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Underwater Secrets from Times Gone by

Swedish diver Anders Wastfelt is a man with many dreams and in the year 2005, he saw two of them come true.


One is the opening of the exhibition on September 26 at the Forbidden City, of Chinese export porcelain pieces salvaged from the 250-year-old shipwreck of the East Indiaman Gotheborg.


The other is the sailing of the Gotheborg III, the newly built replica of the sunken ship, on her voyage to China from Gothenburg, Sweden on October 2.


Wastfelt laid a solid foundation for turning his dreams into reality.


Historical plunge


Many people believe that the exhibition of porcelain and the sailing of the replica would be impossible if Wastfelt had not taken that first plunge on a Sunday early in December 1984.


Accompanied by three diver friends, Wastfelt explored the underwater site of the Gotheborg shipwreck just outside of the City of Gothenburg.


"When we dived there and I saw the first shards of porcelain, I realized, 'Oh, it could be very interesting,'" Wastfelt recalls.


It was here on September 12, 1745, that the Gotheborg, homeward bound from China, foundered and sank with its valuable cargo of tea, silk, porcelain and spices.


The first attempt at salvaging the wreck was carried out soon after the shipwreck followed by two more attempts in the 1860s and in 1906-1907. By then, it was widely believed that the whole site had been cleaned out, leaving nothing behind.


The final scientific report brought out by Wastfelt after a 10-year-long investigation and excavation, has proved this belief totally wrong. He and his team had a historical treasure trove waiting for them, untouched since 1907.


Now, when people talk about the East Indiaman in Sweden, they never fail to mention Mr Wastfelt, "because I invented the East Indiaman for the people of Sweden," says Wastfelt.


His passion has put the East Indiaman Gotheborg firmly back in the Swedish imagination. "No Anders, no excavation, no ship!" Jan-Eric Nilsson, a participant in the excavation project and an expert on Chinese porcelain, told China Daily.


The veteran diver carried out the largest scale private investigation of the Gotheborg wreck in history. Through his efforts, porcelain salvaged from the sunken ship was exhibited first in Hong Kong, then in Singapore and Shanghai, and finally in Beijing.


Wastfelt has his own philosophy of life. "If you really believe in what you're thinking, you can make it true," says Wastfelt. "You must just believe in it strong enough."


According to his family, Wastfelt is a man with "wild ideas." Their support, especially that of his wife Berit, is much appreciated by the diver-historian.


Love of diving


Wastfelt's commitment to the Gotheborg dream did not stem from nowhere. It has its roots in his childhood hobby of diving.


"When we were very young, we were thrown into the water," recalls Wastfelt. His parents taught him to swim one summer holiday when he was a kid of 5 or 6. "You must survive, so you have to learn to swim," his mother told him then.


"I fell in love with the water," he says. "I was very curious about what's down at the bottom." With very simple goggles, "I could see the fish, and I would often exclaim 'Oh, there is a bottle at the bottom!'"


It was then that he decided to be a diver when he grew up. "This was the beginning of my career as a diver," recalls Wastfelt.


His childhood wish came true when he finished college and trained as a combat diver in the army. After finishing the difficult training, Wastfelt decided he wanted to be a private diver rather than work for the army.


He was employed by a Swedish company. After a year's stint in Israel with them, Wastfelt moved back to Sweden along with his bride Berit and he helped his company build a diving school in Gothenburg. He spent the next 33 years here.


He then went on to set up his own diving school and started to work for himself. The veteran also became chairman of the diver's society of Sweden.


Wastfelt sees diving as an integral part of life. With his wife Berit, he has lived and dived in many parts of the world. "Except Australia, I have seen most of the oceans," notes Wastfelt.


For him, diving opens a window to the bottom of the sea. "When you are diving, you can see a lot of things on the seabed, many wrecks and so on," he said.


The veteran diver has an interesting collection of little things he has picked up from sea beds around the world, like compasses, tools, pipes and coins, which he keeps in boxes. "I have a lot of boxes," says Anders. "I can make my own museum if I want."


Before 1984, diving for Wastfelt was what he did and loved. But for the diver-historian, the Gotheburg dive of 1984 took diving beyond itself.


Diving became "a magnet," he tells China Daily, attracting friends and supporters to help with his East Indiaman Gotheborg excavation and reconstruction projects.


Wastfelt's reputation in the field helped. "We were collecting many sponsors and a lot of voluntary people were involved in it," says Wastfelt. "Hundreds of divers. The only thing they got was the food. Free food, that's all."


Since the start of this excavation, Wastfelt has devoted all his time to unveiling the secrets of the 250-year-old shipwreck and the unknown history surrounding it. His interest gradually began to move away from diving itself, and more towards history.


"History has always interested me," says Wastfelt, who majored in history in college. "Because, if you have knowledge of your past, you can look into the future."


Before the 1986 official excavation, the diver-historian took up a year-long study of "not just this ship," but "the whole history of the East Indiaman company." The late Jorgen Weibul, a renowned professor of history in Sweden, promised his support.


The study surprised Wastfelt because "that part of Swedish history wasn't well published."


Later, to promote the excavation project, Wastfelt gave thousands of lectures about the East Indiaman Gotheborg "for every one in Sweden through every kind of media."


"We have the Scandinavian or the Swedish view of how the trade worked, but we don't know how the trade was actually organized in China at that time," Wastfelt tells China Daily.


A question he now wants to answer is who in China finally gained from the trade with Sweden: the emperor, the merchants or the common people. "This is one thing I want to do before I close my eyes," says Wastfelt.


More dreams to follow


Today, Wastfelt is busy with a book about the excavation. The book is to show that the excavation was not a government-organized one, but a private one, and that the excavation, as the fourth attempt in history, is a scientific study instead of a treasure hunt like the previous three.


He also hopes to make a documentary film about the Chinese point of view of the trade via sea routes between China and Sweden in the 18th century. He visited the Beijing TV Station to discuss this in October.


Wastfelt also wants the Gotheborg III, now on its way to China, will make more than this one trip.


According to him, the Gotheborg III should "go around the world as a ship for contact with young people all over the world, not just for business, but for culture exchange."


But there is something else more important in his line of vision for the immediate future. Wastfelt wants to witness the replica ship sailing into the harbor of Guangzhou next July. "I will see if I have time to fly down to Singapore, and sail with her on the last leg to Guangzhou," says the diver who reawakened the past.



Anders Wastfelt smiles while having a photo taken in the Forbidden City with the very plate he brought up from the sea bed.



The Gotheborg III departs from Gothenburg's inner harbour pier on October 2, 2005, cheered on by tens of thousands of spectators.


(China Daily January 5, 2006)

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