Treasures of the deep

Salvaging wrecked ships became a business in the 18th century. The salvage companies on the Baltic Sea retrieved valuable cargo, but some of the treasures of the wrecks are still under the waves.

The Baltic Sea and the North Sea are being ravaged by an unusually strong storm on a pitch black autumn night off Jussarö island in 1777. It is a “violent hurricane”; as the storm would later be described by Lloyd’s, the company that had insured the valuable cargo on the ships navigating the stormy seas.

That night, the crews on all ships on the Gulf of Finland were fighting for their lives. Many of the vessels would end up in the cold embrace of Davy Jones’ locker.

Sails flap, rigging snaps and breaks, rocks smash sturdy hulls into smithereens. Soon sailors are floating on the grey, icy waves. Cries for help are drowned out by the howling wind.

One of the ships in the storm is The City of Frankfurt, captained by Herman Flockert from Lübeck. The wind and waves usher the ship towards the rocks south of the main island of Jussarö, known by the locals as the teeth of Jussarö. Flockert’s ship sinks.

While there are no contemporary accounts of the event, this is roughly how the last moments of The City of Frankfurt unfolded in October 1777, according to Mikko Huhtamies, an Academy of Finland research fellow specialised in the history of the Baltic.


The diving and salvage companies established in 1729 were granted a governmental monopoly to salvage wrecks and their cargo. These companies turned marine salvage into a booming business over the course of the 18th century.

Other types of business sprouted around the salvaging and the sale of the salvaged goods, and the wrecks brought prosperity to entire communities. Auctions of salvaged cargo were significant points of trade, and a major portion of the ship parts were exported.

 “There was a great deal of ship equipment and shipbuilding materials in these auctions. The Finnish market had far from sufficient demand for all these parts, which in itself says something about the huge quantity of the wrecks and salvaged cargo,” explains Huhtamies.


Researchers sometimes find treasures, such as a long-sunk wreck and its precious cargo, or their fragments. A part of a particularly valuable wreck may have already been discovered in the very waters surrounding Jussarö, where Captain Flockert’s ship went down with its crew.

 “Under the leadership of diver Rauno Koivusaari and marine archaeologist Minna Koivikko, we have discovered a keelson, a core structure of the ship, which has joins that seem to be from the 15th century. This is the area where we have been searching for the Hanneke Vrome, meaning that the keelson could be from the Hanneke Vrome,” Huhtamies says.

The wreck of the Hanneke Vrome was probably the worst Baltic shipwreck of the 15th century, if not all of the Middle Ages. It was a major accident of its time. 

 “When she sank into the deep outside Jussarö in November 1468, the Hanneke Vrome took the wife and son of Lars Axelsson Tott, lord of Raseborg Castle, with her, along with approximately two hundred other passengers.”

The ship’s cargo included 10,000 gold coins, the contemporary value of which is estimated to be several millions of euros. Whether the coins are still at the site of the shipwreck is another matter entirely. Just discovering the wreck would be major news.


Like the Baltic Sea, the Gulf of Finland is replete with wrecks.

 “During the second half of the 18th century, between 20 and 30 ships were wrecked each year on average in the area covered by the Northern diving company, which in that time was ruled by Sweden. There were many shipwrecks along the rocky and narrow waterways of southern Finland,” Huhtamies states.

However, the number of shipwrecks varied by weather and the global political situation. Global trade is not exactly a new concept. For example, the American war for independence forced the Brits to get their tar and lumber from Russia, as the rebelling colonies closed the ports and prevented access to the export goods from North America to the British Empire.

 “At the same time, the development of St Petersburg into a major city and the global industrial revolution sped up the traffic on the Gulf of Finland during the 18th century.”

There was a particular boom in maritime traffic in the 1770s. The cargo on The City of Frankfurt is a catalogue of the habits of the wealthy. The hold of the ship carried golden snuff boxes, gold watches, clothing of silk and velvet and books, all of which were intended to delight the burgeoning upper classes of St Petersburg.


The valuable cargo of The City of Frankfurt was spread over an extensive area. A few weeks after the shipwreck, customs officials in Helsinki apprehended two peasants who were trying to smuggle lemons into the city inside a barrel of herring. The fruit were from The City of Frankfurt.

Some time later, mysterious boxes started showing up in the archipelago between Helsinki and Ekenäs, full of golden luxury goods – more cargo from Captain Flockert’s ship.

Two corpses also washed up on shore, one on Jussarö and another in the archipelago of Karis. It’s likely that the men had been crewmen on The City of Frankfurt. At least one of them was buried in the cemetery of Ekenäs in December 1777.

 “The City of Frankfurt is comparable to the St Mikael, which was shipwrecked in 1747, and the Vrouw Maria, which went down in 1771. All three were trade ships carrying luxury goods to St Petersburg, and all three were destroyed in autumn storms.”

However, a major part of the increased traffic on the Gulf of Finland was related to the demands of booming British industries.


Before the establishment of the salvage companies, ancient Germanic customs were followed on the southern coast of Finland, meaning that the ownership of errant cargo found on the shores went to the finder.

The salvage companies introduced a more systematic approach to marine salvage, with new practices and laws. The inhabitants of the archipelago served as assistants to the salvage companies.

Nevertheless, old habits and legally dubious practices persisted.

 “Neither the people on the archipelago nor the employees of the salvage companies were entirely honest. We do not know exactly how much cargo went missing.”

At the time, crewmembers were rescued whenever possible. However, rescuers were risking their own lives. Cargo was typically the primary concern, particularly for the salvage companies, says Huhtamies.


The situation was even more out of control south of the Gulf of Finland. The lords of the manors and their men on the coast of Estonia were famous for their savagery and for the schemes and deceptions they crafted around salvage efforts.

Out of the way and surrounded by rocky waters, Hiiumaa island was known as a paradise for dishonest salvagers.

 “The biggest criminals were the lords of the island’s stately manors. Perhaps the worst one of them was Baron Otto Reinhold von Ungern-Sternberg, who was known as the tyrant of Hiiumaa.”

The dreaded baron was finally brought to justice in the beginning of the 19th century for the death of Captain Carl Johan Malm. The baron was convicted both for the murder of the captain and for his previous crimes. The mighty lord of Hiiumaa was sent to Siberia for a life of forced labour.

This article was published in Finnish in the Y/06/17 issue of Yliopisto magazine.


Researcher Mikko Huhtamies: Publications