Built at Terr Nova in Stockholm for the Swedish East India company and launched in 1736, the Svecia was an armed merchantman of 28 guns and 600 tons burden measuring 130′ x 30.0′. In 1739, on her second voyage, the Svecia sailed to Bengal, India and then in early 1740 she set sail for home under the command of Captain Johan Rattenborg with 150 crew and a number passengers aboard. She was laden with dyewood, saltpetre, silks and cottons, and was reported to have on board a number of iron-bound chests supposedly containing treasure or valuables belonging to the passengers and crew members. Contemporary accounts suggest the cargo was worth between 150,000 and 250,000 pounds sterling
The voyage to and from the Far East was tough and eventful as about forty of those aboard, including the captain, died either on the journey or in Bengal. Command for the return voyage passed to the first mate Lanziell Agell. The ship stopped at the Portuguese island of St Thomas in the Gulf of Guinea for provisions and water, and by mid-November 1740 was rounding the north coast of Scotland, intending to pass between the Orkneys and Fair Isle. However, off Orkney in a severe gale the ship, with her sails tightly reefed, was pushed off course and became eventually was caught in a fierce tide-rip between the islands of Sanday and North Ronaldsay. She was driven towards a notorious submerged rock known as Reef Dyke. The acting master ordered both anchors dropped in an effort to hold them off the rocks but it was too late. Both anchors quickly gave way and she was driven onto the reef. She immediately breached exposing her port beam which was pounded by the huge surf grinding the starboard side of the ship against the rocks. The masts were cut away to alleviate the rocking motion as the boats were prepared to leave the ship.
Thankfully, the storm abated somewhat and the ship stayed substantially intact on Reef Dyke for three days allowing the crew and passengers and crew to attempt to save themselves. It seems the local islanders made no attempt to assist although the wreck was only 1 1/2 miles offshore and in full view. They were later denounced for this by the survivors, but, in truth, their boats were too small and the storm still too severe to take the risk. Later letters by two of the survivors record that the Svecia’s longboat and yawl were launched and loaded with as many people as possible but both were immediately swept northward out to sea. It was feared that they had all been lost, although, as it later transpired the thirty one people aboard made it ashore on Fair Isle some time later.
The remaining crewmen, including Agell, still on the Svecia then made a raft from her topmasts and rigging, and, two days later, the principal officers and some thirty two of the crew pushed off at noon with the hope of landing on North Ronaldsay or Sanday, but, again, was driven northwards by the tide and never seen again. The remaining twenty four people on the wreck made a second raft which finally made it ashore on North Ronaldsay. Eleven were washed off and lost before they reached dry land leaving thirteen people clinging on for their lives as they were washed shore in the pounding surf. In the end there were forty four survivors from the one hundred and four persons believed to have been on board at the time of the wreck.
News of the wreck, and the reputed value of the cargo, spread rapidly acroos the island comminuties and by Christmas, four weeks later, reports appeared in the newspapers in London, where the ship was insured. James, Earl of Morton, was at the centre of this interest as hereditary Admiral of the Orkneys and Shetlands with an entitlement to a proportion any salvage. However, a south east gale swept the remains of the wreck into deeper water before salvage operations could start. Bales of cotton and silk were washed ashore on North Ronaldsay, forming piles ‘higher than the pier of Kirkwall’. Representatives of the Earl of Morton and the Swedish company apparently recovered over 200,000 yards of cloth, despite some less official salvage by the islanders. Salvage continued over many months in 1741. Arguments among the claimants were recorded in the Morton Monuments and continued for many months after the wreck and its contents had disappeared. In the same year, determined efforts by professional divers failed to locate the ‘treasure’ chests.
It is likely that the wreck was visited numerous times over the early years by divers with increasingly sophisticated equipment but no record of anything salvaged has been found. Further diving by Rex Cowan in 1975 located the wreck site under a forest of nine feet deep seaweed. Conditions for the divers were difficult and dangerous with huge swells and dangerous currents almost continually effecting the wreck site. However they successfully located the wreck in the position noted below which lies on the west side of Reef Dyke in shallow water. Fifteen cannon and two large anchors were observed when the site was surveyed in 1975 and 1976. A number of other archaeological explorations of the wreck site have been carried out but without any further meaningful discoveries.
Any remnants of the vessel lie in position 59°21.120’N, 002°22.157’W in depths between 5 and 10 metres on Reef Dyke, South Ronaldsay. The site remains a protected area.