6. Ever wondered why a Russian ship doesn’t have a Russian name?

– or, don’t expect a Cyrillic nameboard to turn up!

Recent update work has included adding documentary evidence to both sites and casualties resulting from the Great Storm which took place 18-20 November 1893. One is the “Russian” casualty Venscapen but why does it matter that she wasn’t Russian?

Getting it right enhances retrievability of vessel name and nationality and allows the vessel to be traced through documentary sources.

It was a dark and stormy night, as Snoopy might have said: all too frequently, the nameboard wasn’t visible, was lost, or not legible; the survivors couldn’t speak English; they passed on their ship’s name to their rescuers, fishermen with strong regional accents; by the time it reached the Lloyd’s agent it was hopelessly garbled.

It’s also true that the English coastline was so frequently strewn with wrecks that foreign ships lost here were of relatively little interest to the English press. Conversely, they made big news back home. These days with online digitization, such resources are easy to find and use.

One of the great strengths of the database is that it permits profiling of wrecks against each other – it could be as simple as spellings, or as complex as statistics for particular areas, cargoes or vessel types. I had a theory based on previous experience . . .

My first port of call was the Finnish National Newspaper Library. An excellent high-res digitization with an English interface, it permits fuzzy searches, a great help with phonetic spellings: Venscapen brought back the correct spelling Vånskapen, a Swedish-language name with a Swedish master’s name (Johansson). Curiouser and curiouser. Definitely not Russian . . .

Reading Finnish printed in black-letter Gothic is quite a challenge: 2nd column on the newspaper page.

Like many “Russian” barques of the late 19th/early 20th centuries, she was registered in Ahvenamaa, or the Aaland Islands, part of Finland. In 1893, Finland’s mercantile classes were Swedish (Aaland remains Swedish-speaking today) but Finland was also a Grand Duchy of Russia, hence the “Russian” nationality. This vessel is therefore now indexed by her nationality as expressed at the time, and her current nationality – as well as the right spelling!

The exceptionally interesting Aaland ships cornered the market in the last of the sailing barques, which by the 1930s were only economical on very long-distance routes where bunker coal was unavailable. They thus specialised in the Chilean nitrate trade and the Grain Race to Australia. Herzogin Cecilie was one of the last Aalanders, but Historic England also holds pictures of others in their very final days after the Second World War, including Pamir.

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