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The Empress and Vrouw Maria

Written by dr. Christian Ahlström
Published in NAUTICA FENNICA 2000, The Maritime Museum of Finland, Annual Report 2000. I. Malinen, M. Pelanne, Y. Kaukiainen and H. Rosenius (editors). Vammala 2000.

The German-born Russian Empress Catherine II (the Great, 1729-96) was well-known for her great passion for collecting art. As Empress she had no problems with the economic aspect of her expensive hobby; the result of this can be seen by those who study the collections of the Hermitage, part of the Imperial Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. There these collections, the foundations of which were laid by the Empress, can now be seen in the magnificent halls of the Palace.

One of the European collections this interesting lady, so richly endowed with both intellectual and political abilities, wanted to add to the art treasures she had accumulated at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, was that of the Dutch timber merchant Gerrit Braamcamp, who died in Amsterdam 1770. His house in Amsterdam, which still exists, was once filled with art objects, not only paintings, but also furniture, jewellery, laquer work, silver work, in short antiquities of all descriptions. After his death, the family decided to auction off most of it on the 20 of July 1771. Catherine ordered her Ambassador to the Netherlands, Prince Gallitzin, to look after her interests at this auction. He did so by ordering a number of agents buy the most valuable pieces on sale.1

As far as we know, most things the Russians bought at this auction was loaded into a Dutch kof-ship (New information from the wreck-site has led researchers to believe that Vrouw Maria was a snouw-ship.) the Vrouw Maria which left the port of Amsterdam destined for St. Petersburg, with her precious cargo on Thursday the 5th September, 1771. To begin with the journey went well, according to the log of the ship which is preserved translated into Swedish, in the city archives of Turku, Finland. It is added as an appendix to the records of the city hall on October 16th 1771.

Before entering the Baltic, the ship had to pass the Customs of the Sound. There was no way to enter or leave the Baltic except by using the channels through the Danish sounds. Therefore the Danes made all ships passing their territorial waters pay certain customs dues, a practise which was very lucrative for the Danish state finances but perhaps a bit doubtful from the legal and ethical point of viev. However, this continued until 1856, when the Americans refused to pay the dues any longer. Today´s historians have made considerable use of the meticulously kept notes left by the customs authorities, which contain hundreds of substantial ledgers containing a considerable wealth of information. There is a special entry for each passing ship with information such as the home port, nationality, destination, name and domicile of the master, a more or less specified list of the cargo and the dues paid.2

After the visit paid by the Dutch ship the following entry could be seen in the appropriate ledger:3

Dutch ship number 508 (von Osten volume, 1771)

September 23rd, Reynoud Lorentz of Amsterdam, from thence to St. Petersburg carrying:

Cargo Danish Rixdollars Skillings
85562 pounds of sugar 160 21
17980 pounds of dyer´s madder 16.5 18
4700 pounds of Brazilian wood 2.5 21
1220 pounds of cotton 4.5 4
3230 pounds of indigo 24 12
250 pounds of mercury 3.5 12
2 pounds of sewing thread - 1
39.75 shippounds of zinc 19.5 12
2.33 shippounds of winestone - 14
0.5 shippounds of cheese - 2
paper, 20 reams - 8
0.5 barrel of herring 1 1
0.5 barrel of cod 1 1
0.75 barrel of butter - 4
219 pieces of cloth 20.5 2
491 pieces of cotton 19 2
16 pieces of Dutch linen 0.5 15
2 pieces of damask - 8
Assorted merchandise (unspecified) worth 9783 rixdollars 97.5 17
laivurin yksityisvarasto 14.5 15
The ship, once in the Baltic, first kept a northerly course. After reaching the mouth of the Gulf of Finland she should have altered her course to due East to reach St. Petersburg. She ought to have done this in time before sailing into the dangerous Finnish shoals and rocks. But it was dark and stormy and the ship, neglecting this, struck a rock violently (according to the log, at a moment when the crew had assembled for prayers) the ship loosing her rudder and receiving a bad leak. They saw that there were vicious breakers everywhere, and they didn´t dare to stay on board the ship overnight. After the ship had been anchored the crew descended into the launch, rowing to a little rocky islet were they could find at least some shelter.

The log for the 4th October 1771 continues: .... towards evening five men arrived, who promised our captain to come to our aid and the next day with the largest party possible. The wind abated, we went on board and salvaged 10 barrels marked 33 to 42 and one chest marked IBG No. 1. We found eight feet of water at the pump, and as we didn´t dare to stay there any longer and there was no possibility to bail out the ship, we left her and reached shore with consicerable danger.

5th October in the morning nine men with three boats arrived, we went on board and went to the pump, we found nine feet of water there and when all of us were pumping we advanced about 3/4 foot during all day, and the water had a sweet taste, like sugar. In the evening our helpers left us and we didn´t dare to stay on board any longer.

Sunday the 6th October our skipper sent two boats with eight men to look for help. We had fair weather then, we all went to the pump but made no advance. Meanwhile a wind rose, forcing us to leave the ship again, reaching shore with great peril. In the evening 26 men with eight boats arrived.

Monday 7th October 34 men went on board with us, as the weather was fair. We started pumping as vigorously as possible, the ship lay with her deck approximately on a level with the surface of the water. We had lots of coffeebeans in the pump and made no progress. Finding our master cable almost worn through, we cut the cable and after fastening it let the anchor fall again. Meanwhile it was decided to open the foe hatch in order to save the ship and her cargo; we then found the top layer half submerged and consequently salvaged everything possible.

Tuesday 8th October In the morning we went on board again with some people, attempted to pump and salvaged what was possible. The wind was E with fair weather, the air was heavy in the south, we cleared our hawsers, put servings on them and went ashore in the evening. At night we had a heavy wind between S and SW with a squall.

