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The Vasa, Stockholm, Sweden

It is a warm Wednesday afternoon. I am standing outside, waiting in line, drenched after a sudden rain shower. The line shuffles along and a short while later I am inside. I go past the ticket office and finally walk into the main room. The room is large and dimly lit, the scattered spotlights on the darkened ceiling high above almost feeling like stars.
I walk around, impressed by the size of the object in front of me, amazed at how complete the preservation is. I see lines, tackles, ropes, detailed carvings and the grain of the wood. I walk into a side room and read a bit more information about various objects displayed there. Clothing, shoes, cutlery and other personal items. Axes, pikes, swords, cannonballs and other weapons that show that the crew was there for fighting.
The exhibition leads me a story or two higher, where I have a more complete view of the ship. I am standing at the stern and can clearly see where new decorations have taken the place of several lost sections, the wood being several shades lighter than the now almost black original timber beside it. Back on the ground floor, I walk past the few of the Vasa’s cannons that were left on the ship when it was lifted.

The ship towers several dozen meters above me. Ironically, both are the reason why, at that moment, I was able to look at the ship: the height combined with the large amount of weight above the water instead of below it, made the ship top-heavy, so the slightest gust of wind could make it keel over. And it did, sinking the ship before it was even out of the harbor. Over three hundred years later, the ship was carefully raised out of the water, excavated and ultimately came to be displayed in its own museum where everybody can now marvel at it, like I did. It is not only part of Sweden’s heritage, but intertwined with that of the rest of Europe.

Its building crew and materials came from all over Europe, with most, not surprisingly, originating in the countries bordering the Baltic Sea. But there are also connections with Britain, Switzerland, France and the Netherlands, a sign of how interconnected economies already were in the 17th century. And of course, being a warship, the Vasa was not intended for some domestic trade. It was built by a king who was at war with Denmark, Poland and Russia. It had twice as much firepower as the strongest northern European ship at that time. It was built for the rest of Europe as much as it was for Sweden, an example of the strength of the Swedish navy. It is undeniably connected to that time of exploration and exploitation, when those with the strongest navy had the strongest claim on overseas territories and could profit most from the intercontinental trade. And that is a past shared by many European countries, making the Vasa not just part of Swedish, but also of a broader European heritage.

By Lizanne Mollema