By Göran Behre
Many years ago, there lived in Western Sweden a group of people called the Goths or Götar. The history of the Goths goes far back in time, and according to many written sources, they appeared in the second century AD. The Goths made quite an impact on early Swedish history. Many of their names are still found in place names in Western Sweden. Archaeologists have also found several treasures, often in gold in the regions where the Goths had lived.
The Goths lived very much in solitude, but things changed around 800 AD. They began their long and audacious viking voyages together with the Danes and the Norse. These voyages were both warlike and commercial but in many ways they were expeditions to find new land to settle. The Goths became more knowlegable about the geography of the world through these voyages. The North Sea became familiar and important. The opening of the North Sea was a historical event. Even today, Western Sweden is dependant on the commerce, trade and culture that this opening brought with it.
Christianity arrived in the 11th century, shortly after the Vikings. Western Sweden became the main target for missionaries, who not surprisingly came by the sea from the west. Around that time, the Goths and other groups of people were unified unwillingly under a common king to form the kingdom of Sweden. By the 12th century, the Kingdom of Sweden was established, but with great tensions among the people. This kind of sentiment was prevalent among the Goths and in the 1130's, a candidate to the throne of Sweden was assassinated by a peasant of Western Sweden because of the candidate's disrespect to the customs of the people there.
In the 13th century, frontiers of the states on the Scandinavian Peninsula were settled. Sweden was granted a passageway at the mouth of the important Göta River that flowed from the big lake Vänern to the North Sea. The kingdom of Denmark lied on the south of this small piece of land and to the North of it, Norway.
This piece of land, which is at the mouth of the Göta River was vital to the welfare of Sweden. It opened a gateway to the North Sea for the newly found kingdom of Sweden; the Swedes quickly utilized this passageway for economic and cultural development. Towns were constructed along the Göta River, and this enabled commerce, trade and culture to prosper. These towns became the forerunners of the present city of Gothenburg.
Access to the North Sea for the Swedes was a tremendous loss for the Danes and the Norse, and they were not foolish to continue to give that up. For the following centuries, the Danes and the Norse fought constant battles over the territory. Denmark and Norway understood the importance of the region around the mouth of the Göta River. In the 14th century, battles intensified when Denmark and Norway united under the Danish crown.
Despite the constant battles, Sweden remained stable. In 1621 a new town was founded just at the mouth of the Göta River. The king who founded the new town was Gustavus II Adolphus. He called it the fortress of the Götar and named it accordingly, Gothenburg in Swedish or Gothenburg in English. The king put great effort in building a town with strong fortifications and defense. He achieved his goal by making Gothenburg one of the strongest fortified towns in all of Europe.
Strong fortifications helped protected trades for Gothenburg. Gothenburg became an important commercial town that acted as a gateway to the West. Many merchants from England, Scotland and Holland settled there. Although the Scottish that resided there had greatly influenced the town, it was the Dutch architects that constructed the town. As a result, the Swedes built towns and canals according to Dutch patterns and constructions.
As Gutenberg continues to develop as a main trade center, its military defense also strengthened. Sweden had weak a military defense before, but Gustavus Adolphus took on the task to change the Swedish military strategy. He succeeded in laying down a strong military foundation. Later, monarchs who succeeded him completed his goal and Sweden became a great power. Gothenburg stood at a vulnerable position since Denmark controlled regions to the North and South of it, so it was necessary for Sweden to have a strong military power. The whole west coast of the Scandinavian Peninsula from the Norwegian fiord to the Baltic Sea became part of Sweden.
After several wars during the first decades of the 18th century, Sweden's power was beginning to wane, but in the ensuing peace treaties, the West coast remained Swedish. In the 18th century, Gothenburg prospered and that period of time was known as Sweden's golden age. At the same time wooden houses with gardens were built in replace of the original gray stone fortress towns. In 1746 the famous botanist Carl von Linné visited Gothenburg and described the town as "the fairest amongst all the cities of Sweden."
18th century Gothenburg was characterized by a strong British influence. Englishmen came to the city hoping to succeed in business. During that time, French was the second language of the educated Swedes, however, the knowledge of English was not uncommon to the public; most merchants knew English since Gothenburg was the gateway to the West and the gateway for English.