Wednesday 9th October We went to look after our ship, but couldn´t see her any more; then a dinghy arrived from Turku with two customs officials. It was then decided to load the salvaged goods into their boat, which consisted of the following items.4

Chronologically, the next important piece of written evidence throwing light on the subsequent developments in this sequence of events is a letter, adressed to Count Ulrik Scheffer, President of the Royal Chancellary and written by Count Nikita Panin, Russian Foreign Minister. It is dated in St. Petersburg the 8th October 1771 (Obviously Panin is using the ancient Russian Calendar). He writes that the Russian Government recently has learned, that a Dutch ship called Vrouw Maria and commanded by captain Reynoud Lourens, has been lost about 2 lieues from Turku. The cargo of this ship contains several crates with valuable paintings belonging to her Imperial Majesty the Empress.

"As these pictures are very sensitive to injury and need care, I send major Thier to the place. I have furnished him with this letter to you, monsieur, and I request that you will be good enough to give him all help he might need in accomplishing his mission. I do not doubt that you will do your utmost as this matter concerns her Majesty the Empress personally, nor am I unsure that you will attemp to ensure the approval of His Majesty the King. Baron Ribbing, the Swedish Envoy here, writes you concerning the same matter. I have the honour of enclosing his letter here.5

This letter is the first one in a whole series, throwing light on the developments concerning the lost Dutch ship with the Imperial cargo. It marks the beginning of the diplomatic correspondence between three points on the shores of the Baltic, Stockholm, St. Petersburg and the provincial town Turku in the south-western corner of Finland. The correspondents are Baron Scheffer, head of the Foreign Ministry in Stockholm, Baron Ribbing, Swedish Ambassador in St. Petersburg and Baron Christopher Rappe, who was the Governor of the district of Turku.6

As it was late in the year, ice could be expected to form in a few weeks, making it impossible to search for the lost ship. It was therefore necessary to wait until the summer of 1772 before anything could be done. When the summer had arrived, it was soon clear to the specialists in diving and salvaging that nothing could be done with the primitive and unwieldy instruments of the day. For the researchers of the present day, who know the exact location of the wreck, the great depth of the site and the extremely difficult and rocky surroundings of it, exposed to the open sea it is no wonder. Even if the eighteenth-century men had managed to locate the wreck, there would have been no chance to recover it from 41 meters (123 feet).

The author of this article had written a book in 1982, which contained one chapter dealing with this fascinating story. The diver and side-scan sonar operator Rauno Koivusaari had read this book and became interested. A plan soon emerged to find the wreck through a systematical search, based on two steps: first, an area of search would be demarcated, based on the scraps of information collected from the different archive documents, especially the reports to Stockholm descriping the efforts to salvage the ship in the spring of 1772.

Second, a location of the wreck would be attempted by side-scan sonar. Before doing so, however, it was necessary to find new documents describing the wreck itself and its details, such as the main dimensions. This was necessary because it was probable that we would find other wrecks before the right one was discovered. Documents of this kind would be likely to be found at the Gemeentearchief of Amsterdam. We were lucky in that respect. Several documents dating from the earlier stages of the history of the ship were found, showing that she had been to St. Petersburg several times before during earlier years, that her lenght over all was 26,2 meters and her breadth 6,8 meters, her lastage 76 lasts and that she was a kof instead of a snouw, which had been assumed so far on basis on some false notes in archival documents. All the time the master of the ship is the same man, Reynoud Lorentz. But the best and most informative find was that of a bill of sales dating from a sale of the to another owner. In that is included a list of inventaries, giving not only the main dimensions of the ship, but also her rigging and several other details. Listing the anchors, a kedge anchor with one of the points off is mentioned. Such a kedge anchor was indeed found hanging on the railing of the ship in June 1999.7

In the summer of 1998, the search was begun. One wreck of a ship dating from roughly the right period was found, but the rudder was intact and the measurements of the length and breadth wrecked ship did not correspond to the documentary findings. (The rudder, as will be remembered, had been lost when the ship struck the rock.) Two whole weeks of the summer 1998 had been used, and nothing had been found. But the next summer, that of 1999 we were luckier: on the 28th of June, the right wreck was found. The facts which were known about the main measurements and several other details fitted the wreck which had been discovered. The relatively great depth of 41 meters had protected the wreck from damage caused by the ice of the 228 winters which have passed since the ship sank, and her condition seems to be good. She has a full cargo which fills up the space between deck and bottom almost totally, not leaving any room for a diver. This will probably constitute a problem.

In the Baltic, three historical shipwrecks have been found through systematical search: the first was the Vasa in Stockholm, Sweden while the second was the Kronan, also on the Swedish East coast. Both were 17th century naval ships. The Vrouw Maria, on the other hand is a merchant ship of the 18th century, the first one which has been discovered through systematical research in the Baltic. This shows once more that localizing a known wreck on the basis of archival research is perfectly possible, assuming that the size of the ship, the importance of its cargo and similar circumstances provide a sufficient amount of documentary material. Such operations, it may be added, are not even very costly until the point where the archaelogical research begins. Underwater archaelogy, as is well known, is an extremely costly business.

1 Bille 1961.

2 Ahlström 1997, pp. 47-54.

3 Rigsarkivet, Copenhagen, archive of the Sound Tolls.

4 A list follows of the items sent to the customs. The log can be found as an appendix to the court records of the Turku City Hall, October 26th 1771.

5 8t October 1771, Kabinetten E 1 A 11. Swedish National Archives, Stockholm.

6 The Muscovitica collection, Swedish national Archives, Stockholm.

7 Sales of ships through brokers, file nr 5071, Gemeentearhief, Amsterdam. Augusth 18, 1766.


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