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The Empress of Russia and the Dutch snow the Vrouw Maria

This article was published in the annual report Nautica Fennica 2000.
By Dr. Christian Ahlström

German-born Russian Empress Catherine II (the Great, 1729-96) was well-known for her interest in art. As an empress, financial difficulties posed no obstacle to her pursuing this expensive hobby, the results of which can be seen today in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

In 1770 the wealthy Dutch timber merchant Gerrit Braamcamp died in Amsterdam. His house, still standing in Amsterdam to this day, was filled with paintings, furniture, jewellery, lacquer work and silver. Braamcamp's heirs decided to auction the majority of the collection on 20 July 1771. On hearing of the auction, Catherine the Great's interest was piqued and she ordered Prince Golitzyn, her ambassador to the Netherlands, to ensure that the items she wanted were purchased. This Golitzyn did by agreeing with a number of art dealers that they would buy the items on his behalf.1

The last voyage of the Vrouw Maria

Apparently a large proportion of the items bought by the Russians at the auction were loaded onto a Dutch ship named the Vrouw Maria, which left Amsterdam for St. Petersburg with its valuable cargo on Thursday 5 September 1771. According to the logbook of the Vrouw Maria, now preserved in the Turku (Åbo) City Archives, the voyage initially ran smoothly. The logbook, translated into Swedish, was appended to the records of the Magistrate of Turku for 26.10.1771.2

Before entering the Baltic, the ship had to pay the Sound Dues, customs duty charged on all vessels passing through the Danish strait. This practice was extremely lucrative for the Danish exchequer but possibly slightly dubious legally and ethically. The practice continued, however, until 1856, when the Americans refused to pay up. The records meticulously kept by the customs officials are an immensely useful resource for modern historians. The entries contain a huge amount of information. Each vessel passing through the Sound was listed with its home port, nationality, destination, name and domicile of its captain, its cargo, specified in more or less detail, and finally the customs dues paid.

An entry on the Vrouw Maria passing through the Sound was found in the ledger:3

Dutch vessel No 508 (von Osten bind, 1771)

23 September, Reymund Lourens from Amsterdam, from there to St. Petersburg with cargo:


Danish rigsdaler


85562 pounds of sugar



17980 pounds of madder



4700 pounds of Brazilwood



1220 pounds of cotton



3230 pounds of indigo



250 pounds of mercury



2 pounds of sewing thread



39.75 ship pounds of zinc



2.33 ship pounds of cream of tartar



0.5 ship pounds of cheese



20 reams of paper



0.5 barrels of herring



0.5 barrels of stockfish



0.75 barrels of butter



219 bolts of broadcloth



491 bolts of cotton fabric



16 bolts of Dutch plain weave



2 bolts of bed linen



trade goods worth 9783 rigsdaler



captain's private stores



On entering the Baltic Sea, the ship initially held a northerly course. To arrive in St. Petersburg, she should have changed course to due east on reaching the mouth of the Gulf of Finland in good time before hitting the shallow and rocky Finnish shoreline. In the dark and in stormy weather, she failed to do so and the ship foundered on the rocks. According to the logbook, this happened at a time when the crew were gathered together for prayers. The ship lost its rudder and sprang a severe leak. Surrounded by high seas, the crew dared not spend the night on board and after anchoring the ship, they transferred to an island for safety in the ship's boat.

The logbook continues for 4 October 1771: " evening fell a boat bearing five men approached, promising our captain to return the following day with as many men as possible. The wind dropped as we rowed to the ship and rescued 10 barrels marked 33 to 42 and one marked IBG No. 1. We found eight feet of water at the pump and as we did not dare to stay longer and as there was no hope of draining the ship, we left the vessel and reached the shore amid great danger.

In the morning of 5 October nine men came to us in three boats, we rowed to the ship and went to the pump. We found nine feet of water about the pump and when all hands went to the pump we gained about 3/4 of a foot the whole day and the water was sweet like sugar. In the evening our helpers left and we dared not to stay there any longer.

On Sunday 6 October our captain left with eight men in two boats to seek help. We had fair weather and every man of us went to the ship to pump but made no headway. The wind then rose and forced us once more from the ship. We returned to land in great peril. In the evening 26 men came to join us in eight boats.

