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  • Figure 1. A two-masted galliot has stranded in a stormy weather at the outermost skerries of the Gulf of Finland. It was possible to salvage the rigging and at least part of the cargo was possible to salvage. Shipwreck by Hjalmar Münsterhjelm (1881). Source: John Nurminen Collections, Helsinki.

Help, business or piracy?

Shipwrecks and salvage auctions as early modern entrepreneurship in the Gulf of Finland

Eighteenth-century maritime salvage as an enterprise opens new perspectives on marine and urban history, as well as on the history of Baltic shipping and the economic culture in the region. The starting point is the simple fact that for an early-modern merchant, a shipwreck was either a disaster or a lucrative business deal. If the ship was his own, the wreck was a serious financial setback, which in the worst case scenario resulted in bankruptcy and economic ruin. If the ship belonged to somebody else, and the merchant got his hands on the wreck, he could make money from the cargo and the valuable ship parts

The difficult road to St Petersburg

After the founding of St Petersburg (est. 1703) the Gulf of Finland became one of the world`s most important maritime crossroads, used by ships heading to the Russian capital (Kaukiainen 1993, 31–38). The Gulf of Finland with hundreds of skerries and narrow passages was, and still is, difficult to navigate, and thus shipwrecks were numerous. There were tens of shipwrecks in the gulf per annum during the eighteenth century – mainly in the stormy late autumn nights. This factum gave birth to a new kind of business opportunity. Quasi-governmental diving companies (in Swedish dykeri- och bärgningskompanier), operating from Swedish (and Finnish) coastal towns, were given the monopoly in 1729 to rescue castaway goods and ship parts, which were sold in public auctions. Thousands or even tens of thousands silver and copper dalers transacted in these auctions. For a comparison, the value of a house in the centre of Helsinki was around 2,000–3,000 copper dalers.

Salvage was carried out with rudimentary tools (e.g. hooks and drags) from the surface. Rigging made of larch was a valuable part of the ship and often the main target for the salvors. No actual diving was done. The nearest diving bell was in Stockholm and it was used in the Finnish waters only once in association with the so called gold galley in Porvoo archipelago 1734. The bell was reserved for exceptional naval operations such as salvaging bullion or cannons from men of war. The nation-wide monopoly of the diving companies was an obstacle for the diffusion and development of such innovative underwater technologies like diving tubes which were used in Britain. In Sweden, the bell remained the main tool of the divers until the end of the century (Huhtamies 2014).

The rise in Helsinki's long-distance shipping

One of the earliest and most profitable salvage operations for Helsinki was the wrecking of a three- masted Russian gallion, St Simeon, at the coast of Helsinki in late autumn 1731 (Helsinki City Archives. Magistrate protocol 5.4.–14.5.1731. Ca: 16–17). The cargo consisting of luxury items to the imperial court had a huge value and it was auctioned for more than 128,000 silver dalers. What was even more fortunate, the ship could be repaired and was bought by local burghers. It was renamed as Die Stadt Helsingfors. The ship made three passages through the Sound to Amsterdam and imported vitally important salt to the town. Die Stadt Helsingfors was the first long distant ship of Helsinki in the eighteenth century. During her last voyage back home, the ship stranded at Östergarn at the eastern coast of Gotland (Börman 1981, 119).

The recycling and reuse of stranded unfortunate foreign vessels had an instrumental role in the boom of Helsinki`s long-distance shipping. During the late eighteenth century, the merchants of Helsinki, who had previously owned no ocean-going vessels, built themselves the fourth largest merchant fleet in the Swedish realm, as the Sound Toll Register clearly indicates. This was possible, partly, because the salvage auctions were centralized to Helsinki, and thus the merchants were provided by constant supply of affordable, high-quality and reusable ship parts. The fact that ships and ship components were fairly standardized in the eighteenth century favored the reusage. Furthermore, the auctions had also regionally wider economic impact, since merchants from other coastal towns and the owners of the iron works in the western Uusimaa region took part in them. Did some of the local merchants become specialized ship-part dealers, who bought these parts from the auctions and sold them onwards, and, furthermore, did these auctions give birth to a new class of merchandizers? Protocols from these kinds of auctions could possibly be used to reconstruct the typical late eighteenth-century merchant ship in great detail. In this way, the study of auctions overlaps marine archaeology and ethnology.

