The Models

SS Argentina

Maritime Innovation In Miniature

SS Argentina


This is a model of the SS Argentina, built in Gothenburg, and launched in 1935. She was an international freighter, designed to carry cargo in bulk and also offer accommodation to passengers willing to take on one of the longest maritime journeys possible. As her name suggests she sailed regularly between northern Europe and South America, and tells the story of the growth of international trade in the first half of the twentieth century.

The star and ‘J’ on her funnel marks her out as a ship of the Johnson Line, founded in 1904 as a subsidiary of the Swedish investment company Nordstjernan. 

Nordstjernan was founded in 1890 by Axel Johnson, one of European history’s greatest entrepreneurs. He founded a dynasty that still exists today. His original business imported coal and exported iron and He grew astonishingly wealthy and expanded his interests. By the 1930s they had moved into shipping. company had firmly embedded itself in international shipping.

Nordstjernan was committed to maintaining a competitive edge through constant innovation and in particular became a pioneer in the transition from steam to diesel power for ocean-going cargo vessels. Nordstjernan adopted the new technology and sold its old vessels before its rival shipping companies had realized what was happening. By the start of the 1920s, Nordstjernan had the world's first diesel-driven ocean-going fleet. 

The Argentina’s power was provided by Burmeister & Wain diesel engines producing 6,800 horsepower and a maximum speed of 15 knots. The large white oval fuel tank sits neatly above the engine. With her hull cut away to show the various operational and storage compartments, it’s striking how efficient the whole engineering set up is.

In comparison with the steamships of a generation before, in this vessel far less space is now needed for the engine or the fuel than the cumbersome steamships that not only required huge space for their engines and boilers but also huge bunkers filled with coal  The crew’s quarters are also shown, and it’s incredible how little of the ships space is now taken up by the men needed to operate her. There is also plenty of accommodation on top of the deck for the passengers who could travel in some comfort. At the bow are bunks laid out for the steerage class – the cheapest tickets of all.

The majority of the vessel’s hull, however, is crammed with cargo. Which tells us of the huge changes that were brought about in global maritime trade by ships like this in the first half of the twentieth century. With the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, suddenly the far side of the world was more accessible than ever before. New shipping routes opened up. And with them endless commercial opportunities. Now ships could sail from Europe to the pacific coast of north and south America without having to sail around the dangerous cape horn. The Panama Canal made maritime trade faster and safer.

The model is shown as if she is ready for her return trip from south America. We actually know exactly what she was carrying on her final voyage: cotton, coffee, rice, and oilcakes (a mass of compressed plant material used as fodder or fertilizer). The cargo hold at the bow is empty – waiting to be loaded perhaps at her next stop on a route which took her - to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile.

This is how she looked in her heyday. The captain proudly looks on. This model is testament to the rise of south America - one of the world’s greatest economies. Money poured in, and goods poured out, neither fast enough to match the insatiable demand.

But those happy days did not last forever. The Second World War put a halt to normal business and a German blockade of the Baltic effectively eliminated Sweden’s access to the world’s oceans. An agreement was eventually reached to allow a limited number of Nordstjernan’s vessels to sail to neutral countries in south America.  But in July 1942 she hit a mine off the Norwegian and sank within minutes.

The captain believed that they were in safe waters but the Germans had shifted the locations of the minefields. They had reported this to the Swedish liaison officer, but the information was never passed on.

The captain and crew of the Argentina never stood a chance.