People from a half dozen countries toiled here from sunrise to sunset, six days a week, as carpenters, sawyers, smiths, mastmakers, turners, and a host of other specialized trades. Welcome to Skeppsgården, the navy yard in Stockholm and Vasa's birthplace.
For decades, new ships for the Swedish navy had been built all over the country, near the forests where the raw materials grew. After 1618, Gustav II Adolf began to concentrate this far-flung but important activity in just a handful of shipyards. The most important of these, the centre for maintenance and new construction, was the navy yard in Stockholm. Men were recruited to expand the workforce, and the king embarked on a program of shipbuilding, hoping to add two new ships to the navy every year, renewing and enlarging the navy as part of his program of military and territorial expansion.
The guard on the bridge
The navy yard was located on Skeppsholmen, now a peninsula known as Blasieholmen. In those days, it was an island connected to the mainland by a wooden bridge across Näckströmmen, a twenty-metre wide watercourse long since vanished. A guard stationed in a red-painted gatehouse kept an eye on everyone coming and going over the bridge, since the navy yard was an important military installation.
Punishment work in the smithy
Across the bridge, if you were allowed passage, a teeming industrial complex spread out on the rocky island. Stone and timber buildings, some with grass roofs, held offices, workshops and warehouses. The main smithy was the largest building, where hardware of all sizes up to anchors was hammered out of iron bar stock in five coal-fired forges, as prisoners shackled to bellows kept the fires alight and roof-mounted windmills strained to keep the air moving inside. A smaller smithy produced fine work, such as locks. Other shops turned out pumps, rigging tackle, and ship's boats, and storehouses stockpiled tar and rigging. There was even a sauna for the workers. The shore was lined with wooden quays where ships could be moored in the winter and fitted out in the spring. New ships were born on the northern shore, where the building ways led down to the water.
During the 1620s, the navy yard was operated by private entrepreneurs under contract to the Crown. The Dutch master shipwright Henrik Hybertsson and his partner, the merchant Arendt de Groote, held the contract from 1626. For a cash payment, they were to repair and maintain the navy's ships and build new ones. It was up to them to source raw materials and recruit the craftsmen who could turn timber, tar and iron into ships.
During the warm months, over 300 people worked at the navy yard. About half were year-round employees recruited in Sweden, mostly Swedes and Finns, but also a few Samer (the nomadic reindeer herders of the far north) and immigrants from Denmark and the Baltic countries. The rest were seasonal labour, mostly from the Netherlands and Germany. This created a challenging working environment, since the two groups spoke different languages, were trained in different shipbuilding traditions, and perhaps most confusingly, used two different systems of measurement. Significantly, the seasonal workers were paid at about twice the rate of the natives, which must have created some tension. It is hardly a surprise that the ship turned out to be asymmetrical.
The international workforce at the navy yard was typical for many of the embryonic industries in Gustav Adolf's Sweden. The Crown regularly recruited foreign capital and expertise to promote the growth of Swedish manufacturing, especially of armaments. Many of the permanent masters who ran the specialized shops at the navy yard came from the Netherlands. The master gunfounder who cast Vasa's cannon was originally from Switzerland, the entrepreneur in charge of rigging maintenance was from Scotland, and the naval officer who supervised the navy yard, called the gårdskapten, came from Denmark.
Building blocks for a new navy
The raw materials which flooded into the navy yard by wagon and ship came not only from Sweden but from all over northern Europe. Timber was cut on private estates to the south and west of Stockholm, and one of the largest suppliers was Brita Posse, the woman who ran the estate of Ängsö, near Västerås. Rough sawn planks were purchased in Riga and as far away as Amsterdam. Tar came from southern Sweden and Finland, hemp from Latvia, coal for the forges from England, sailcloth from Holland and France. Arendt de Groote was constantly on the move, sailing between Riga, Stockholm and Amsterdam in search of the commodities in constant demand at the navy yard.