The wreck of the Svecia

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Svecia  

 


The Svecia was an armed merchantman of 28 guns and 600 tons burthen belonging to the Swedish East India Company, based at Gothenburg. In 1739, on her second voyage, the Svecia went to Bengal to collect merchandise from the small Swedish factory there. In spring or summer of 1740 she sailed for home, laden with dyewood, saltpetre, silks and cottons, together with an unknown quantity of iron-bound chests believed to contain 'treasure' of one kind or another belonging to individual passengers and crew members. Contemporary accounts suggest the cargo was worth between 150,000 and 250,000 pounds sterling, then an enormous sum.

The voyage to and from Bengal was not without incident: of the 150 people on board, about 40, including the captain, Johan Rattenborg, died either on the journey or in Bengal. Command for the return voyage passed to Diedriech Aget, her second-in-command. The ship is known to have called at the Portuguese island of St Thoma in the Gulf of Guinea for provisions and water, and by mid-November 1740 she was rounding the north coast of Scotland, intending to pass between the Orkneys and Fair Isle. Instead of clearing the Orkneys, the ship was pushed southwards in a gale and became trapped in a fierce tide-rip between the islands of Sanday and North Ronaldsay, being driven helplessly onto a notorious submerged area of rock (the Reefdyke).

The ship stayed more or less intact on the Reefdyke for three days while the passengers and crew strove to save themselves; the islanders of North Ronaldsay made no attempt to approach the stricken ship although she was only 1 1/2 miles (2.4 km) off the SE tip of the island and in full view of the shore. They were denounced for this as barbarous savages by the survivors, but their boats were too small and the storm too severe to take the risk. Contemporary copies of letters by two of the survivors record that her longboat and yawl were launched with as many men aboard 'as thought proper to goe in them', but were swept away to the northward so that it was feared that all in them had perished, although the 31 people in them made a fortunate, if perilous, landing on Fair Isle, where the longboat was pounded to pieces by the breakers.

Those still on the Svecia then made a substantial float or raft from her topmasts and rigging, and, two days later, the principal officers and some of the crew (numbering thirty in all) took to this makeshift craft, probably with some of the valuable chests on board. This was launched at noon with the hope of landing on North Ronaldsay or Sanday, but, again, was driven northwards by the tide and never seen again. Local folklore recalls that the raft passed close to the shore, but was temporarily and fatally submerged in passing the old beacon on Dennis Head. It was then swept away northwards and lost to view.

The remaining 24 people on the wreck managed to cut away part of the deck and made a raft which was washed ashore on North Ronaldsay with only thirteen people clinging to it, the other eleven having been washed away. There were thus only 44 survivors of the 104 persons believed to have been on board at the time of the wreck

News of the wreck, and of the reputed value of the cargo, spread rapidly throughout the northern isles, and by Christmas, four weeks later, reports appeared in the newspapers in London, where the ship was heavily insured. James, Earl of Morton, was at the centre of this interest as hereditary Admiral of the Orkneys and Shetlands with an entitlement to a proportion any salvage. However, a fierce gale from the SE disturbed the remains of the wreck before salvage operations could start; hundreds of bales of Bengal cotton and silk were torn open and left on the shores of North Ronaldsay, forming piles 'higher than the pier of Kirkwall'. Representatives of the Earl of Morton and the Swedish company are recorded as recovering over 200,000 yards of cloth, despite the rival attentions of the islanders and incomers. Salvage continued over many months in 1741, and bickering among the claimants is recorded in the Morton Monuments [muniments] and elsewhere. In the same year, determined efforts by professional divers failed to locate the 'treasure' chests.

Further diving (by Rex Cowan) since 1975 has located the wreck site under a 'forest' of 9ft (2.7m) seaweed and demonstrated that the remains are concentrated within a smaller area than was thought probable. Items loaned to the exhibition included:

• A 'billet' of dyewood 3ft 8ins (1.12m) long and weighing 30lb (13.6kg), so dense that it does not float,
• Fragments of Chinese porcelain, probably of the Yung-Chen dynasty (1725-35),
• A gold button,
• Four Portugese copper coins of the period,
• Two small cannon balls, and
• A pair of brass navigational dividers.

Notes:
•  James, Earl of Moton was not a popular man on Orkney.  The people did not respect his wish to concentrate on natural philosophy and on the study of medicine, and, indeed, his many other interests.

 

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    Last modified: Wednesday, 18 July 2018