The Models

East Indiaman

Maritime Innovation In Miniature

East Indiaman

This model is of an unidentified Swedish East Indiaman from the mid-eighteenth century.

The model was built in the last quarter of the twentieth century by Woldemar Konga, an Estonaian refugee who escaped to Sweden during the Second World War.

Its construction was based on original drawings by the famous naval architect Fredrik Henrik af Chapman who constructed a number of vessels for the Swedish East India company.

This was a period when the science of shipbuilding reached new heights and Chapman – uniquely a mathematician AND a shipwright - led the way – he is considered to be the grandfather of naval architecture.

Mathematicians who studied shipbuilding lacked the practical skill to implement their own ideas; while shipwrights lacked the mathematical understanding.

The first person who combined those two skills was Frederick af Chapman.

Chapman made it possible to predetermine and assess mathematically different attributes of vessels – such as stability and sailing qualities.

Born in Gothenburg in 1721 to immigrant English parents, his father had served in the Swedish navy before becoming the manager of a shipyard in Gothenburg. His mother was the daughter of a London shipwright.

He was therefore born into a life of ship design and construction and He was ten when he designed his first vessel.

By 23 he ran his own shipyard maintaining and repairing Swedish east Indiamen

The Swedish East India company had been founded in Gothenburg in 1731. The Swedish were late in joining this wealthy trade importing to import silk, tea, furniture and other distinctive and luxury goods from the east. – by then the Dutch East India company had already been in existence for 129 years  - and the British East India company for 131.

But now that the Swedes had committed to this trade, they embraced it. The Swedish east india company swiftly became the largest trading company in Sweden.

East Indiamen such as this hold an important position in the history of ship design and innovation – here is a vessel that linked the two most physically distant and culturally distinct parts of the world together.

The design of the east Indiaman posed several problems and East India companies were a crucible for maritime innovation.

The vessels had to be able to travel immense distances. They needed space for the crew, their supplies, and also spare parts, but most importantly they needed space for the goods they were going to trade.

They also needed space for guns so they could protect themselves:

Not only was piracy a major problem but so too was competition from Sweden’s European neighbours: British, French or Dutch trading companies did not hesitate to attack other ships to prevent competition.

The challenge, therefore, was to carry a high-value cargo successfully through dangerous waters.

East Indiamen were the largest merchant ships built in the 18th and nineteenth centuries – measuring up to 1400 tons burden.

They were around 50 metres long and armed with 25-30 cannon. Externally, therefore, they appeared like a warship but their design was subtly but significantly different.

The cross-section of the hull was deeper and squarer than naval ships to make extra space

The hull was narrower than a warship and the scantlings lighter - this helped with speed as well as space.
The fo’c’sle and quarterdeck were continuous – to create a complete deck that could be used to store cargo.

Although the armament of each east Indiaman was heavy, the cannons were shorter in length than naval cannon and so of shorter range and less accurate

With fewer crew it was far more difficult to fight all the guns effectively or resist boarding.

Her hull would have had a copper sheathing – to protect it from ship worm. like warships and slavers these were very expensive ships engaged in very expensive trade, so such investment was justifiable.

In some areas the design of east Indiamen was even ahead of their naval counterparts: when quality shipbuilding timber was at a premium and naval ships were prioritised, builders of east Indiamen saved on timber by replacing key parts of the hull timber with iron in key locations – such as knees and brackets. This became a blessing in disguise as the iron joints strengthened the ships and their use became standard practice in shipbuilding.

In some respects the design was very similar to a warship - particularly at the stern

Here the decorated and carved gallery was similar to the style of two-decked warships. There were numerous instances when east Indiamen were mistakenly identified as warships, which often played to their advantage.

Life onboard east Indiamen was hard and dangerous.

The crew would have been around 150. far fewer than a naval ship of a similar size but far more than a merchant ship.

The crews were often malnourished and not used to the heat and humidity in the ports they visited.

The doctors on board were helpless when it came to dealing with tropical illnesses.

It’s estimated that at least 10 percent of the crew died for every journey taken to the east.

The science of shipbuilding may well have reached new heights in this period, therefore, but the medical knowledge needed to keep the sailors fit and healthy had some way to go.