Swedish Naval Power 1500-present: Maritime Sweden 1

January 2024

This episode starts a new mini-series on the maritime history of Sweden, and we begin by exploring Sweden’s fascinating naval history over the last 500 years, and how Sweden’s modern defence thinking has been shaped by its past. Founded in 1522, the Swedish navy is one of the oldest continuous serving navies in the world and its complex history reflects the numerous geo-political changes that have affected the countries around the Baltic ever since. With a shifting map of allies, threats and foes, the Swedish navy has been a constant presence and a hotbed of maritime innovation; not least introducing the line of battle as a naval tactic in 1563 under Erik XIV, half a century before its widespread adoption by other European navies. To find out more Dr Sam Willis spoke with Fred Hocker, Director of Research at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm.

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    Sam Willis 

    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariners Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history. Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariners Mirror Podcast. Today we start a mini series on the maritime history of Sweden. This forms part of a programme begun last year to create a strong international foundation to the podcast. We’ve produced numerous episodes on maritime China, maritime Africa, maritime Australia, and that man of proud Welsh heritage, we started it all off with a series on the maritime history of Wales. So do go back and get listening to all of those. But for now it’s maritime Sweden. I was lucky enough to spend a little time in Sweden recently meeting a number of their fantastic maritime historians and archaeologists. And today I can introduce you to one of them, Fred Hokker, who has the enviable job of being director of research at the Vasa Museum.  Fred has spoken with us before about the Vasa, that great 17th century warship that was sunk on its maiden voyage, so be sure to listen to that. But today Fred is introducing our mini series on maritime Sweden by talking more broadly about Sweden’s fascinating naval history from about 1500 on to the present day, and he explains how Sweden’s modern defence thinking has been shaped by the previous 500 years. As always, I hope you enjoy listening to him as much as I enjoyed talking with him, here is the fascinating and formidably factual Fred.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Fred, thank you very much for joining me this morning.

     

    Fred Hokker 

    Oh, pleasure to talk to you again Sam.

     

    Sam Willis 

    So this is a large subject we’re going to be tackling today. Where’s a sensible place to start it?

     

    Fred Hokker 

    Gosh, because we’re talking about the 400 years before Sweden joined NATO basically, and how naval history has contributed to current Swedish defence thinking.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Exactly, that’s it in a nutshell.  About the 16th century; is it worth going back before that or is the 16th century sensible?

     

    Sam Willis 

    OK, and did they establish dockyards around that period? Is that the same time we can see it really having roots.

     

    Fred Hokker 

    We could go all the way back.  I mean  last year, we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Swedish Navy, which we reckoned from when the first modern King of Sweden, Gustav Eriksson, Gustav the First, hired and purchased ships from Lubeck to provide a Navy for his revolt against the king of Denmark, Christian the Second.  Sweden had been part of a three way joint monarchy since the 14th century called the Kalmar Union under the Danish royal house, and Gustav Eriksson was a noble who together with a bunch of like minded nobles disliked what they considered the tyrannical rule of the Danish king and wanted to be independent again. And so they fought a revolt for a year and a half or so and managed to essentially defeat Christian’s forces. And part of what he needed for that was a Navy, and he understood  because Sweden had so much coastline, and all of its commercial and political contacts were on the other side of the Baltic Sea, that a navy was essential to establishing the State. And so he purchased and hired a number of ships for that first campaign for the revolt, and then realised that a navy was going to be a central feature of Swedish foreign policy. And so after he was crowned King and  Sweden became independent again he establshed the navy on a more or less permanent footing. It tended to wax and wane with the political  problems of the time until the 17th century, when his grandson 100 years later, Gustavus Adolphus, decided that Sweden needed a permanent navy of purpose built warships, both in peace time and in war time. That would be essentially a fixed establishment that could be used as a tool for international relations. And so technically we could say the Navy is 500 years old, but the way we think of a navy today as a permanent institution of purpose built combat and warships, it’s really a 400 year old phenomenon.

