A scholar on the tracks of Russian leather and shipwrecks across Northern Europe

Russian leather was a success story in the 1700s. Diving excursions and archival research carried out by Mikko Huhtamies, a maritime historian, reveal the passage of leather from St Petersburg to Western Europe and its transformation into luxury goods.

After rolls of leather were hoisted from a shipwreck found in the southern Baltic Sea, historian Mikko Huhtamies was contacted. The rolls originated in Russia. Huhtamies is studying shipwrecks and rescue operations that took place in the Gulf of Finland in the 18th century, as well as wrecks from the same period, which is why the Finnish Heritage Agency thought he might know something about these particular leather rolls that had found their way to the bottom of the sea.

“Naturally, I was intrigued, since rolls of leather have been a frequent feature of my research as well. You often come across leather when studying 18th century wrecks and their cargo manifests,” Huhtamies explains.

Russian leather – a best-seller in the 1700s

The rolls discovered by foreign maritime archaeologists were Russian leather.

“Russian leather was high-quality cow leather manufactured according to a secret process in Russia. It was resistant to water, since the process involved using pungent and insect-repellant birch tar,” the scholar elaborates.

The leather was further processed into military boots, book covers, cigar boxes, belts, bags and, in Italy, even wallpaper. Leather was shipped from St Petersburg to Western Europe.

The contact mentioned above gave rise to a new research project, for which the Future Development Fund of the University of Helsinki granted funding. This funding has made it possible to dive to investigate a shipwreck lying close to Porkkala and carrying some 50 rolls of leather, two of which were raised to safety.

“The rolls are now at the laboratories of the Finnish Heritage Agency. They are in relatively good condition. They are inscribed with the initials ‘H.M.’, possibly denoting a leather merchant from St Petersburg. This is what I’m currently working on.”

Archival work

Archives are a generous source of research material for scholars of history. Investigations focused on shipwrecks and Russian leather have led Huhtamies to peruse documents all across the countries of the Baltic Sea, both in Helsinki and Stockholm, as well as in Tartu and Lübeck. Next, he is travelling to Amsterdam to find out what the local archives are able to reveal about the journeys taken by Russian leather.

“Archives in the Netherlands are good. These days, I use search engines to find out in advance the selection of documents available and place an order for viewing them, taking pictures of them at the location. The actual analysis is carried out in an office in Helsinki,” Huhtamies describes his research process.

“Earlier, I used to take as many photos as possible, but now I’m more into pinpointed raids. My computer is already full of research material for the rest of my life,” he laughs.

Low German, Dutch, Swedish and old script

Old documents were written by hand with varying scripts, but historians are experts at reading old handwriting and understanding their occasionally complex trains of thought. But language difficulties can present obstacles even to historians.

Huhtamies is proficient in German and Swedish, but at times he needs help from colleagues.

“The documents in Lübeck’s archives are written in Low German. With those, I have received help from Rogier Nieuweboer, lecturer in Dutch language at the University of Helsinki, who has translated them into English. Then again, the subject matter in documents pertaining to shipwrecks is often the same, which helps me to get the hang of their content quite quickly, even if I’m not proficient in the language.”

The rigging of a wreck worth a house in Helsinki

Ships transporting Russian leather from St Petersburg often ended up at the bottom of the Gulf of Finland.

“The Gulf of Finland was a dangerous place in the 1700s: on the Finnish side, there was a rocky labyrinth of an archipelago, whereas the Estonian side offered only steadily inclining sands and few safe havens. Seafaring was largely dependent on the weather and the seasons, which made it extremely risky. For example, in the year 1760 the Baltic Sea experienced a forceful storm that wrecked a vast number of ships,” Huhtamies says.

Shipwrecks at the bottom of the Baltic Sea are usually relatively well preserved, since there are no shipworms gnawing away at the wood in the low-salinity waters of the Baltic. However, the wrecks are often shattered and empty, since their cargo was salvaged by a diving company active in Sweden in the 18th century. Cargo salvage damaged the ships, since rescue operations were often carried out in a hurry.

Archives reveal that coastal inhabitants in both Finland and Estonia tried to make use of shipwrecks. However, stories about false lights used to lure ships onto shoals are not really substantiated by documentation.

In Tartu archives, there are documents concerning significant trials against landowners in the 1700s. It was common for crofters to raid shipwrecks on the orders of their lord of the manor.

“von Ungern-Sternberg, a lord of the manor in Hiiumaa, was sentenced to Siberia for looting. He was also suspected of manipulating the fires of the Kõpu Lighthouse,” says Huhtamies.

As opposed to Estonia, a diving and rescue company (‘Pohjoinen sukellus- ja pelastuskomppania’) operated in Finland under the supervision of the state. The company salvaged saleable goods from shipwrecks and auctioned them off. To the scholar’s delight, the company’s activities have been documented in detail in the auction-room archives of the Helsinki City Archives and the series of diving company reports held in Stockholm, which systematically encompasses almost the entire second half of the 18th century.

“The auction-room documents from the middle of the 18th century show that rigging was the most valuable commodity on ships in addition to the actual cargo. Sails and anchors also paid a good price, but moveables, such as compasses and pots, were cheap. The hull of the ship was also more or less worthless. Rigging, on the other hand, was so valuable that the price of two high-quality anchor lines was enough to buy a plot of land and a house in the centre of Helsinki.


A new publication on this subject forthcoming

Later this year, Onni ja Onnettomuus. Kauppalaivojen haaksirikot ja pelastustoiminta Itämerellä 1600- ja 1700-luvuilla (‘Trader shipwrecks and rescue operations in the Baltic Sea in the 17th and 18th centuries’), a book edited by Mikko Huhtamies and Juha-Matti Granqvist will be published. The book examines the subject through varying perspectives with contributions from several writers. The book, published by the Finnish Literature Society, is part of the Historiallisia Tutkimuksia (‘Historical studies’) peer reviewed series.