One interesting example of the way the British influenced Sweden was the first performance of Shakespeare's play "Hamlet" held at the Gothenburg Theater on January 24th in 1794. The performance attracted many audiences, and foreign visitors in Gothenburg noticed this cultural influence. A German professor, named Ernst Moritz Arndt wrote a statement in 1804 when he visited the city at the time. Below is the statement.
Englishmen made deep impressions on Sweden, but this is not to say that the Scots did not contribute to this cultural influence. Scotland and Sweden's joint-effort established the Swedish East India Company in 1731. The main founders were the Scot Colin Campbell (1686 - 1757) along with the help of others, such as Niclas Sahlgren (1701 - 1776) from Gothenburg. Several Scots joined the Company working in different positions. Quite a few of them had companies of their own. A well-known Scot of the second generation ought to be mentioned here. He was William Chalmers (1748 - 1811) who lived in Gothenburg and joined the company later. Chalmers was also the founder of Chalmers University of Technology.
People had high hopes for the Swedish East India Company from the start. In Sweden as well in all of Europe, the demand for merchandise from the East Indies was great. Profits would be good if such goods were imported directly to Sweden. But Gothenburg became without hesitations the Company's home harbor. The most important harbor in the East was Canton, the only Chinese port open to foreigners.
The first ship, named after the king of Sweden, Fredericius Rex sailed from Gothenburg in 1732. From that time until the Company went out of business in 1813, no less than 132 expeditions were undertaken. The expeditions were not without losses: eight ships were wrecked. A spectacular loss happened in 1745 just outside the harbor to Gothenburg on a return voyage; the ship "Gothenburg" sank near docking. Its sister ship, "Göteborg II" was also unfortunate. It foundered outside the Cape of Good Hope in 1796.
The Swedes and the Chinese were trading-partners and traded on equal terms. In Canton the Swedes had to adjust themselves to the Chinese rules and ways of life. The ships that arrived had to anchor due to river flow and currents at Wampoa outside Canton. All loading and unloading took place there. Westerners were not allowed to enter the city, and invitation to the inside of the town walls was considered a great favor. The Company officials who for one reason or another stayed in China had to live in Macao. One who stayed behind for ten years was the above mentioned William Chalmers, but he was not the only one from the Company who stayed there. Chalmers benefited greatly, from his staying.
The Swedish East India Company followed up its starting plans about the demands for Eastern goods. The most important goods imported from China were different kinds of tea. Tea was auctioned at the company house that was built in the 1750s, and is still seen today in Gothenburg.
Tea and porcelain came hand in hand; thus the second important import was accordingly porcelain, for tea drinking. Thousands of chests with porcelain were packed in Canton and transported to Sweden by the East-Indiamen. Apart from tea and porcelain, other considerable imports included silk and spices.
The Company taught the people in Gothenburg to drink tea. People at first were skeptical about drinking tea because they thought that it would provoke laziness and idle talk that were detrimental to work and morality. Those doubts ceased when the Company introduced another exotic drink, or what is known today as punch. Punch made from arrack was had for the first time in Sweden when Niklas Sahlgren held a welcoming party after the fortunate return of "Fredericius Rex" in 1733. Punch became very popular. It goes without saying that people in Gothenburg soon overcame their moral doubts about tea. In 1759, a newspaper in Gothenburg wrote that in Gothenburg "every worker and servant-girl drinks tea."
Gothenburg prospered and the Company made some people rich. The wealthy businessmen in Gothenburg had a social responsibility to uphold. Gothenburg was later coined as "the city of donations." Businessmen and other wealthy citizens often donated money for charitable purposes. The Company director, Niclas Sahlgren donated money to what is known as today Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg. Other donors are easy to find.
There is however another consequence of the Company's China trade than the economic or financial. The knowledge of the outside world expanded. A painting in the church of Släp, a parish just south of Gothenburg can portray this. The painting represents the vicar Gustaf Fredrik Hjortberg (1724 -1776) surrounded by his big family: a wife and no less than sixteen children (even the dead children are depicted). But he is also surrounded of a globe, a guenon, instruments and other things showing his scholarly interests, particularly in geography and zoology.
Hjortberg was one of the many priests that served on board of the Company's ships as chaplain. Almost from the start these priests recorded observations and collected materials they judged could be of scholarly use. 18th century Sweden was characterized as a period of time when learning and scholarship of natural sciences expanded and flourished. An outstanding figure in the Swedish scholarly world was Carl von Linné (1707 - 1778), whose works also gained international recognition.
