Historic Salvage Attempts
from the Accident in 1745 and Later

Alice and James Keiller at the diving platform

Alice and James Keiller visiting the divers platform at anchor in the Gothenburg port entrance,
immediately above the wreck of the East Indiaman Gotheborg in 1907, "where the East Indiaman sank". 'Safe water to the south' cardinal navigation mark, showing the location of the reef.

Keiller and Lyon, 1906-1907

In 1905, James Keiller Jr. (1867-1962), a member of a prominent Gothenburg family of Scottish origin, together with his brother-in-law Carl Lyon, obtained permission from the Governor of Gothenburg and Bohus County to salvage the cargo and hull of the East India Company's vessel Gotheborg. The ship had been resting at the bottom of the Göta Älv since it ran aground on the Hunnebådan shoal within the Roadstead of Gothenburg back in 1745. It was only disturbed by two major salvage attempts during the 19th century, mostly directed towards what was believed to be a fortune of 5,000 tin ingots of 20 kg each, left untouched due to insufficient diving technology at the time.

The last diving attempt by the Elder Diving company concluded in 1876 that there was nothing left to salvage, having even salvaged the oak planks of the hull. Despite this, possibly more interested in what could remain of the porcelain cargo, James Keiller and his brother-in-law Carl Lyon decided to give it another try.

Carl Lyon (1867-1935), often overlooked in the context of this salvage attempt and dismissed as an 'antique dealer,' was actually also a prominent businessman in addition to being the brother of Alice Lyon (1869-1968), the wife of James Keiller Jr. (1867-1962). He himself owned the firm John Lyon & Co and is said to have been trading in antiques.

He frequently partnered with James Keiller and served as a board member in his various companies. Together they were board members and co-owner of Göteborgs Nya Verkstads AB (later Götaverken), as well as Kronans Brewery. Between 1904 and 1920, he was, along with James Keiller Jr., Hjalmar Wijk and Carolina Röhss one of the main owners of Forsviks Bruk (Forsvik AB) which they exploited by cutting down half of its forests and repaid the entire purchase sum to themselves within seven years.

Now the time had com to look into what was left of the Gotheborg.

In 1900, at the age of 33, James Keiller became ill in tuberculosis and was told by his doctor that he had at most a few years left to live. The salvage operation, spanning the years 1906 and 1907, ultimately concluded with the belief that now, this time, really, "nothing of further interest or value remained at the site " and the ship was forgotten, again".

An area the size of as a football field, was covered with porcelain shards

During the summers of 1906-09 the salvage expeditions is said to have recovered around 3,000 undamaged porcelain pieces "within an area, the size of as a football field covered with shards'". To consider the proportions of the task it is worth mentioning that a football field is around 7,000 square meter.

The article below speaks of 4,300 pieces. This rather large discrepancy could depend on how you count paired and matched pieces like cups and dishes, jars and lids, etc.

The finds were all registered and declared for import duties, after which some of the finds was auctioned off to the public.

December 12, 1907

GOTHENBURG WEEKLY NEWSPAPER No. 60, December 12, 1907.

At the Gothenburg Customs House, a batch of genuine East Indian porcelain, consisting of 2,881 pieces, has recently been declared. These items were salvaged from the East India Company's ship "Gothenburg," which sank in 1745 at the entrance to Gothenburg. The customs duty amounted to 226 kronor.

A large number of the porcelain belonging to James Keiller Jr. seems to have been numbered and sold together with a certificate. James Keiller also kept a substantial part to decorate his large apartment at the Kungsportsavenue 4, in central Gothenburg.

Dish excavated by james keiller 1906-07

Dish brought up by James Keiller and Carl Lyon during their salvage operation 1906-07. A large part of the cargo was sold by James Keiller together with a certificate telling about the background. Souvenirs like this occasionally occurs in the antiques trade. Photo © JE Nilsson, Coll. 2023

Keiller tea cup coll. 256

Tea cup from the Keiller and Lyon salvage operation in 1606-07.
Marked with a collection sticker with the Keiller family coat of arms and the number 256.

