The peasant sailors of Ostrobothnia traded actively already in the Middle Ages. Ships were built in the coastal areas of Ostrobothnia in the late 16th century. Shipbuilding soon expanded in the region as trade sailing and vessel sales increased in the 17th century. Shipbuilding was active in localities ranging from Pietarsaari to Kalajoki, and we can say that the region was Finland’s strongest shipbuilding area in the 1700s and the first half of the 1800s.


When the coastal towns received staple rights, international trade and seafaring became increasingly active towards the end of the 1700s. In addition to windjammers, Ostrobothnian ship owners exported tar, boards and planks, while the imported goods included salt, tobacco, coffee beans and spices. The golden age of sailing ships faded out in the second half of the 1800s, and the shipping business was no longer profitable. During Prohibition (from1919 to 1932) fast ships, equipped with strong engines, commonly transported rectified spirits in the sea areas around Ostrobothnia, chased by the motorboats of customs officials.


Seafaring was also full of setbacks, dangers and tragedies. In both the vessels and the home ports, people experienced worry, fear and sorrow. Storms, rocks and shallows caused numerous shipwrecks and casualties. For example, nearly fifty ships from Kokkola were lost due to shipwrecks in the 1700s and 1800s. The most devastating shipwrecks were those of the Speculation in 1787 in the Mediterranean and the Active in 1842, the Mercurius in 1844 and the Familie in 1860 in the Atlantic Ocean. Dozens of people drowned in these accidents, and the material losses were enormous. They say that the only one to survive the Mercurius shipwreck was the cook, who apparently drifted onshore holding on to a spar.


The Anna Maria was one of the shipwrecked vessels from Pietarsaari. It hit the rocks in a fierce storm off the western coast of Sweden in autumn 1803, carrying tar, pitch and timber, among other products. Thirteen sailors drowned. The missing ship was identified based on a sailor’s trunk that drifted to the shore, containing clothes with initials. In December 1882, a storm threw five men overboard from the frigate Vanadis in the English Channel.


The paddle steamer Österbotten also faced a tragic incident when it caught fire in front of Pori, on its way to Pietarsaari, in August 1874. In addition to the cargo, there were 35 passengers on board. A carelessly thrown match ignited the flammable cargo, and all the attempts to extinguish the rapidly spread flames failed. The horrified passengers rushed into the lifeboats, which capsized due to overweight. In spite of the rescue boats that arrived at the location, nearly twenty people drowned in the accident, most of them women and children. One of them was the young pregnant wife, Maria, of ship-owner Otto Malm from Pietarsaari. Among the lucky ones were the monkey of Italian organ grinders, which held on to the anchor chain, an older lady who clung to her coffee pot that floated on the surface of the sea, and a teenage boy who rushed to the lifeboat with his coat in flames and fell into the sea – but survived.



The paddle steamer Österbotten (Pietarsaaren kaupunginmuseo)


There have been numerous shipwrecks off the coast of Ostrobothnia and in the archipelago as well. The sea area is shallow and rocky. Especially the age-old insular route, the so-called eastern route to Stockholm, was dangerous but at the same time also protected from storms. Bigger ships with heavy cargoes heading south used either the open sea route or the western route next to the Swedish coast. The establishment of fixed and floating sea marks had only just begun in the 1800s. Pilotage services, nautical charts and navigation equipment were also inadequate, compared with modern standards.


It is estimated that there are hundreds of underwater wrecks in the sea area around Kokkola, many of which have not been investigated and confirmed as shipwrecks. In professional circles, particularly risky sea areas are often called ‘ship traps’. In these sorts of areas, an exceptional amount of shipwrecks have occurred. The lighthouse built on the island of Tankar in 1889 was a significant advancement, even though daymarks had been built in the sea areas of Ostrobothnia much earlier.


The sea hides a lot of valuable, sometimes unexplored, cultural heritage: more or less unbroken ship hulls, degraded structures and loose materials from wrecks.  The TV documentary by Ari Heinilä and Motion Oy Kuka ryösti hylyn? (Who Robbed the Wreck?) highlights that a wreck is like a time capsule that can tell stories from the past centuries. According to the documentary, the best way to recreate the people and stories of the wrecks is through maritime archaeology research. The programme also emphasises that wrongful disturbance of wrecks, let alone their plundering, leads to the potentially permanent loss of valuable pieces of history. The message is that shipwrecks must be approached responsibly and respectfully. The locations may simultaneously be graves of drowned people. Potential wreck plunderers must be reported to the Coast Guard.


The undersea world is mute and invisible until it is given a new life through the available information and stories.