During the eighteenth century there was a large market for maritime equipment (anchors, riggings, ropes, blocks, instruments, tools) and cargoes (mainly bulk like hemp, grain and timber) in the coastal towns of Finland. According to the auction protocols (Helsinki City Archives, Auction chamber, protocols) the buyers were for the most part local merchants. In the late eighteenth century the Helsinki Diving Company dominated the coastline from Hanko Peninsula to the Russian border, and thus the majority of wrecked ships were auctioned in Helsinki. At the same time, Helsinki experienced a period of rapid economic growth. This growth is traditionally credited to the influence of the Sveaborg fortress (est. 1747), built at the same time, but it should be examined more closely what role did the salvage auctions and the diving companies play in the process. In the operations of the companies, the line between official salvage and unofficial wrecking was often a blurred one, and the company was usually headed by one of the leading merchants in the town.

An uncharted area of maritime history

The economic significance of salvage auctions for coastal towns and shipwrecks as a way of profiting has been until now mostly an unexplored area, at least in Scandinavia. The main source materials for the investigation of the Helsinki case are the quarterly reports of the diving companies, held in the Military Archives of Sweden (Krigsarkivet, Dykerihandlingar) and the auction protocols of the city of Helsinki. From them, it is possible to tabulate the cargo goods and ship parts sold in these auctions, the identity of the buyers, and the financial value of the auctions. After this, it is possible to trace the actions of the main buyers using other source material, such as the protocols and account books of the Helsinki magistrate, the protocols of the local courts of law, the municipal and national taxation protocols, and the archives of Helsinki Seaman’s Society and so on. With the help of statistics of auctions and data of the main buyers, the economic significance of salvage auctions can be estimated for the first time.

On the other hand, salvage is linked to the question of transaction costs (North 2003, 22–40): with the help of diving companies, the merchant house and the customer could receive information on possible wrecks and receive payments from the auctions of the diving companies, which increased the reliability of shipping and lowered the transaction costs (search costs). Furthermore, an important factor is the speed of information flow from diving companies to insurance companies to merchant houses reveals the extent of integration. Did the Baltic form a socioeconomic unity with shared economic culture? And if it did, how was salvage, which sometimes was seen as wrecking and piracy, adapted to this unity? The founding of diving companies can be seen also as an indication of early modern state-building, which in the eighteenth century extended geographically to the archipelago, hitherto a kind of no man’s land out of governmental control. The questions related to state building can be answered with the help of administrative (coastal organizations, e.g. pilotage), judicial (court records on wrecking, strand- robbery) and cartographic sources (the coverage of charting and coastal mapping). However, despite the efforts of the state, wrecking was still a phenomenon of the eighteenth century. Old customs were not easy to abolish. Can we even talk about isolated wrecking communities of the Gulf as rivals of the diving companies?

The hidden treasury of the Baltic

Baltic maritime history has worldwide significance. The Gulf of Finland, or the Northern Baltic, is the best place in the world for marine archaeology for one reason: the wrecks are often in a good shape, because there is no teredo navalis (shipworm) in this sea area. In addition to the wrecks, the archival sources are excellent and well documented in the area. The best way to explore the nature and meaning of salvage is to combine, in a multidisciplinary way, archival research and underwater surveys. This will be done in a research project funded by the Academy of Finland and Kone Foundation, which started in 2015 at the University of Helsinki. The aim of the project is to open new perspectives into Baltic transport history, the salvage business of monopoly diving companies and the role of salvage companies in shipping, economics and urban life during the eighteenth century. The maritime foreland of Helsinki provides a unique setting for multidisciplinary research at the University of Helsinki.

Mikko Huhtamies is Adjunct Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies, University of Helsinki.


Börman, Jan-Erik (1981). Genom Öresund. Öresundstullem – skeppsfarten på Finland 1500–1800. Helsingfors.

Huhtamies, Mikko (2014). Pohjolan Atlantis. Uskomattomia ideoita Itämerellä. Helsinki: John Nurmisen Säätiö.

Kaukiainen, Yrjö (1993). History of Finnish Shipping. London and New York: Routledge.

North, Douglas C. (2003). Institutions, Transaction Costs, and the Rise of Merchant Empires. In James D. Tracy (ed.), The Political Economy of Merchant Empires. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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