Swedish Maritime History

Ekström, Simon; Müller, Leos (Hrsg.): Facing the Sea. Essays in Swedish Maritime Studies. Lund 2021 : Nordic Academic Press, ISBN 978-91-89361-03-4 292 S. SEK 235.00

: Niederländische Seefahrer in schwedischen Diensten. Seeschifffahrt und Technologietransfer im 17. Jahrhundert. Köln 2022 : Böhlau Verlag, ISBN 978-3-412-51747-2 473 S., 15 Tab. € 60,00

Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Patrick Schmidt, Historisches Institut, Universität Rostock

Probably due to a language barrier, knowledge about Swedish maritime history is rather limited outside of Swedish academia. Thus, the publication of two books on Swedish maritime history in languages other than Swedish – one in English, the other in German – is welcome news.

Facing the Sea. Essays in Swedish Maritime Studies, a collected volume edited by Simon Ekström and Leos Müller, is not devoted to a specific, well-defined subject. As indicated by the title, Facing the Sea aims to showcase the research undertaken at the Centre for Swedish Maritime Studies founded in Stockholm in 2010. As the Centre is interdisciplinary, so is the scope of the ten contributions, written mainly by historians as well as two archaeologists, two ethnologists and one engineer, and covering historical epochs from the High Middle Ages to the present in roughly chronological order. As Ekström and Müller point out in their introduction, while the volume is not focused on a specific aspect of maritime history, several recurrent themes can be identified: Aspects of naval warfare are treated in three chapters, as are constructions of national identity, and death in its various guises. Individual and collective memory constitutes another subject discussed in three chapters.

One way to look at this volume is to categorize the contributions by the degree to which they fit into or diverge from conventional topics of maritime history. In this perspective, there is a progression from well-researched, but rather traditional topics – for instance, early modern sea routes leading into Stockholm discussed by Niklas Eriksson, Anna Maria Forssberg’s actor-centred focus on the infamously sunken warship Vasa, or national identity discourses in a Swedish naval magazine analysed by Andreas Linderoth – to fairly unconventional ones, like Frederik Kämpe’s chapter on naval and merchant flags in the Swedish navy and the often varying interpretations of what it meant to defend the honour of the naval ensign, or Simon Ekström’s discussion of wrecks and their salvage not only as a loss, but as a source of (past) national glory.

Another often-discussed subject of naval history, the role of arms in naval combats, is the focus of Henrik Arnstad and Abigail Christine Parker’s chapter “Maritime military archery. Bowmen on European warships, 1000–1600”. However, while much has been written on the ways in which the introduction of guns revolutionized naval warfare, the authors by contrast point out that the role of archery on the high seas has been under-researched and undervalued, emphasizing the importance of bows and arrows not just as anti-personnel weapons, but also – using fire-arrowheads – as arms to destroy enemy ships. As illustrated by hundreds of bows and arrows recovered in the wreck of the Mary Rose that foundered in 1546, these weapons, the authors stress, were still part of the standard armament of warships even after the introduction of powder and guns.

The chapter “Swedish vessels in the Prize Papers. Cases from the American Revolutionary War, 1776–1783” by Leos Müller similarly addresses a traditional topic, albeit using sources only recently been made available. Aiming to reconstruct the cargoes and itineraries of Swedish merchant ships, Müller draws on the “Prize Papers”, a huge collection that contains all papers found on vessels captured by British ships throughout the long eighteenth century and is currently rendered accessible in a joint project of the British National Archives and the University of Oldenburg. Müller’s chapter furthermore offers interesting insights into the treatment of ships sailing under a neutral flag, as Sweden did in the American War of Independence. British ships captured 74 Swedish vessels anyway, most of which were returned to their owners on order of the High Court of Admiralty. The cargoes were a different matter: In several cases they were declared contraband, having been regarded as belonging to French or Spanish merchants.

