandest. However, construction of the new ship would be snakebit almost from the start.

This task fell to a certain Henrik Hybertson, who in the 1620s served as Stockholm’s master shipbuilder. As it still the case today, warship construction often took years. However much unlike today, at the time there was very little science used in ship design. Master shipbuilders didn’t even draw up plans, preferring to keep them in their heads. With naval technology increasingly embracing tactics such as sinking enemy ships with cannons as opposed to boarding them, determining such things as center of gravity became infinitely more important.


Cannons being, you know, heavy and stuff.

In other words, although Hybertson had a solid reputation as a shipbuilder he was still basically bullshitting his way through the process. The fact he was working for a client who wanted a lot of top-heavy equipment and who kept changing the specifications on him certainly didn’t help. To make matters worse Hybertson died mid-project in 1627, leaving his inexperienced successor with no written plans and an increasingly cranky absolute monarch who wasn’t keen on hearing bad news.

It’s not hard to see where this is going.


Yup. Straight down.
Image credit: loud paper

Despite clear evidence beforehand the ship was way too unstable to be put to sea, on 10 August 1628 the Vasa set sail on her maiden voyage in good weather … and promptly sank to the bottom after traveling less than a mile. Needless to say Gustavus Adolphus, who was out of the country fighting yet another battle when the incident occurred, was incensed when he heard the news. Nevertheless despite an investigation no one was ever found responsible for the sinking.

The Vasa remained at the bottom of Stockholm’s harbor until 1961, when it was salvaged in a much more meticulous manner than it was built. Today it’s one of Sweden’s most popular tourist draws.


Along with this, I suppose.
Image credit: AVRO

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