The East Indiaman Götheborg

The East Indiaman Götheborg that is now crossing the world’s oceans on her way to China looks just like her namesake did more than 250 years ago. But this time with the latest technology onboard.

DATE 2023-11-28 AUTHOR Birgitta Lundblad

In all her finery and with an extremely costly cargo of exotic goods, the full-rigged Götheborg was on her way on 12 September 1745 towards a triumphant return from China to her home port after two years of eventful sailing across the world’s oceans. But the triumph turned to disaster when the pilot steered the East Indiaman onto a well known shoal at the entrance to Gothenburg harbour.

The ship broke against the jagged rocks and sank with its entire cargo which was said to have a value equivalent to the entire Swedish public purse at the time.

However, the disaster was not quite as bad as originally feared. None of the crew died and a third of the cargo was eventually recovered. Despite everything, this resulted in Götheborg’s last journey making a profit for the extremely successful Swedish East India Company. There was a lot of speculation about the reasons for the loss. Had the ship suffered badly during the arduous journey? Had the pilot celebrated the imminent homecoming by looking too deeply into his glass? Was it an insurance fraud? The cause was never determined and that could have been the end of the East Indiaman Götheborg saga ...

Blood, sweat and tears – and a thousand oaks ...

had it not been for a few divers who rediscovered the ship in 1985. This was the start of a number of marine archaeology excavations which, in turn, gave birth to the idea of building a replica of the old 18th century ship.

The concept seemed quite unrealistic initially. Nobody knew where it would be possible to find all the 200-year-old oaks required for the hull. There was no suitable shipyard, and who would stump up the hundreds of millions of kronor it would cost to implement the project? There weren’t even any drawings of the original ship since the shipwrights of the time simply had the drawings in their heads.

“Even if the idea of a modern East Indiaman had already conceived I could never in my wildest dreams imagine that this would develop into what it is today,” says master shipwright Joakim Severinsson who has been responsible for building the Götheborg. He is one of the undaunted driving forces without whom this fantastic project would never have come to life.

Enormous efforts have been necessary for recreating the East Indiaman Götheborg. The indefatigable enthusiasts on the project who have struggled to get together the capital from financial backers and sponsors, learned everything about ancient shipbuilding skills and spent hundreds of thousands of hours at the Terra Nova yard in Gothenburg.

The Götheborg has been built using traditional artisan methods albeit using modern tools. The project has required 1000 large oaks, 55,000 hand-forged iron nails, 1900 m2 of hand-sewn sails made of linen and 25 tonnes of hand-made ropes manufactured by cleaning, tarring and twisting hemp according to methods from the 18th century.

Promotes relations between China and Sweden

Now, ten years after laying the keel, the vision of the new Götheborg has become reality. When you see her slicing through the waves at full sail, 40.9 metres long and 11 metres wide, you can easily imagine being transported 250 years back in time. On deck it is only the modern lifeboats that differentiate her from her predecessor.

The East Indiaman Götheborg started her proud journey round the world on 2 October 2005. The ship will follow the same route as the trading ships from the 1700s. She will be docking at Cadiz in Spain, Recife in Brazil, Cape Town in South Africa, Freemantle in Australia and Jakarta in Indonesia before she reaches her historic destination of Canton in China where she can expect a magnificent reception.

International interest in the East Indiaman is considerable, especially in China where she is part of the country’s own history. 350 million Chinese viewers saw the live TV transmission of the ship’s naming performed by Queen Silvia. When China’s deputy prime minister Madame Wu Yi visited the ship while she was being built, she was very much impressed and stated the importance of the project as a symbol for trade and cultural exchange between China and Sweden.

Many cultural areas and brand names will be given exposure through Götheborg. The best that Sweden has to offer in technology, design, food, music and sport will be demonstrated in connection with the ship’s travels.

About the Swedish East India Company

The Swedish East India Company (SOIC) was active in shipping and trading between 1731 and 1813 in the East Indies, i.e. China and other places east of the Cape of Good Hope.

SOIC can be considered one of Sweden’s most successful trade marks throughout the ages. The average profit is considered to have been around 40 per cent of the invested capital!

The business concept was to sell timber, tar and iron goods to Spain which needed these for its expanding merchant fleet. Payment was made in silver that the Spanish acquired in Latin America. The company could then trade the silver in China for silk, porcelain, tea, mother of pearl, spices and other luxury goods that were become widely sought after in Europe.

The Swedish East India Company carried out 130 trips with 37 ships. All but three went to Canton in China. SOIC was recreated in 1993 to manage and develop the shipyard and shipping company activities that are part of the Götheborg project.

Old craftsmanship and new technology

The new East Indiaman Götheborg has been built in much the same way as her predecessor of two and a half centuries ago using traditional craftsmanship methods.

But she is adapted to modern requirements in terms of technical systems and functions. By combining technological leading-edge skills with imagination it has been possible to get modern equipment on the Götheborg to harmonise with the ship as a whole while at the same time meeting all the necessary requirements from international shipping authorities.

Despite the ship’s smaller dimensions, it is fitted with the same types of systems as large, modern merchant ships. There are five diesel engines on board; two main motors which together produce 1100 HP at full speed, two which drive generators to cope with the ship’s normal electricity consumption and one which drives an auxiliary generator.

To comply with modern environmental requirements, all the five diesel engines from Volvo Penta are equipped with Alfdex separators that effectively clean the ventilation air from the crank-case of oil drops and soot particles for a cleaner environment. The Alfdex separator that has been developed in collaboration between Alfa Laval and Haldex is an innovative solution, based on centrifugal separation, for cleaning the crankcase gases from diesel engines.

Life for the crew of 80 on the new Götheborg is significantly more comfortable than on the 18th century ship. Now there are showers, toilets and a modern kitchen. Two heat exchangers from Alfa Laval generate the hot water needed onboard by recovering heat from the generators.