Readers come across less-expected topics in the second half of the volume. “What can a maritime museum do with toys that children took with them when fleeing across the Baltic Sea?” is certainly a question seldom asked in maritime history. It is the subject of the intriguing contribution “Tommi the sea dog. Maritime collections and the material culture of Baltic boat children” by Mirja Arnshav. Tommi is a soft toy that accompanied a two-year old boy when fleeing the imminent arrival of the Red Army from the Baltic States to Sweden in 1944, and is now a touching artefact in the collection of the Maritime Museum in Stockholm. Beyond its historical context, this chapter is made all the more poignant by today’s many refugees crossing the Mediterranean and the English Channel under life-threatening conditions. Many of the corpses washed ashore are those of children, and probably toys are among their possessions.

Another phenomenon integral to maritime history is treated by Ida Hughes Tidlund in her chapter “How to break the rules just right. Åland smugglers, 1920–1950”. Ever since political borders have divided the seas, sailors have taken to smuggling goods that are subject to high customs. Yet, maritime historians generally pay much more attention to the legal trade than to the illicit one. For this reason alone, the chapter is a refreshing read, as well as nuanced and well-written.

The closing chapter by ethnologist Hanna Jansson, “Here, there and everywhere. Ash disposal at sea and the construction of a maritime memory landscape”, takes the reader farthest away from traditional maritime history. Ships and sailors are almost irrelevant – they make an appearance merely as means to bring urns, relatives and friends of the deceased to the open sea. At its core, this chapter is about the changing attitudes of landlubbers towards death, funerary rites, the commemoration of the dead – and about the role of the sea as a final resting place, relevant to maritime history as it takes into account wider public attitudes.

In sum, Facing the Sea is a pleasant and worthwhile read, giving a good idea of the range of approaches that can be practised under the umbrella of maritime studies. Furthermore, the value of the volume is enhanced by copious illustrations.

Hielke van Nieuwenhuize’s Niederländische Seefahrer in schwedischen Diensten. Seeschifffahrt und Technologietransfer im 17. Jahrhundert is a very different book. Based on his doctoral thesis, this Dutch historian’s study is focused on a single, well-defined topic, namely the foreign expertise in naval matters the Swedish monarchy purchased in the period between 1630 and 1654. Purchasing foreign expertise meant, on the one hand, hiring officers for the Swedish navy, and on the other hand, renting an auxiliary fleet composed of armed merchant ships.

Neither was a singular Swedish practice, but in fact rather typical for emerging sea powers: As early as 1317, the Portuguese king Denis hired Manuel Pessanha, a Genoese sailor, as the first admiral of his navy. Four centuries later, the recruitment of British naval officers was instrumental in building the Russian navy under Peter the Great and his successors. And as to hiring foreign ships for waging war at sea, the author cites the example of a Dutch fleet hired by the Venetian Republic in 1617. There is also nothing astonishing in the fact that the Swedish government rented merchant ships to enlarge its war fleet. Throughout the Middle Ages and well into the early modern period, this was a common practice, as there was little to differentiate warships from merchant ships. Only in the second half of the seventeenth century were purpose-built warships becoming increasingly formidable weapons, and new tactics for fleet combat resulted in a massive concentration of firepower, which only such ships could withstand. Finally, it is not astonishing either that the Swedish turned to the Dutch Republic for naval expertise. This young state was at its apogee as a naval power and seafaring nation, and throughout Europe, rulers and shipowners looked to the Dutch for ships and shipbuilding techniques.