In 1937 when Alice and James Keiller moved out of their apartment and into their summer residence Gövik at Särö, south of Gothenburg, now being renovated and extended to become their permanent residence, a large number of shards was used to create a tile mosaic floor for the entrance. At this time dozens of wooden margarine boxes was filled with shards, that was either filled first and supplied to the tile makers or used to keep all that was not needed.

A few of these rather exotic wooden boxes are still in existence, and from their content that includes mother of pearl and lead sheaths, it appears as that the shapes found there are all not ideal for making flat tiles and might thus be the leftovers from the tiles project.

From the wall decorations of the Keiller residences it appears as if large proportion of the recovered pieces was medium sized blue and white fruit dishes. Medium sized bowls are also common among the finds, as is a particular kind of deep dishes with no rim, that cannot have been particularly useful on the western European market, that actually looks like over sized teacup dishes. Rather high lidded bowls with straight sides, their height equal to their diameter, were packed in nests one inside the other are also as common as hard to explain to their purpose. Teacups and saucers of 'eggshell thinness' are mentioned in early reports from the salvage operation, but the full total of undamaged tea sets that would earn their description as eggshell might be less than a few dozen. The thinness and quality of the tea sets in this cargo is still impressive.

This article from the Swedish magazine Hvar 8 Dag, May 23rd 1909 edition, p. 531 and following, is a detailed contemporary account of James Keiller's and Carl Lyons salvaging of the East Indiaman Götheborg, between 1906-07. It gives an exciting picture of the time of this event and how it was understood and reported in the newspapers.

This is a careful translation of the 1909 article where I have tried to keep the original flavor of the text.
Jan-Erik Nilsson.


1. Keiller and Lyons dykplattform

The divers platform at anchor in the Gothenburg port entrance,
immediately above the wreck of the East Indiaman Gotheborg in 1907, "where the East Indiaman sank"

Treasures from the deep

Nobody who on Göta Älv - for the first time have have passed through the port entrance of Gothenburg - and there seen the floating sea mark indicating the so called Göteborgs reef - not far from the Älfsborgs Fortress - have ever failed to try to investigate its meaning - and then learnt that "it was there the East Indiaman sank".

Where previous efforts have proved fruitless in their attempts at salvaging its contents, it is now that the true treasures of the East Indian Porcelain have been salvaged from the sand bed grave on which it sat undisturbed for over a hundred and sixty years.

2. Divers submerging

No less than 4,300 different pieces were recovered, amongst which were items of full services, that underwent custom's procedures after the 1909 set of Customs tariffs - a procedure that is likely to be unique in the history of the Swedish customs authorities. The items now belong to the individual who salvaged them.

The Swedish East India Company got its first Charter the 14th of June 1731. The first charter lasted between 1731-1746, the second ended 1766, the third 1786, the forth 1806 and the fifth 1821 which last charter the company eventually not got the opportunity to fully utilize. Because of all kinds of difficulties they met with, the business became unprofitable and the Company terminated its operations in the year of 1813.

In its lifespan, the Swedish East India Company (SOIC) saw no less than 132 expeditions to China whose destination was usually Canton, where each voyage was usually expected to take 18 months. Should these voyages call at Surat city in India, then 30 months was needed.

Of all the ships the Company owned, 8 was totally lost. Amongst these, the one which today has our attention is the ship Gotheborg which was under Captain Erik Moréen when it was lost.

3. A bucket of porcelain, just brought up

It had previously made two successful voyages, not without adventures though. During a voyage in 1741, it was on the height of Tenerife when it met with an English Man-of-war of 24 canons, under command of a lord Forrester. However Captain Moreen showed his papers to the Englishmen and "made all possible explanations regarding his business". He and his crew was met with "all sorts of uncommon unplesantries and threats" and was forced to follow the English ship to Madeira. After a long delay at Madeira, the ship was set free. But before that a passenger had been taken prisoner by the Englishmen. This passenger had boarded in Cadiz, where the ships as usually had brought on board new provisions and supplied themselves with valid currencies for trading in the East Indies. (Ed note: This was usually 40 metric tons of coined Spanish silver - Pieces of Eight's)

The reason for this act of violence was that this person whose name was Edvard Rotte - according to the British - was a Spaniard (England was at this time at war with Spain). His luggage had also been brought to land and among this was found 30 bags of money containing 30,000 Spanish piasters. The man was in fact a Frenchman who had a brother, who in Canton was Supracargoe for the French East India Company. And it was to him that the money was to be brought. The Swedish captain protested in vain against such violence.