     

    Fred Hokker 

    They did. Gustav Eriksson, Gustav Vasa, we sometimes call him Gustav the First, established a central maintenance and supply facility in Stockholm, the Stockholm navy yard, or Skepsholmen it was called. It was on an island called Skepsholmen, Ship Island, which is not the current island of that name. It’s now the the part of town called Blasieholmen And he established that as kind of a maintenance and supply facility, but not for the construction of new ships. His government for the 100 years afterwards decided that rather than building all your ships in a central facility, it’d be more cost effective to build the ships where the trees were, because you could then take advantage of all the local peasant labour for harvesting the trees and getting them to the shipyard. And so you’d set up a shipyard where there was appropriate timber, build one or two ships until you had exhausted that local supply, and then the next time you needed to build ships you’d set up a yard somewhere else. And the Navy did that for almost 100 years until about 1618 when Gustavus Adolphus had the idea that he needed to renew the Navy and he needed to  have a very steady programme of shipbuilding, but he didn’t have enough trained shipwrights to distribute them all over the countryside that way. So he consolidated new construction into basically one yard or two yards so the Stockholm yard became the main centre for the construction of new ships as well as maintenance and supply.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Did you guys have all of the timber you needed or did you need to import a lot of it, because when you build a ship you need all sorts of different types of wood.  I’m thinking you have plentiful sorts of lovely straight pines for planks and stuff like that, masts. What about oak and things like that for the hull.

     

    Fred Hokker 

    Right . Well actually timber supply is a tricky question for shipbuilding.  People often talk about how England was denuded of timber by the shipbuilding industry, which is not really true. It’s mostly the metals industry, because it doesn’t matter what kind of tree you burn, it still burns to smelt metal. But for shipbuilding you need very, very specific kinds of trees. You need long straight trees for things like keels and deck beams and planks. But you also need broad curving trees to make all the curved timbers in  the ship like frames, the stem, timbers like that. And oak is the ideal shipbuilding timber, it’s very durable, it’s very widely distributed, it’s readily available. And it’s an unusual sort of tree in that it grows both in dense stands of long straight trees, or as solitary trees out in fields with big spreading curved branches. And so the basic species of oak that people use in Northern Europe, there are two species, Quercus rubra and Quercus petraea, that are really hard to tell apart, and they’re very similar. But they’re available just about everywhere, and even in Sweden oak grows up until about an hour’s drive north of Stockholm, so Sweden had substantial oak reserves. And then by the 18th century those were starting to run out, the really good timber, because you can’t just clear cut a forest and use it, you have to send shipwrights into the forest, and they’re picking one tree out of 100. That’s a good tree to make a keel out of, that tree is a good timber for the stem, that sort of thing. So the Navy Yard had gangs of carpenters going around the countryside looking for trees, and the King had a right to every oak tree in the country. He also had estates of his own that he could supply timber from, and the Crown did that for a long time up until the 1620s.  Swedes will tell you that the King owned every oak tree in the country, that’s not true. The King had a right to use them,  if the King needed an oak tree on your property you couldn’t refuse to sell it to him because it was a strategic resource. But what’s interesting is that although Sweden was very rich in those kinds of natural resources it had a very small population, and once the military machine  really got going in the 17th century, the people who you would be counting on to be wood cutters and dragging timber from the forests down to the water to be loaded on boats, a lot of those people have been conscripted into the army and they’re not there anymore. So this very thinly distributed population makes it very expensive to extract the resources out of the Swedish landscape. And the big emphasis was on the metals industry, on copper and iron. So that took up a lot of the available available labour.  By the 1620s when the Crown started using private contractors to build ships, they found it was actually cost effective, rather than sourcing all the timber in Sweden, they were buying somewhere between a third and a half of their timber abroad.  Even though there was perfectly good timber in Sweden, it was more cost effective to get it out of areas that had a better developed forest industry. So they would send gangs around Sweden to find the curve timbers that had to match the pattern, the shape of the ship. But we can see from the purchase receipts in the 1620s, for example, that once they went to the private contracting, they were also sending purchasing agents to Poland, to Amsterdam, the big timber markets, to buy rough sawn planks, and then shipping those back to Sweden. And even though the freight cost for timber was something like 80% of its wholesale cost at the market, that was still more cost effective than trying to collect the necessary peasant labour you needed to extract trees out of the forest and within Sweden,

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes. What about canvas and iron, other things you need for shipbuilding?

     

