The Cargo of the East Indiaman Götheborg Shipwreck

Notes from a talk given by Börje Forssell

The Swedish East India Company was established in 1731, its purpose to trade in Asia. In all their history, they sent 132 expeditions to China and India. The company got a 15-year monopoly on the trade and traded Swedish timber, tar, iron and copper for silver, tea, porcelain and silk. The company was situated in Göthenburg, while most of their 37 ships were built in Stockholm. Their fifth chapter ended in 1813.

The East Indiaman Götheborg was a large wooden sailing ship that sank off Göthenburg, Sweden, on 12 September 1745 while approaching its home harbour after returning from her voyage to Canton, China. All 141 crew and passengers survived, but the ship was lost.

It was in the final hours of her third trip to China. Her first trip to Canton was 1739 to 15 June 1740; her second voyage from 16 February 1741 to 28 July 1742; and on this–her third and final trip–she had departed 14 March 1743.

On this trip, she had stopped in Cadiz to trade timber for Spanish silver as she paid for her Chinese purchases with Portuguese and Mexican silver. She then rounded the Cape, and sailing south of Sumatra reaching Canton. On her homeward trip, she waited in Batavia for the winds to change.

She sank only 2000 meters from her mooring spot in Göthenburg Harbour despite good weather and having a pilot onboard. The circumstances were very strange. It is believed she sank because of a fire that started from the kitchen (one can find burn marks).

The ship could cary a cargo of 833 tonnes and her return cargo on this trip included 370,000 kg of tea, 200,000 kg of crew provisions and water. The remainder of the cargo included silk, ceramics, pepper, galangal, rattan, mother-of-pearl and tuttanego (a metal used for making decorations). In total, on this trip she had 650-700 tons of merchandise onboard.

Enough cargo was salvaged to give a 20% ROI; later salvage attempts brought up cannons, metal, and ceramics. A proper excavation was carried out in the 1980s by a marine archaeologist, who recovered 95% of what was left. Only 300 perfect ceramic pieces with found, with 300,000 tonnes of shards.

Amongst the most interesting ceramics: a plate bearing a popular Indonesian motif of fighting cocks. Other motifs included ‘river landscapes’ with pagodas and pines (as found on the Diana), the ‘100 Antiquities’ design, one ‘strange’ large dragon bowl, but no ceramics with reign marks.

End note: Borje Forssell was Chairman of the Oriental Ceramic Society of Sweden at the time of this talk, who had been diving for wrecks in Southeast Asia for more than 20 years.

7pm, Wednesday, 2 April 2008

The Discovery Room,

Asian Civilisations Museum, Empress Place