Linné became professor in Uppsala in 1741. His field was above all botany. Linné had many disciples. Quite a few of them were either priests or were learning to become priests. The spirit of Linné was spread all over Sweden by his disciples. But Linné also made the world his field of activity. He did that by sending out many of his disciples, or apostles. To a large extent, this was made possible through the East India Company, which boarded scientists and scholars almost free of charge from the start. Many chaplains played an important role in the field of science. Through these kinds of researches, people became more knowledgeable of China had a deeper understanding of China.
As a matter of fact: In 18th century Sweden's interest for China was quite popular and Chinese influences were quite impressive. The leading artistic style in Sweden as well as in all of Europe was mainly the rococo. A distinguishing trait for this cultural influence was the great interest for China and everything Chinese. An example of this is the pleasure palace called China in the garden of the royal palace of Drottningholm. It stood outside of Stocholm and was built for the Swedish Queen Lovisa Ulrika 1753.
There were enormous collections of Chinese porcelain brought to Sweden and then spread elsewhere through the East India Company. One of the Company members was William Chambers (1726- 1796). His father was one of the Scots that came to Gothenburg in the 18th century. After three voyages with company ships, Chambers moved to England where he became a famous garden architect. One could evidently see the impact of Chinese art and architecture in what he created.
Things began to change starting from the 19th century. In 1806, the Swedish government decided that fortifications of Gothenburg were unnecessary and should be dismantled. The dismantling started immediately and inhabitants started to move and settle down the area. In 1813 the East India Company collapsed. The collapse was expected. The Napoleonic Wars during the late 18th and early 19th century made trade difficult or sometimes impossible. A devastating blow was the tea exports to England and Holland; in one occasion, no less than five cargos of tea were stored unsold in Gothenburg. By that time, fascination with Chinese goods began to fade, partly because of communication, and partly because there were more new ideas and innovations coming from elsewhere.
At first, the changes were not significant. It was business as usual for the Scottish and Swedish businessmen. The inhabitants mostly lived inside their old quarters behind what was left of the old fortress area. There was even an attempt to renew the relation with China by a "Treaty of Peace, Amity and Commerce" signed in Canton in 1847. The treaty was however ineffective, in latter years.
The demography of Gothenburg began to change around the 1860's. Many from the surrounding countryside moved in and as a result, expanded territories outside of the former fortress walls. Gothenburg had in 1800 about 12 000 inhabitants, in 1860 about 60 000. During the same period the population of Sweden increased from 2,3 million to more than 3,5. The demography clearly showed the movement of inhabitant, towns and houses.
From 1860 and onwards, Sweden entered its industrialization period; Gothenburg developed greatly as a city. Industrialization was reflected in Gothenburg by the growth of its population from 60,000 in 1860 to 220,000 in 1914. The shopping industry was of course important to Gothenburg since it was a major commercial city. Another important industry was the shipbuilding industry or the engineering field. The biggest shipyard of all Sweden at the time was Götaverken (this is the later name) in Gothenburg. Its owner, James Keiller (1867 - 1962) was of Scottish origin. Looking back to the time of the East India Company and its ships he covered the expenses for an attempt to save the cargo of the East India ship. Gothenburg I. Keiller was partly successful: more than 7000 objects, mostly of Chinese porcelain, were salvaged up. During the industrialization period, shipping became more important for Gothenburg. More importantly, Gothenburg continued to be Sweden's gateway to the West.
An important shipyard for the Swedish East India Company was Terra Nova in Stockholm. Terra Nova was one of the four big shipyards in Stockholm where almost all the Company's ships were built. In 1992, after almost two hundred years, the name was taken over by a new shipyard in Gothenburg. The reason for this was that a group of enthusiasts with a great interest for history decided to build a replica of the East Indiaman Gothenburg I that sailed just outside Gothenburg in 1745. The new ship was constructed by old handicraft to reflect the early times. Like its forerunners it would sail to Canton
The attempt to recreate a ship from the time of the East India Company was successful. On June 6th, 2003 it was promptly launched and on September 3rd of 2004, Silvia the Queen of Sweden baptized the ship "Gothenburg III." The first voyage to Canton will take place in the year to come.
The city of Gothenburg has shown that it has not forgotten its past by building "Gotheborg III."
Elias Martin painting.
View from Gothenburg 19th Century.
Gothenburg III at sea.
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