    Fred Hokker 

    Well, Sweden was self sufficient in metals, and in fact  Swedish iron was of  the highest possible quality. The ore that we have in Sweden is very low in impurities  and so it makes very good wrought iron and also it’s a good basis for making steel.   The  Royal Navy in England for all of the 17th century and most of the way through the 18th century specified Swedish iron for all of its hardware  because it was of higher quality than could be produced in England until the English Industrial Revolution developed more effective iron refining methods.  And so Sweden had no trouble sourcing metals, copper for guns, iron for nails and bolts, all of that was sourced within Sweden, and the Crown had very good access to that material. Even if it was controlled, it might be controlled by private entrepreneurs, the Crown had a beneficial relationship. Canvas was an entirely different matter. The best quality canvas for  ship sails in those days was made out of hemp. By the 18th century we’re used to thinking of flax as the main material and then later cotton. But the most desirable material in the   16th and 17th centuries is hemp, and  hemp is actually a little tricky to grow. It’s  not like linen, flax which you can grow almost anywhere. And even though hemp is a weed that can grow in a lot of places,  the right quality out of which  to make sail cloth  has to be cultivated very carefully and has to be processed very carefully.  And there really wasn’t a very good hemp industry within Sweden. And so Sweden imported all of its naval hemp for rope and canvas well into the 17th century.  And even after they had an industry that made sail cloth within Sweden, they were often making it out of imported fibre.  The best quality hemp ,if you bought the raw fibre, came out of the Eastern Baltic, out of ports like Riga and Tallinn in what’s now Latvia, Lithuania, and  Estonia, and the same sources that  a lot of western places were using. But the  Swedish Navy before the 1660’s really depended on buying cloth, rather than buying fibre and weaving it, so they had merchants who were buying cloth, and the best quality sail cloth was made in  northern France at places like Vittrey and Noyelles.  In fact the the Tudor  English navy had depended very heavily on French made sail cloth from places like Poulavid, and by the 17th century the English Royal Navy was increasingly taking advantage of cloth made in Ipswich and other places in Suffolk to provide its needs but was still buying sail cloth in France when they weren’t at war with France. If you couldn’t get French sail cloth the next best quality was Dutch cloth,  Hollandsduk as it was called, and that was made in a town called Krommenie, which is in the big shipbuilding centres in North Holland. But if you were buying that sort of stuff  you could buy both French cloth and Dutch cloth in the market in Amsterdam. And we know for example for Vasa, the Swedish Navy in its supply contracts for most of the 17th century, specified French cloth if it was available for their sails  and had merchants dealing with the factors who could source French cloth, buying it in Amsterdam .

     

    Sam Willis 

    Fascinating stuff. So it starts off with the Danes being the problem. And when did it change to the Russians being the problem?

     

    Fred Hokker 

    Yes, for the first 200 years or so, a little bit less, of modern Swedish history from the 1520s into say the 1670’s, Sweden’s traditional mortal enemy was Denmark. They were the two great kingdoms fighting for dominance in the Baltic. And for a lot of that period there was always a third player, which was the Dutch. Because the Dutch controlled Baltic trade, the richest trade in the world, in the Swedish and the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, it’s not the silks and spices of the Far East, it’s the really boring bulk commodities like timber, grain and dried fish, coming out of the Baltic to feed and house and fuel the growing cities of Western Europe.  The Dutch control that trade, which they reckoned to be worth twice as much as the silks and spices of the Far East, so the Dutch Golden Age is really heavily based on that. And so if there was ever a war between Sweden and Denmark, which there was maybe every 15 to 20 years, the Dutch would jump in on the weaker side, so that no side could actually achieve dominance or hegemony in the Baltic. Because if they did, then they might want to shut the Dutch out and take over the trade themselves. So they were intent on maintaining a balance between Sweden and Denmark, which they did quite successfully all through the 16th and into the 17th centuries, until  the last major war, the naval war that the Dutch and the Swedes and the Danes fought in the 1670s called the Scanian war, or the Scona  war, where Denmark was trying to regain control of what’s now Western Sweden, which had formerly been Denmark. And as was typical in the  ars was between Sweden and Denmark, the Danes won all the battles and then lost the peace negotiations. They always chose the wrong moment to start negotiating ; rather than when  they were at the point of their greatest strength they started negotiating, they got greedy, would go too far, and the Swedes would start to recover. And so they rarely achieved their goals. So the war, the Scanian  war, which was about recovering Scania, ended up resulting in the permanent loss of Scania. And that was pretty much the end of Denmark as a major naval contender in the Baltic, this was now Sweden. By the end of the 17th century Russia had emerged from the Time of Troubles as they call it, the internal strife and dynastic bickering and Civil War, to try to figure out who was going to be the Tsar. And when Peter the Great came to the throne, he really  created the modern Russian state, a unified state ruling over a very large territory, and he modernised that state from its mediaeval organisation, and one of the things he was intent on was naval power. He famously studied shipbuilding himself masquerading as a shipwright in Dutch shipyards supposedly.  Hhe travelled widely to try to learn all the things he needed to know to make Russia into a modern Empire. And so Russia which had been shut out of the Baltic from 1617,the peace of Stolbova, had re-emerged into the Baltic, under Peter the Great and started building up a substantial fleet.  And then in what in Sweden is called and also elsewhere, the Great Northern War of the early 18th century,this had land and naval components. And that’s where Russia really emerged as Sweden’s primary opponent, as it is today. And so for the last 300 years or so, and a little bit more, Swedish defence policy has leaned East, it’s always been assumed that the primary enemy will be Russia.  Russia may be able to attract some allies, but Swedish defence has for more than 300 years assumed that the enemy will be Russia, and in most of the wars fought in the 18th century, until the last major land campaign that Sweden was engaged in in the  Napoleonic period, Russia was the enemy.

