The Mediterranean Origins of Early Modern Swedish Naval Innovations (1500-1800)

The Mediterranean has been the cradle of the naval innovations adopted to the Baltic since the times of the famous Swedish Gothic cartographer and historian Olaus Magnus (Carta Marina, The History of the Northern Peoples). According to Olaus Magnus the king of Sweden, Gustavus Vaasa, recruited Venetian galley masters from the Arsenal to Sweden in order to teach galley building. True or tale, as a fact remains, that Sweden created one of the biggest galley fleets in the 16th century. (At the beginning of the century Sweden had no fleet or galleys at all.) The diffusion of the naval innovations from the Mediterranean was thus fast.

Decoration of the 16th century galleys is only faintly known, but the yellow-blue national colours and insignias were allready in use. Decoration was a prominent part of galley design. Catholic and southern references were, of course, modified to strictly Lutheran and Gothic. However,  names such as, Morion, gives a hint of a Mediterranean origin of the galleys.

It is more than likely that with the technical dissemination of naval technology also new Venetian construction methods, such as measuring  (e.g mezza luna triangulation method to find the right contour of the ribs) and standardization, were introduced to 16th century Sweden. At least, the king talks about skamplunor, which were some kind of  models for constructors.

In general, with the help of standardization of the construction process it was possible to make assembly kits of standard components and sell these kits abroad. The new galley technology was diffused to Northern Europe, e.g. England, Sweden and Russia. Besides galleys, other kind of innovations diffused from south to north, as well, e.g. the skill of lifting sunken ships.

Carta Marina includes a picture of an odd oared leather covered vessel in the east side of Islandia. My interpretation is, that it represents a submarine, maybe influenced by Leonardo da Vinci´s ideas. It´s very similar than e.g. Cornelius Drebbels submarine from the 1620s. Furthermore, Leonardo was probably the first one to use ship models in experimental purposes.

It was Olaus Magnus who launched the brand of the snowy North, an utopian Ultima Thule, a remote territory of vast timber resources and skilled shipbuilders. This image was eagerly noted in Southern Europe, where there was a shortage of timber. As a result,  diplomatic consultations of Swedish-Spanish naval co-operation were started in the 1580s. The aim of Philip II was to construct his Great Armada with the aid of Finnish timber, tar and know-how.

The galleys dissappered from the Baltic in the 17th century and the emphasis was laid on the navy of the deep waters. But a change was coming: Peter the Great  received an assembly kit of a Venetian galley from Holland during the great Northern War. By assembling and copying this a new fleet of replicas was built. This was the first one of Russia, the Azov fleet, which he launched against the Turks. With his new galley fleet and its Venetian commander, Ivan Botzis, the tzar managed to occupy Finland. Sweden was forced to establish its own archipelago fleet. In order to gather information of galley technology, Swedish officers were spying in Mediterranean maritime states in the beginning of the 18th century, With the help of this information the Swedes innovated an updated galley fleet.

A major turning point in Sweden was the building of the sea fortress Sveaborg in front of Helsinki that began in 1748. Sveaborg was one of the bigest construction sites of its time in Northern-Europe. The fortress, The Northern Gibraltar, was an important transmitter of innovations. In the heart of the fortress was its modern dock for the archipelago fleet. The origins of its hightech installations were in the Rennaissance naval technology.

The river system, streching from Mediterranean to the Baltic, gave Russia a remarkable geographical advantage in the diffusion of maritime innovations. In the mid 1750s the impetus to modernize Swedish fleet came again from Russia. It introduced a new efficient ship, chebeck, orginally a Mediterranean pirate vessel, to the Baltic. An important innovation was also the mortar sloop (galiotes à bombes), which the French used (by the initiative of Vauban) in the 1680s when bombarding the pirate stronghold of Alger. The mortar sloop and its capability to operate and fire over islands was a powerful weapon in the narrow and shallow Finnish archipelago.

In the 18th century European states, including Sweden, were in a kind of war situation with the Berber coast, from which European convoys were attaced. Towards the end of the century conflicts gave way to policy of diplomacy and alliances. This led to a strange kind of cultural change and diffusion of  innovations between Europe and Africa. Bribes, e.g. luxury products such as armament, maps, wines, instruments, balloons etc. were given to Berber chieftains, who reciprocally freed hostages and donated spices, perfumes, gold, ivory and even exotic animals to Europeans. The first “zoos” were founded in Europe.

Thanks to the  Meditarranean experience and the help of an brilliant English born shipbuilder F. H. af Chapman, a new ship, the archipelago fregat, a hybrid of the galley and the ship of the line, was successfully launched. This vessel, also suitable to open seas, was a northern modification of the chebeck. Chapman was one of the most outstanding ship builders of his time. However, his debt to Italian Renaissance ship building is obvious. His methods and ideas, such as standardization, the basic factor of modern industry, first used in Arsenal, were transmitted to Sweden. The experiments with ship models, which also served as valuable decoratives items,  were introduced to ship design process. According to Rococo aesthetics and fabricating desing, art was also an integral part of naval building. The pre-industrial progress in naval architecture and technology was an important but hidden factor in the eve of industrial revolution.

Mikko Huhtamies

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