A fish out of water – Captain Erik Alfort
Captain Erik Alfort is the earliest named member of the Swedish Alfort family and ancestor of every Alfort in Sweden. He had an interesting career in the navy where he contributed – directly or indirectly – to several historical moments such as the attack on Copenhagen and the famous battle of Narva. An invitation to a christening brought him to Östergötland where he met his future wife, whose father was one of the richest men in the country, thus securing the Alfort family’s position and fortune for generations. The occasion has been immortalised for us in a fascinating document listing the names of the witnesses, who were all prominent members of the military elite, gathered to celebrate the christening of a child at a historical moment of great tension, which was to be the signal for 21 years of constant warfare. Erik’s military career ended after he participated in a failed attempt at keeping Russia out of the Baltic, leading to the founding of St. Petersburg as well as the loss of a great deal of Swedish territory and of many lives.
The early sources
Erik Alfort eventually rose to the rank of captain in the Karlskrona-based navy. As he grew old and found that his naval days were long gone, he started to feel the indignity of being marooned in a mansion as a maladjusted naval captain with a noblewoman for a wife and never having been ennobled himself. He therefore wrote a letter to the authorities requesting that his accomplishments be rewarded with a nobility. He pointed out the fact that he had:
…allt sedan sin barndom i 32 år eller från 1675 intill 1707 varit i tjänst uti militären till sjöss så borta hos främmande makter och potentater som här hemma.
…ever since his childhood for 32 years or from 1675 to 1707 served in the military at sea abroad among foreign powers and potentates as well as in [his] home country.
According to this statement, then, Erik had served from the age of 15, in 1675. The first 10 years he seems to have spent ‘among foreign powers’, perhaps in the English, French or Dutch navy. He was definitely given permission to travel abroad on several occasions from 1692 to 1702, but we do not know where he went. Serving in a foreign navy was a common thing for young naval officers to do at the time. It was a way to learn the ropes as a kind of military exchange student before making a career at home. Usually, people would sign up as volunteers in Sweden and then after some initial education and an examination they would be allowed to take time off to spend some time abroad. Erik does not seem to have volunteered in the Swedish navy until 1685, however. This makes one wonder whether he specifically wanted to serve abroad, perhaps in the English navy. It is just as likely, however, that he joined either the French or the Dutch navy during the Franco-Dutch war 1672-1678, in which both England and Sweden were also involved.
Back in Sweden, he signed up as a volunteer in Karlskrona in 1685, and afterwards rose through the naval hierarchy with the titles arklimästare (master of artillery, 1687), konstapelsmat (vice constable, 1688), konstapel (constable, date unknown), underlöjtnant (sub-lieutenant, 17/3 1698), överlöjtnant (lieutenant, 1700) and skeppskapten (captain of the admiralty, 1702).
His relatively late entry in the Swedish navy and his commitment to his naval work meant that his personal life was delayed. He married late and in fact spent most of his life at sea. This made it particularly difficult for him to adjust to life on land when he was finally forced to retire.
Even after his return to Sweden, there is much that we simply do not know about his life during the early period. The surviving documents do not tell us which campaigns he participated in before the turn of the century, but he may have been involved in the Nine Years’ War (Pfalziska tronföljdskriget) 1688-1691, a conflict very much inflamed by Louis XIV’s revocation of the edict of Nantes and the consequent flight of the huguenots from France, if not actually brought about by it. The Swedish king Karl XI sent 12 warships on the occasion, and Erik may well have been aboard one of them.
Sweden left the war in 1691, and the following year we know that Erik was given permission to go abroad for a couple of years, perhaps to spend some time in a foreign navy once more. Interestingly, this time we know that his colleagues Carl Mannerfeldt and Gustaf Psilander, listed right below him in the registry above, were both employed in this way in the Dutch navy 1689-1693 and 1689-1695, respectively, so it is likely that Erik was doing the same thing or something similar.
The next we hear from Erik is when a news reporter stationed in the Danish town of Elsinore (Helsingør) notes down who is passing through the Sound on 2st June 1696 for the benefit of the readers of the newspaper Ordinarie Stockholmske Post-Tijdender. Erik is among the captains mentioned.
Erich Ahlfort hemma i Stockholm löper från St. Martin hemåt med Wijn.
Erich Ahlfort at home in Stockholm travels home from St. Martin with wine.
This made me look at the Øresund tax registry in Elsinore, where he is indeed registered as passing through that day on his ship Veritas. St. Martin probably refers to the French-Dutch island of that name in the Caribbean. He had left Stockholm on 23rd October the previous year with London as his destination.
Later in the year 1696, they report him passing through once more. This time he seems to have left Stockholm for London on 9th October, passing through the sound at Elsinore on 20th November.
It would seem, then, that at this time at least he apparently made his home in the capital, and also that he found employment in trade, at least during half of the year from October to June. We know that some of his colleagues also found employment aboard foreign trade vessels during their years abroad – and indeed his own son would do the same.
At some point Erik rose to the rank of constable, but as state money was dwindling after the many wars, he and his colleague and friend Gustaf Macklier, who was fifteen years his junior (mentioned along with him in the registry shown above), were still paid as vice constables until 1698. This colleague of his was to play an important role in his life, especially after Macklier married in 1699 and introduced Erik to his wife’s sister.
Gustaf Macklier’s father was a Scottish nobleman, John MacLean, who had immigrated to Gothenburg and established himself as a powerful tradesman under the name of Hans Makeléer. He had 15 children who almost without exception either became, or married, naval officers. Incidentally, John MacLean is also an ancestor of the Alfort family in the narrow sense, i.e. those of us who presently spell our name Alfort (through Märta Cronholm). Whether Erik knew the Macklier family from Gothenburg is an open question, but however that may be, they were to play a crucial role in Erik’s life a few years on.
In 1698, when the Nine Years’ War had come to an end, Erik was again promoted, this time to sub-lieutenant (underlöjtnant), replacing Gustaf Macklier in that capacity. Once again, Erik was given permission to go off duty for a while. Sweden now had a new king, the unusually confident teenager Karl XII, and he had some interesting assignments in store for Erik.
icon-arrow-right The next section “A pivotal moment” is about the birth of a child and an important marriage.