     

    Sam Willis 

    How is the the shape of that relationship changing in the modern world today?

     

    Fred Hokker 

    Well, Sweden, after it lost Finland to Russia in its last major war in the Napoleonic period, embarked on a policy of armed neutrality of non alliance in various ways and concentrated on building up an internal defence. There was a big period in the 19th century of building all of these huge inland fortifications as a kind of citadel of retreat should Sweden be invaded by the Russians and they couldn’t be stopped at the coast, and the central fortresses would be the area from which Sweden would counter attack. And then in the 20th century Sweden was neutral in the World Wars and was caught in a fairly difficult situation in regards to Nazi Germany, for example, in that the Germans had occupied Norway, the Finns were fighting the Russians.  Sweden had supported Finland with volunteers and some equipment at the beginning of the Winter War of Finland against Russia, because Russia is the enemy. And the Finns are Swedish cousin, in a way. But then Germany was a potential threat. Sweden didn’t feel that it had the resources or the capability to fight an all out war against Germany, and so decided to accommodate Germany’s desires. And for Germany, it was OK if  Sweden remain neutral, but you could say not antagonistically neutral. After the Second World War, in the development of the Cold War, it was very clear to the Swedish government that Russia was  the enemy, Russia was the potential threat. And Swedish defence policy was based around the idea of repelling or stopping a Russian invasion.And of course, because NATO’s enemy was the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc, there was a lot of common cause there. And so there was a lot of behind the scenes co-operation between the officially non aligned Sweden and NATO. And so the the current move towards NATO is not something that’s come completely out of the blue. There  has been a certain amount of cooperation with NATO all along. And Swedes have carried out joint military exercises with NATO for decades because of a common enemy. What’s changing now is the idea of Sweden giving up 200 years of official non aligned status to become a member of a defence alliance which is requiring some significant changes in everything from procurement to the law. The Swedish army is a mixture of professionals and national service conscripts, people who do two years of national service which has been reinstituted, but the law specifically states that national service soldiers may only be used in the defence of Sweden. But joining NATO means that Sweden may be called upon to defend Poland, or Turkey, or who knows. And so it’s a legal question. Now, can National Service soldiers be employed outside of Sweden’s borders to defend a NATO ally? And there are lawyers for the defence department who are trying to wrap their heads around that. And one of the questions they’ll have to answer is, can they consider that the defence of a NATO ally is the defence of Sweden? Or does that law need to be rewritten in this parliament  to change the law as to how national servicemen are used? So that’s just that’s one of many conundrums or challenges that joining NATO will  pose for Sweden.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Yes, well it’s a fascinating story. Fred, thank you very much for sharing it with us today. And I think it’s so important having that historical perspective.

     

    Fred Hokker 

    Well,it’s my pleasure to be with you, Sam, and as an historian I’m always happy to see that the stuff that I’m studying from 400 years ago and more is relevant today.

     

    Sam Willis 

    Thank you all so much for listening. Now do please make sure that you leave us a review on whatever app you are listening on, especially if you’re listening on iTunes, iIt’s particularly effective. We’ll read out any review that you leave. It’s hugely important because it helps us climb up the rankings and that helps us get as many people as possible listening to maritime history on the Mariners Mirror podcast.  We also have a fantastic YouTube channel, so be sure to check that out with some really remarkable videos, most recently the animation of a cutaway of a 17th century first rate Man of War explaining how everything worked on a naval ship around the time of the Great Fire of London. The podcast comes from both the Society for Nautical Research and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation, so do please make sure you do everything in your power to check out what those brilliant institutions are up to. In particular, please check out Maritime Innovation In Miniature. It’s a brilliant new project filming the world’s best ship models with the very latest camera equipment, it really is astounding. Just Google it, Maritime Innovation In Miniature. and please join the Society for Nautical Research. You can do that at snr.org.uk It’s a brilliant way not only of finding out all about the world’s maritime history from the very best in the business, but also of meeting people. There’s nothing wrong with it at all.

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