The Company required that the Swedish Majesty should ask for compensation for the damage and cost to the Company this had caused. The ship had been kept in custody by the British for a full month and because of this it had been forced to buy new provisions to the amount of 362,436 re:es. Besides this, it was required, that Rotte and his belongings should be reclaimed. It is not known if any compensation was ever retrieved. The occasion shows eventually how the British by this time used their supremacy at sea.

During her third voyage the "Gotheborg" would meet with her final fate. After a long and difficult voyage to Canton she returned to her home harbor the 12 th of Sept. 1745.

4. Wall vase

She was coming in on the Rifö Fjord (next to the Älfsborgs fortress in the Gothenburg port entrance) and was doing good speed, by a brisk fore wind. In all aspects she was a whisk away from the safe harbor of her home. But fate had decided differently. Immediately before the proud ship arrived at Älfsborg, she hit with full force a rock barely concealed by the waves -the so called "Hunnebådan" - immediately outside where we today have the Knippelholmens lighthouse and sank fully-laden, with its valuable cargo.

After this the wreck was left untouched for more then a century. The reason was probably the primitive salvaging equipment of the time.

Finally in 1864 Mr. James Bourn and in 1877 a Captain Lampa attempted some diving work and succeeded to recover some porcelains, parts of the hull etc. but in no large quantities.

In the year 1905 Engineer James Keiller J:r submitted to Commanding Officer a request to receive a permission to salvage the remaining cargo and ship, which was granted. The diving was performed during the summer of 1906 as well as during the summer of 1907.

At this time a large amount of complete porcelain pieces was recovered, a large amount of porcelain shards, a number of bars of so called "Tutanego" (a sort of composite metal made up of tin and vismuth) (Ed: during our recent excavation one of these bars was found. Analyze showed it to be pure zinc.) a multitude of Mother of Pearl, a roll of silk, tea and tea boxes and much more. Then was also salvaged all of the remaining wood of the hull, amongst other things the entire aft part of the wooden keel, parts of the anchorage and much more.

The photographs shows a diversity or porcelain pieces among which several have been decorated by painting under the glaze and remains perfectly unharmed, while those who have been painted with enamels on top of the glaze, have been damaged by the salt water, which in most instances have reduced the enamels to black.

5. 2 burkar med lock samt en mindre spilkum 6. Spilkum med fat besatt med masksnäckor Kanna ex James Keiller Coll. Gotheborg 1906-07

Jug with eroded enamel decoration, from the East Indiaman Göthborg, ex Keiller Coll. Photo courtesy JEN Coll. 2021

7. Tekanna med flygande pelikaner ... tallrik med monogram 8. 5 st gudabilder skurna i sten 9. Två små urnor med lock, AFC

21. Tedosa med lock, krönt monogram AFC. JE Nilsson Coll. GB21. Inköpt från Anders Wästfelt via Auktion, Bukowski, ex David Keiller. Troligen identisk med den Tedosa med krönt monogram Hv8D, fig 9, Ex Carl Lyon Coll. 1909. Locken troligen förväxlade mellan denna och den högra.

15. Hunden Fo, tillhöra Konsul Lyon 16. En gudabild, 15 och 16 tillhöra konsul Lyon En matsal dekorerad med ostindiskt porslin

The room interior pictures shows the dining room of the apartment of Mr. Keiller in Gothenburg,
decorated with some of the salvaged porcelain pieces. Photo: Hwar 8 Dag, 1909.

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