Historic Swedish Wreck May Receive Protection

by Alastair Hamilton -

Shetland lies on international trade routes, and with a coastline stretching for nearly 1,700 miles, it’s not surprising that many ships have met their end around the islands. Now, there’s a proposal that an outstanding example should enjoy permanent protection.

The vessel in question is the Drottningen af Swerige, or the Queen of Sweden, which hit a rock off the headland of the Knab, on the south side of Lerwick, on 12 January 1745. The ship’s master, Captain Carl Johan Treutiger, was seeking shelter from a storm in Bressay Sound, which forms Lerwick’s harbour.

The Queen of Sweden and another vessel owned by the same company, the Stockholm, had left Gothenburg three days earlier. Both vessels, partly loaded, were heading for Cadiz, where they were to pick up a cargo of silver and continue to China; and both came to grief on the east coast of Shetland. The Stockholm ran aground at Braefield, Dunrossness, on the same day. No lives were lost in either incident.

Had disaster been averted, this would have been the Queen of Sweden’s second voyage to China, part of a trade that had been developing for more than ten years. The ship had been launched in 1741 and was about 45m in length; she could carry 947 tonnes of cargo. Its owner, the Swedish East India Company – which became the largest trading company in Sweden – was set up to compete with similar firms in other countries; the ships brought back tea and silk to Europe. Sea transport had taken over much of this trade from the former Silk Road from Asia to Europe.

It might seem odd that these ships would sail through Shetland waters, rather than take the shorter and more sheltered route down the North Sea and through the English Channel. But in those days, pirates and privateers were very active to the south; although these ships were armed – in this case with 32 cannon – captains felt that a northern route made sense. Nevertheless, it’s believed that around 28 such vessels, known as East Indiamen, perished around the coasts of Scotland, Orkney, Fair Isle and Shetland. Most of them were Dutch.

The Queen of Sweden’s wreck lies in between 14m and 25m of water, quite close to the shore at the Knab, a rocky peninsula that today is a convenient and popular area for walking. When it was wrecked, some items from the cargo, including spirits, were salvaged and auctioned, and the ship’s bell was presented to the Kirk Session. Shortly afterwards, lead ballast was removed.

The wreck was re-discovered in 1979 by a Belgian diver, Jean-Claude Joffre, and he undertook excavations over a small part of the site in succeeding years, with around 350 items recovered. He found porcelain, coins, clay pipes, glass bottles, musket shot and cannonballs. More lead ingots were recovered by later expeditions and there was also some ship’s timber.

The remains of the Queen of Sweden are believed to be the best-preserved example of a Swedish East Indiaman anywhere around the Scottish coast and a consultation has been launched seeking views from the public on the designation of the site as a Historic Marine Protected Area (HMPA). Historic Environment Scotland (HES), who advise Scottish Government on the designation of historic MPAs, has recommended the Scottish Government recognise and protect this important part of Scotland’s marine heritage with HMPA status.

the best preserved example of a Swedish East Indiaman anywhere around the Scottish coast

Philip Robertson, Deputy Head of Designations at HES, said:

“The sinking of the Queen of Sweden was a significant event in the history of the Shetland Isles, and the wreckage that remains is a marine heritage site of national importance that can greatly enhance our knowledge and understanding of the Swedish East India Company and its trading activity around Scotland’s coasts during the 18th century.

We believe that designating the site as a Historic MPA will promote its heritage value, and I’d like to encourage as many people as possible to take this opportunity to share their views about this important piece of our nation’s priceless marine heritage.”

In the case of the Queen of Sweden, it would still be possible for divers to view the remains, but, if the designation goes ahead, the advice will be ‘look, don’t touch’.

You can find out more about the consultation on the HES website and there’s an online questionnaire that you can complete.

Shipwrecks are an important part of Shetland’s heritage, reflecting the islands’ central place in centuries of exploration and trade around the North Atlantic. As well as the Queen of Sweden, there are several other historically important sites, for example in the north-eastern islands of Skerries, where a Historic Marine Protected Area encompasses a Dutch East Indiaman, the Kennemerland, wrecked in 1664, and the Wrangels Palais, a Danish warship lost in 1687.

For islanders, items salvaged from them were often welcome in hard times. Today, Shetland is an increasingly popular summer base for diving enthusiasts who want to explore the rich variety of wrecks around the coast, some – like the Queen of Sweden – going back centuries, others dating from recent decades. We have more about diving in Shetland, including a list of popular scenic and wildlife sites, here.

Posted in: Heritage

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