On Monday 7 October we went to the ship with 34 men, the weather being fair. We started to pump as much as possible as the ship was practically full of water and lying with its deck almost on the surface. There were very many coffee beans in the pump and we failed to make progress. We saw that the anchor rope was almost worn through at the knot so we cut it and reattached it to the anchor and lowered the anchor. At that time all of us decided to open the fore hatch to save the ship and the cargo. We found the uppermost deck was half under water. We then salvaged all that we could.

On Tuesday 8 October we went once more to the ship in the morning with all the men and once more tried to pump and save all that we could. The wind was from the east and the weather was fine but the weather was worsening severely in the south so we cleared our ropes and wrapped them in sailcloth and we rowed back to land in the evening. In the evening the wind blew strongly from the south-by-southwest and it started to rain.

On Wednesday 9 October we went to look at our ship but we could no longer see her. A jolly boat came from Turku with two customs officials and we decided to load the salvaged cargo onto their boat..."4

Searching for and locating the ship

The next important written evidence of the wreck of the Vrouw Maria is a letter sent by Russian Foreign Minister Nikita Panin to Lord High Chancellor of Sweden Ulrik Scheffer, dated St. Petersburg, 8 October 1771 (Panin is using the old Russian calendar). Panin writes that the Russian government has recently learned that the Dutch ship the Vrouw Maria captained by Reynoud Lorens has been lost about two lieues5 away from Turku. The vessel contains several crates of valuable paintings belonging to Her Imperial Majesty.

"Because they are very vulnerable to damage and need care and maintenance, I send Major Thier to take them under his control. I have furnished him with this letter to you Monsieur, in which I request that you give him every assistance he may require in performing his duties. I have not the slightest doubt that you will do your utmost in this matter which concerns Her Majesty the Empress personally, or that in this respect you will attempt to secure the approval of His Majesty the King of Sweden. Baron Ribbing, the King's ambassador here at court is writing to you on the same matter. I have the honour to enclose his letter..."6

This letter is the first in an entire series concerning the lost Dutch ship and its imperial cargo. This is the start of a diplomatic correspondence between Stockholm, St. Petersburg and Turku. The writers are Baron Scheffer, Stockholm's foreign minister, Baron Ribbin, Swedish envoy to St. Petersburg and Baron Christopher Rappe, who was the Governor of the Province of Turku.7

As it was nearing the end of the year, ice was expected within a few weeks so it was impossible to start a search for the ship. It was necessary to wait until 1772 before anything could be done regarding the vessel. When summer came, however, it was clear that diving and salvage professionals were unable to do anything using the primitive and unwieldy equipment of the period. To modern researchers who know the exact position of the wreck, this is no surprise, considering the depth of the site and its location in open sea in a difficult and rocky location. Even if the people of the 18th century had located the wreck, they would have been unable to salvage it from a depth of 41 metres.

The book written by the author of this article in 1982 contains a chapter on the Vrouw Maria case. Diver and side-scan sonar operator Rauno Koivusaari had read the book and was interested in the ship. Soon a two-phase plan was developed to find the wreck in a systematic search. First it was necessary to limit the search area on the basis of the crumbs of evidence available from various archival sources. The most important of these was a report sent to Stockholm describing attempts to salvage the ship in spring 1772.

After limiting the search area, an attempt would be made to find the wreck using side-scan sonar. Before this it was necessary to attempt to find new documents concerning the wreck itself and its details such as its main measurements. This was particularly important because it was extremely likely that other wrecks would be found in the area in addition to the Vrouw Maria. It was thought that such documents might exist in the Amsterdam Gemeentearchief. Here too we were lucky. Several documents on the history of the Vrouw Maria were found there, according to which it had been in St. Petersburg several times in previous years. The documents also stated the main measurements of the vessel: length 26.2 metres and beam 6.8 metres and a lastage of 76 lasts. From these documents it was also clear that the Vrouw Maria was a koff, not a snow, as had been stated in several archival sources. All the time, the captain of the Vrouw Maria was the same man, Reynoud Lorentz. The source containing the best and the most information was the sale document for the vessel. The sale document included an inventory stating the vessel's main measurements, its rig and many more details. Regarding the anchors, the inventory stated that one of the kedge anchors had one fluke missing.8

