The Netherlands return maritime heritage to Sweden

Today, in Stockholm’s Vasamuseum, the Netherlands returned a piece of cultural heritage to Sweden during a state visit taking place from 11 till 13 October. Handing over the so-called allemansend, a richly decorated length of rope, His Majesty King Willem-Alexander returned a special maritime object, the ship’s bell of the Swedish ship of the line Prinsessan Sophia Albertina, to His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf. Returning this ship’s bell marks the cooperation between both countries in maritime heritage management.

The divers who found the bell, Hugo Raven and Kees Purmer (Northseadivers), were also present as guests of honour. Before the handover, Martijn Manders, a maritime archaeologist with the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE), spoke of the history of the Sophia Albertina and the long-standing collaboration between the Netherlands and Sweden in the field of maritime heritage.

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Koning Willem-Alexander in gesprek met een groep mensen tijdens de overhandiging van de scheepsbel
Image: ©ANP
King Willem-Alexander speaks to the two divers who found the ship's bell in 2002

Finds from the wreck presented to the Swedish public

Much of the wreck of the Sophia Albertina still lies on the North Sea bed. However, a number of finds have been recovered, and following temporary storage in the national Maritime Archaeological Depot in the Netherlands they are now back in Sweden, in the Naval Museum of Karlskrona. The ship’s bell will also be housed there, as the RCE – which is responsible for international maritime heritage management on behalf of the Dutch Minister for Education, Culture and Science (OCW) – had agreed with its Swedish partners.

When it became clear that the original owner (Sweden) and the finders (the two divers who found the wreck and the bell) all had a clear desire to see the bell returned, the Ministry of OCW made the necessary arrangements with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The largest maritime disaster in Swedish history

Foto van de scheepsbel van het Zweedse oorlogsschip Prinsessan Sophia Albertina
Image: ©Batavialand
Ship's bell of the Swedish warship Prinsessan Sophia Albertina, which sank off the Dutch coast in 1781

For Swedes, the loss of the Sophia Albertina probably represents the largest maritime disaster in their history. The ship sank in 1781 near the Dutch island of Texel while escorting a convoy; the Netherlands and England were at war, and sea routes through the North Sea were not safe. Late in the evening of 20 August 1781, in stormy weather, the ship ran aground on the Noorderhaaks sandbank off Texel, and was ripped apart by the sea. Only 31 men out of a crew of 450 survived the disaster.

The wreck then lay buried under a layer of sand, until 2002, when two divers, Hugo Raven and Kees Purmer, made the discovery of their lives. They came across the wreck by chance, since much of the protective layer of sand had washed away. Amongst other objects, they found the ship’s bell. In 2004, maritime archaeologists from the RCE assessed the ship’s remains and the found objects, after which a number of finds were brought up for conservation.

Back to Sweden

Hugo Raven: While I was diving on this unknown wreck with my friend Kees, I suddenly noticed a rounded green edge sticking up out of the sand. The green colour told me it was made of copper or bronze, and I thought it might be a bronze cannon. As I got closer, I saw that it couldn’t be a cannon as the edge was too sharp to be a muzzle. I started clearing the sand away, and as more of it became visible I couldn’t believe my eyes: it was the ship’s bell! It was stuck immovably in the sea bed, but we managed to get it up and clean it. It was really beautiful, with gorgeous ornaments and an inscription that led us, eventually, to the identification of the ship. It feels very special to be here now, returning the bell, in the presence of His Majesty the King and Her Majesty the Queen. I always said that I wanted to bring it back to Sweden, and now here it is.

Martijn Manders: This restitution also symbolizes the maritime relationship between the Netherlands and Sweden. The Vasa, and the wrecks of fluyt cargo ships like the Ghostship, the Lion, and the Anna Maria, lie in Swedish waters but they also have a link with the Netherlands. Dutch shipbuilders were welcomed with open arms in 17th century Sweden, but trade in iron and cast iron cannons was also very important, and contributed to the flourishing of both countries. Through cooperation, and with respect for each other’s principles and interests, we are making great strides in protecting and researching underwater cultural heritage. The end result is that the public can experience this unique heritage for themselves, and help to preserve it for the future. The ship’s bell is the heart of the ship. The bell – the rhythm of the ship and its crew - was traditionally given to the ship’s baptizer when a ship was taken out of service. Now our King is doing the same, returning the bell to the King of Sweden.

Swedish property

The symbolic restitution of the ship’s bell marks an important moment in the management of international underwater cultural heritage. A Swedish ship of the line, the Sophia Albertina remains the property of the Swedish state. The Netherlands respects the maritime heritage of other countries that lie in Dutch waters, and returning findings to their rightful owner is part of this policy. The restitution of the ship’s bell of the Sophia Albertina along with other finds is in accordance with the restitution policy of the Dutch government, and is in agreement with both Sweden and the wreck’s original finders. The RCE implements Dutch maritime heritage policy on behalf of the Minister of Education, Culture and Science, working together with the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Central Government Real Estate Agency.