Kalmar Nyckel: A Tall Ship With A Broad Reach

Oil Painting of Kalmar Nyckel by Jacob Hägg


Interviewed by Peter Berlin

Samuel W. Heed is Senior Historian and Director of Education at the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation. As a leader of the nonprofit educational foundation, Heed is responsible for presenting the history of the Kalmar Nyckel, (“Key of Kalmar”), a re-creation of the ship that carried Swedish colonists to Delaware and New Sweden. Heed was the writer, director and executive producer of the 2017 documentary film Kalmar Nyckel: The Forgotten Journey which was nominated for an Emmy Award. In the following he takes us back to the heady days of 17th-century trans-Atlantic travel, and then fast forward to his present role within the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation.

Today’s replica Kalmar Nyckel. Photo: Jon Casper, KNF Volunteer

Sam taught American and European history for 20 years at a prep school on the Mainline outside Philadelphia, and practised law for 5 years before that. When he reached 50, he decided that there were a lot of other things he might want to do.

“It’s hard to leave some-thing that you love,” he explained. “I loved the classroom but wanted to try something else. I started looking around for various non-profit educational jobs. Lo and behold, there was a tall ship called Kalmar Nyckel in my region with an organization – the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation – that wanted to turn the ship into an educational platform. They had been sailing it for 10 years but didn’t really have a clearly defined mission until about the time when I was hired. So for me it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to develop the program from the ground up. Having a tall ship is a pretty nifty way to grab people’s attention!”

Oil painting of Kalmar Nyckel by Jacob Hägg (1839-1931), 1922.

The original Kalmar Nyckel ship was a Dutch “pinnace,” a particular kind of ship built in the 1620s and 1630s. It was a small capital vessel or naval warship of 300 tons, usually 100 – 130 feet long. The Dutch built thousands of them, mostly in Amsterdam. Sam elaborates:

“The Dutch sold the ship to the Swedish Skeppskompaniet (Ship Company), formed by King Gustav II Adolph using tax revenue from various towns. They purchased 18 ships to augment the Navy which had lost a number of vessels mainly in the Baltic, some in battle but mostly through storms. Kalmar Nyckel was paid for by the city of Kalmar and partly by Jönköping; hence the name.”

The Kalmar Nyckel served as an auxiliary Navy vessel for 22 years in the Swedish Navy. It usually carried 12 six-pounder guns and a crew of about 55. It formed part of King Gustav’s invasion fleet in Peenemünde in Northern Germany at the start of the Thirty Year’s War.

Sam: “The Swedish Admiralty then picked Kalmar Nyckel when they needed a ship for launching the colony New Sweden in 1637. It was selected to be the flagship of Peter Minuit on the voyage of 1637 – 1638 to what would become the colony of New Sweden in Delaware Valley. An extraordinary ship – and that is why we built a replica of Kalmar Nyckel.”

We asked about the ultimate fate of the original Kalmar Nyckel. “When I arrived at Kalmar Nyckel Foundation, we did not know what happened to the ship. We knew that it went back to Europe after its fourth voyage to New Sweden. It served with distinction in the Torstenson War against Denmark in 1645. At the end of its career in 1647 – 1648 it performed ambassadorial missions for what was to become the Peace of Westphalia. “Ambassadorial” meant carrying or escorting Swedish ambassadors to the venue of negotiations. In 1651, Queen Christina signed the decommissioning document, and the ship was sold to a Dutch merchant in Stockholm by the name of Cornelius Roelofsen. That’s where the documentary trail ended when I arrived.”

But the story does not end there. “I then had a Dutch intern – a translation scholar and a history expert who needed to do an internship in an English-speaking country. Because he could read Dutch – and indeed 17th century Dutch – we were able to uncover voluminous Dutch documentation. Roelofsen was a Dutch businessman, probably an expatriate living in Stockholm. He was in a position to buy Kalmar Nyckel which had now become naval surplus. Roelofsen renamed it Kalmar Sleutel, sailed it down to Amsterdam, had it gunned-up and re-equipped. He then leased it to the Dutch Admiralty, because the Dutch were about to go to war with the English in what became the first Anglo-Dutch War 1652 – 1654 over trade and fishing-rights. Kalmar Sleutel and 15 other Dutch ships were sent out to escort a Dutch herring fleet off the East Coast of Scotland. There it was attacked by an English fleet of 66 ships under Admiral Blake. On July 22, 1652, Kalmar Sleutel was sunk by the English.”

On the subject of the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation, Sam explained: “We are a maritime educational organ-ization centered around the Kalmar Nyckel replica. Our mission is to keep the cultural and maritime heritage of Delaware and Delaware Valley alive, recalling that the Swedes were the first to land here. We fly the Swedish flag at the top of the main mast. So we represent maritime heritage, Delaware heritage and Swedish heritage. We are educational in every way and make field trip programs for elementary and middle school students. Kalmar Nyckel is a sailing ship. In a typical year she sails from mid-April to early November. In the summer she travels down to Virginia and then hits a couple of spots on the way back up. Later in the summer we always go to New England, and sometimes we head up the Hudson River. The ship sails about 2500 nautical miles every year. We engage with the public wherever we go, and we have become a Swedish-American cultural icon.

“Besides our field trip and classroom programs for school students, we also have a sailing training program. If you are over 18, or over 14 with a guardian, you can become part of our volunteer sailing crew. Another program is for members of the general public who come out for day sails. We put them to work, too. We also have a scale model inside our new Copeland Maritime Center where you can have sail training.”

The Kalmar Nyckel replica came about thanks to a consortium of local Wilmington, Delaware and Delaware Valley supporters, some of whom were of colonial Swedish heritage. Another key element was local business and civic leaders who decided it would be great to have an iconic floating flagship to symbolize the culture of early Delaware in and about Wilmington.

“It took about two years from 1995 to 1997 to build her,“ Sam explained. “It was launched in September of 1997 from our shipyard which is 200 yards downstream from The Rocks and Fort Christina where the original ship first landed.”

Sam was in charge of making a documentary film titled Kalmar Nyckel: The Forgotten Journey. “Anyone interested in history has a hankering to try a film project. If you can get it on television, it gives the project credibility, and of course it creates a much broader appeal. I have been writing a lot about Kalmar Nyckel during my 12½ years here. I knew that if I could get the documentary on TV, it would broadcast our story and make it much more memorable and reach a far greater audience. So that was the goal. It has been a big hit in Sweden; SVT did a really nice job with it. It has also been successful in Delaware Valley, but we haven’t yet been able to show it nationally, for some reason. I would be happy to bring the movie to wherever there is a critical mass of Swedes and make a presentation.”

Sam Heed (center left in white shirt); left to right: KNF Volunteer Andrew Hanna as Captain Van der Water; Sam; KNF Volunteer Steven Valihura as Peter Minuit; Producer Ben Fetterman, Glass Entertainment Group, during the filming of “Kalmar Nyckel: The Forgotten Journey”