The search for the wreck began in summer 1998, where one wreck of the right period was found. However, its rudder was intact and the measurements of the wreck did not match the information in the documents. The rudder of the Vrouw Maria had been lost when the ship ran aground. In 1988 the wreck was searched for for a total of two weeks but with no success. In summer 1999 we were luckier, however, as the right wreck was found on 28 June. Our information about the main measurements of the wreck and a number of other details matched the wreck now found. Among other things, the broken kedge anchor mentioned in the inventory was found attached to the side of the ship. Although the wreck had spent 228 winters potentially subjected to the ravages of ice, its location at a depth of 41 metres had protected it from major damage. Otherwise, the condition of the wreck appeared to be good and it contained an almost entirely full cargo, which almost completely filled the hold. This meant that there was no space for divers inside the vessel, which probably would cause problems.

Systematic research has now resulted in three historic shipwrecks being found in the Baltic Sea. The first was the Vasa in Stockholm and the second the Kronan, also found off the Swedish coast. Both of these were seventeenth-century warships. The Vrouw Maria, however, is an eighteenth century merchant ship. This once more indicates that locating known shipwrecks using archival material is perfectly possible provided that the size of the ship and its cargo are so important that sufficient documentation has accumulated regarding the event. Operations of this nature are not even very expensive before the archaeological research phase starts. Maritime archaeology, on the other hand, comes extremely expensive.

The future of the Vrouw Maria

So what happens next? Answering that question is far from easy but the following options have been discussed: 1) Raising the cargo of the ship straight from the vessel. The depth (41 m) however, means that a diver is able to work on the wreck for a maximum of 15 minutes at a time. 2) Moving the wreck to shallower and more sheltered waters, after which it would be easier to salvage the cargo. 3) Raising the wreck itself with its cargo and transporting it to Helsinki where it would be put on display.

These options, particularly the last one, are not easy to carry out. The writer is unable to predict whether or not it would be possible to rescue Catherine the Great's paintings. In addition to the auction of the paintings, another auction of the Braamcamp estate was held in 1771, at which silver objects, lacquer work and similar works of art were sold. Nothing so far indicates, however, that items from this auction were transported on the Vrouw Maria.

Until the underwater research into this interesting wreck is carried out in summer 2000, it is not possible to say very much else. For the time being only a few small objects have been raised from the ship - a few clay pipes, a zinc ingot (part of a larger cargo), a lead seal and a ceramic bottle. The fact that the cargo of the vessel was zinc, which was also shown in the Sound Dues ledgers, is probably beneficial in terms of the condition of the wreck. Zinc reduces the corrosion of iron and steel submerged nearby by corroding itself instead. This property is exploited in modern ships by placing pieces of zinc in the hull. The Vrouw Maria's cargo contained 6.7 tonnes of zinc, which might be why the wreck's iron bolts seem to be in such good condition.


Archival sources

Danish National Archives, Copenhagen
Sound Dues ledgers

National Archives, Stockholm
Commerce College, Cabinet, Main archive, Documents received


Gemeentearchief, Amsterdam
Notariele Archieven 5071 (Sheepsverkopingen door makelaars)

City of Turku Central Archive
Records of the Magistrate of Turku 1771


Ahlström, Christian 1997. Looking for Leads. Shipwrecks of the past revealed by contemporary documents and the archaeological record. Suomalaisen Tiedeakatemian toimituksia. Humaniora 284. Saarijärvi.

Bille, Clara 1961. De tempel der kunst of het kabinet van den heer Braamcamp. Amsterdam.

When the article was written, it was assumed that the Vrouw Marian was a koff ship. According to recent information, the vessel was, however, a snow ship. Cf. Matias Laitinen's article "The wreck of the Vrouw Maria and types of eighteenth century Dutch sailing ships in written sources".

1Bille 1961.
2Ahlström 1997, pp. 47-54.
3Danish State Archives, Copenhagen, Sound Dues ledgers.
4This is followed by a list of the goods salvaged. The logbook is appended to the records of the Magistrate of Turku for 26.10.1771
5The lieue (league in English) was a French measurement of distance, equivalent at sea to 5565.3 metres.
6National Archives of Sweden, Cabinet E 1 A 11, 8. October 1771.
7National Archives of Sweden, Muscovitica collection.
8Gemeentearchief, Amsterdam, Sheepsverkopingen door makelaars, file 5071, 18 August 1766.


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