Sweden’s most popular museum enshrines the royal warship Vasa, which capsized on its maiden voyage of just 4,265 ft (1,300m) in a calm weather on August 10, 1628, in Stockholm’s harbor. About 50 people went down with what designed to be the pride of the Swedish Navy. Guns were all that was salvaged from the vessel during the 17th century, and it was not until 1956 that a marine archeologist’s persistent search led to the rediscovery of Vasa. After a complex salvage operation, followed by a 17-year conservation program, the Vasa Museum was opened in June 1990, less than a nautical mile from the scene of the disaster.
Vasa was built as a symbol of Swedish might by King Gustav II Adolf, who was steadily increasing Swedish influence over the Baltic region during the 1620s, through war with Poland. Vasa was the largest vessel in the history of the Swedish fleet and was capable of carrying 64 cannons and more than 445 crew. From its 170-ft (52-m) high stern it would have been possible to fire down upon smaller ships. Vasa was equipped for both traditional close combat and artillery battles. The musketeers had shooting galleries from training, and on the upper deck were so-called “storm pieces”, erected as protection against musketry fire.
Life on Board
Vasa’s intended destination on its maiden voyage was the Älvsnabben naval base in the southern Stockholm archipelago, where more soldiers were to embark. Each man’s life on the ship would have been determined by his ranks. The officers also ate better food than the crew, whose meals were very basic, and consisted of beans, porridge, salted fish and beer. The decks would have been very crowded – the small space between every two guns was the living and sleeping quarters for seven men (gun deck). There was no fresh food, so many of the crew would have had scurvy and died from deficiency diseases before they reached battle.
The Salvage Operation
The marine archeologist Anders Franzén had been looking for Vasa for so many years. On August 25, 1956, his patience was rewarded when he brought up a piece of blackened oak on his plumb line from Vasa, located 100 ft (30 m) beneath surface. From the autumn of 1957, it took divers two years to clear tunnels under the hull for the lifting cables. The first lift with six cables was a success, after which Vasa was lifted in 16 stages into shallower water. Thousands of plugs were then inserted into holes left by rusted iron bolts. The final lift started on the morning of April 24, 1961, and on May 4, Vasa was finally towed into dry dock after 333 years under water.
King Gustav II Adolf, who commissioned Vasa, was known as the Lion of the North, so a springing lion was the obvious choice for the 13-ft (4-m) figurehead.
Upper Gun Deck
Visitors cannot enter the warship itself, but a full-size replica of the upper gun deck, with carved wooden dummies of sailors, is on view, giving a good idea of conditions on board.
More than 50 of Vasa’s 64 original cannons were salvaged during the 17th century. Three 24-lb(11-kg) bronze cannons are now on a display in the museum.
Carvings of 20 Roman emperors stand on parade on Vasa.
Some 200 carved ornaments and 500 sculpted figures decorate Visa.
Vasa’s stern was badly damaged but it has been painstakingly restored to reveal this ship’s magnificent ornamentation.
The entrance to the cabins was towards the stern. This area was the grandest part of the ship, reserved for senior officers.
Vasa carried more heavy cannons on its two gun decks than earlier vessels of the same size. This probably contributed to its capsizing.
The woodcarvers who made the sculptures and ornaments on Vasa came from Germany to Holland. Motifs taken from Greek mythology, the Bible, and Roman and Swedish history were carved in oak, pine and lime in late-Renaissance and early-Baroque styles.
1625: King Gustav II Adolf orders new warships, including Vasa.
1628: Vasa is ready for its maiden voyage, but it capsizes in Stockholm’s harbor.
1956: Archeologist Anders Frazen locates Vasa and participates in its salvage.
1961: Vasa is raised to the surface after 33 years on the seabed.
1990: The Vasa Museum opens as a permanent museum, showing the restored Vasa and its treasures.