Thus, van Nieuwenhuize’s study is not primarily valuable for unearthing hitherto unknown historical phenomena – it is valuable because it reconstructs the implementation of such schemes in great detail. The first part of the book is devoted to the recruitment and employment of 141 officers of Dutch origin in the Swedish navy over a period of 24 years. While this might look like a small number, it is worth noting that we are also speaking about a small navy. In the late 1640s, a full 45 percent of the captains employed in the Swedish navy were Dutch. Van Nieuwenhuize explains these recruitments by the need of the Swedish Admiralty for officers who were able to command large, seagoing vessels (in contrast to smaller vessels hitherto used for naval wars in the Baltic Sea) and who had the navigational skills required for sailing on the open ocean for prolonged periods (in contrast to the Baltic Sea, whose nearby coasts made it possible to find one’s position without celestial navigation). Thus, the Swedish Admiralty was not primarily looking for experts in naval warfare, but for persons proficient in navigation and sailing. Referring to general insights into transfer of professional knowledge during the early modern period, van Nieuwenhuize plausibly assumes that in hiring Dutch officers, the Swedish Admiralty hoped to promote the nautical skills of its own future officers as they were trained by experienced Dutch superiors. This would also explain why the Swedish state did not put much effort into keeping the Dutch officers in its service in the long run. As Van Nieuwenhuize points out, other emerging sea powers at that time showered foreign naval officers with titles and land grants to permanently gain their service. Sweden did so only in few cases, notably Maarten Thijssen, who had commanded the Dutch auxiliary fleet: He was offered extremely high wages in comparison to his Swedish counterparts and was nobilitated to Maarten Thijssen Anckerhielm. He entered Swedish service on a permanent basis in September 1644, while most of the other Dutch officers were gone by 1655.

The second and longer part of the study deals with the auxiliary fleet Sweden rented for its war against Denmark in 1644. Here, van Nieuwenhuize has an intriguing story to tell. The Swedish Admiralty rented a fleet of 32 Dutch armed merchant ships, complete with artillery, officers, and seamen. This policy reminds of contemporary practices of hiring entire mercenary armies from military enterprisers, the most famous being the Duke of Wallenstein (1583–1634). One might also think about the infamous role of private companies in recent wars such as the third Iraq War or the Russian invasion in Ukraine. During the first half of the seventeenth century, the Dutch Republic was a centre of the European arms industry. Though Sweden had already bought large quantities of arms and ammunition there before, however, renting a fleet of fighting ships proved to be a different, more complicated matter: While the Dutch Republic had concluded a formal alliance with Sweden in 1640, its political leaders were determined to remain neutral in a war between Sweden and Denmark. The Swedish request was therefore not easily granted. Furthermore, the Danish government also tried to recruit sailors and buy arms in the Dutch Republic. A battle of diplomats ensued, with both sides trying to manipulate the Dutch authorities into turning down the other side’s requests for men, ships and arms. In the end, both sides were allowed to acquire military reinforcements, with the Swedish High Chancellor Axel Oxenstierna (1583–1654) sealing the deal and Louis de Geer (1587–1652), a successful Dutch-Swedish entrepreneur of Wallonian extraction, renting the ships and crews on behalf of the Swedish state.

The Dutch auxiliary fleet proved to be a mixed success for the Swedish navy. The vessels de Geer was able to rent had mostly been used in the North Sea and Baltic trade and thus were relatively small and lightly armed. More importantly, their crews had little military experience. In the first naval engagement against Denmark, the Battle of List Deep on 16 May 1644, the Swedish fleet suffered heavy losses, causing the sailors of the auxiliary fleet to mutiny – being hired mercenaries, they had little reason to be loyal to Sweden when the enemy proved to be tougher than expected. Louis de Geer needed much money and force of conviction to make the sailors return to Swedish service. When the Swedish fleet defeated the Danish fleet decisively in the Battle of Fehmarn on 13 October 1644, however, the auxiliary fleet acquitted itself well. Apart from these major engagements, it was predominantly used in a guerre de course, chasing Danish and Norwegian merchant vessels, though with only moderate financial gain.

Van Nieuwenhuize’s book offers a comprehensive and nuanced study of the service of Dutch sailors and ships under the Swedish flag in the second quarter of the seventeenth century. Based on extensive archival research, it is written in a comprehensible style. Some chapters would have profited from abridgements, though. This is particularly true for the second part, which made the reader sometimes wonder why events had to be presented in such detail. The book would also be more stimulating if the author had drawn more far-ranging conclusions and placed his results in a larger context. Nevertheless, Niederländische Seefahrer in schwedischen Diensten is a valuable addition to naval history and to our understanding of the military economy in the early modern period.