Life and death on the seven seas – Captain Gabriel Ahlfort
Captain Gabriel Ahlfort travelled to Indonesia, India and Mecca, and he knew the shores of Europe better than his home county. He saw some incredible things and had real stories to tell when he returned a wiser and stronger man.
Erik and Maria Sophia’s eldest son Gabriel Ahlfort had an eventful youth peppered with several perilous travels to such far-flung destinations as South Africa, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Mecca. He was so unusually well-travelled, in fact, that at his death in 1780, his obituary suggested that he had been to almost every place in the known world worthy of mention.
Capitaine-Lieutenanten Gabriel Ahlfort, död d. 10 sistl. Januarii, i dess 77:de års ålder, på sin Sätesgård Liljeholmen uti Östergöthland och Torpa Sockn, sedan han under 30-årig tjenstetid wid Kongl. Amiralitetet besökt de fläste Platser i Europa, Asien och Africa, samt sluteligen, som en wälsint Fäderneslandets wän, genom berömlig upodling och stenbrytande, gjordt sit namn hos Efterwerlden ganska wälförtjent.
Captain lieutenant Gabriel Ahlfort, deceased on 10th January in his 77th year at his estate Liljeholmen in Torpa parish in Östergötland after having during his 30 years of service at the Royal Admiralty travelled to most places in Europe, Asia and Africa, and finally, like a true benevolent patriot, made his remembrance to posterity very well-deserved through commendable cultivation and stone breaking [at his estate].
The obituary appeared in the newspaper Inrikes Tidningar in the Swedish capital, where he seems to have been a known character, at least in the sense of being someone worthy of being mentioned in the papers. Eight years before, his agricultural skills had been praised in the same paper, as mentioned in the previous chapter.
Like his father before him, Gabriel had wanted to be a captain in the navy, and like him he had volunteered for a job at the main naval base in Karlskrona in spring 1721, having reached his seventeenth year. On 1st April he was accepted and conscripted in Admiral Carl Hindrich von Löwen’s company.
Though Gabriel never actually experienced war at sea, the naval career was very far from being peaceful and danger-free. Sweden’s status as a European superpower was in its last phase of collapse, with the Russians ravaging the northern coasts of Sweden continually and well on their way to conquer Finland as well as Livonia and Ingria. In principle, a peace treaty was under way, but in fact open war was raging, and on 25th May that year a major battle took place near Sundsvall in northern Sweden in which a small Swedish troop was attacked by a Russian army more than ten times its size. It was to be the last battle in the long war which ended in severe territorial losses never to be regained.
On this background, the letter arriving for Gabriel on the last day of May ordering him to travel to Karlskrona, though eagerly awaited, must have caused mixed feelings. There was nothing more honourable for a young man to do than to join the navy or the army, but everyone knew that he might not be coming back again. He would be very lucky not to be killed in an enemy attack or die from one of the fatal illnesses to which many seamen succumbed sooner or later, and of which Gabriel would also have his fair share.
A mere week after the arrival of the letter he bade his parents farewell, and another week’s travelling over land saw him in Karlskrona, where he was formally conscripted on the following day, 15th June 1721. His first assignment was to study the basics of seamanship with the experienced commander Erland Hederstierna on the ship of the line Enigheten, which he boarded two weeks later.
With her 94 or 96 guns (sources differ on this point), this ship was built by the famous Charles Sheldon in 1696. It had participated in the expedition to Denmark in 1700 in which Gabriel’s father Erik had also served as a lieutenant, as well as the famous battle of Køge Bugt 1710 and at Rügen 1715. Gabriel must have felt that he was continuing his father’s good work. At the battle of Rügen, the captain had fallen, but Hederstierna (or Scherna as he was then called) had taken over the command and had done it so well that nobody realised what had happened. He was later ennobled for his deeds and given the name Hederstierna, ‘Honour Star’.
Gabriel also did quite well as a seaman and rose through the ranks as a högbåtsman (’high boat man’, 4/5 1726), arklimästare (master of artillery, 1737), and at the same time or very soon after also konstapelsmat (vice constable, 30/6 1737), moving on to konstapel (constable, 14/7 1740), löjtnant (lieutenant, 13/1 1742), and finally kaptenlöjtnant (captain lieutenant) before his retirement in 1751. Although he apparently never rose quite to the rank of captain as such, he was always addressed as Captain Gabriel Ahlfort in his later life when he had settled at the family estate Liljeholmen again, so it is possible that he received the title on leaving service. His father would have been proud, if the old man had lived to see his first promotion.
We can reconstruct Gabriel’s experiences abroad in exceptional detail due to a unique diary, excerpts of which were published in the fifth volume of the historical series Från Sommabygd till Vätterstrand in 1955, when it was owned by Naima Pontin, a great-great-great grandchild of Gabriel’s. The style is very dry and concise, except when his feelings run away with him on the subject of his beloved, and occasionally his dear parents, whom he probably learned to miss on his long voyages to far-flung coasts.
Initially, I wondered at this unemotional style, because some of the stories are quite gruesome and upsetting, but then I realised that he seems to have written the diary at a later date, based on old notes in his logbook, and suddenly it all made sense. The title on the cover is Amsterdam d. 29 ochtober Anno 1733, so he definitely cannot have written anything in it before that date. He must have started it on his way back from Amsterdam, when he was heading home to get married. Perhaps he wanted to record his experiences for the benefit of his fiancée?
Whatever the reason, we are very fortunate to have this diary so we can enjoy the fantastic story of his voyages across the seven seas. Its contents are further corroborated by an independent source, Gabriel’s so-called merit list in which he gives the official version of his career at the occasion of his retirement.
icon-arrow-right The next section “Madagascar’s pirates – Gabriel very nearly makes history” is about a very strange expedition that Gabriel took part in.