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The History of the Åland islands

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By Prof. Matts Dreijer, 1963
Excerpt from the book “Ålands bebyggelse i Ord och Bild”
Matts Dreijer
1901-1998


The 6.500 islands of Åland emerged very slowly from the bottom of the sea. The winds, the waves and the birds brought the first seeds that rooted itself on these rocky cliffs. Later on came the trees and shrubbery, first the birch then the asp and alder trees and then came the fur trees, the spruce came last, arriving on Åland from Siberia ca. 2.500 years ago.

At the birth of Christ, the Åland island group was well formed with cliffs and valleys, woods and plains, bays and creeks. At this time the sea level measured ca. 12 meters higher then today. The land evaluation continues with a rate of 60 cm per 100 years even today.

Several hundred thousand of years ago the sun, natures only source of heat, must have eclipsed because the entire Northern Hemisphere became covered with a 4 kilometres thick layer of ice, which ever so slowly moved south and finally melted on the mid European highland. About 10.000 years ago the land ice began to give way, the ground began to regain its shape by rising upward as the water sank.

When Åland finally was free from ice boundage, only 3 points of Åland was visible, that of Orrdalsklint and Kasberg both in Saltvik and the cliff of Geta. About 5.000 years ago the water had dropped down to a level, which was 54 meters higher then today.

At the foot of Orrdalsklint, near a sheltered bay, the place is today known as Jansmyra in Långbergsöda, became the place for the first human beings to settle on Åland.

The Åland Islands are surrounded by the sea on all sides, in the west the Åland Sea, in the north the Gulf of Bothnia in the south the Baltic Sea, in the east Skiftet, in places only 3 kilometres wide, separating the islands from the main Finland. Åland’s main fertile soil lies in the west, and that part is reffered to as “the Main Åland” the two nearby lying islands of Eckerö and Lumparland are connected bridges to the main island. A string of islands and skerries protects the shore from the wide open sea which reaches the shore only at Hammarudda, Skeppsvik and at the cliffs of Geta- To the north the main island is rocky and hilly, to the south more level and sunken although rocky.

Åland’s highest point is Orrdalsklint, 132 meters above sea level next is Kasberg with a height of 116 meters and third is the massive cliff of Geta, 107 meters high.

The good fertile soil of west Saltvik occupies an area of about 30 kilometres, outside of that the island is known for its very stony grounds. Some creeks can also be found here, the two largest ones are Västanträsk and Olofsnästräsk. The thousands of outer islands in the Åland archipelago lies in groups and forms counties and villages where fishing and farming is the main stay.

Way out at sea, on the island of Stora Båtskär, the Ålanders dug an ore mine shaft of later years (1950’s) about 300 meters down and a few horizontal kilometres under the sea bottom, however the mine was never taken into use and lies water filled today. Directly north of that island is Nyhamn, well known harbour and burial place during the many wars in the olden days. It was here that the Russian envoy Dolgoruki drowned as his ship went on a rock at the entrance of the harbour. Another famous harbour from that time is Rödhamn in Lemland. Carved in emblems in the rocks tells of rulers coming and going. At nearby Ledsund the emblem of tsar Peter is found dated 1719 and tsar Alexander III added his beside it in 1880.

One Swedish mile out to sea is the island of Lågskär with its tall lighthouse, its mighty beacon lights up the dangerous underground waters far and wide. The island group of Kökar is the outermost group of the Åland islands, located way out at sea unsheltered and subject to hard weather conditions which is the reason that no fur trees can grow out there, although eager tries has been made to plant pine and spruce, and in later years it looks like they might successfully succeed , at least to some degree.

The Inhabitation of Åland.

5.000 years ago the very first human beings set foot on Åland, they were seal hunters coming in skin rafts or on the ice. Only two islands existed then, namely Eckerö and East Saltvik. At the foot of Orrdalsklint they found a dry sandbank, and drinkable water nearby, they made a round hut of moss and sealskin and decided to stay the hunting was good, rich in seals, fish and fowl. Their hunting gears was made of hammered stone flint, their utensils made of a mixture of dry clay and sand.

For 1.500 years these first Ålanders lived their primitive life, moving their huts nearer the shore as the water level receded. At Rödmyra valley one can study their progress from the first settlement to the last. In time their tools and equipment slowly improved and came in more variations. They learned to sharpen an axe and chisels were invented, their dried clay bowls that had been round bottomed so that they would stay on the sand, had become flat bottomed, the table had made its appearance.

In the middle of the century before Christ, a change occurred, the Ålanders heard of the world’s first metal – bronze. However it was so expensive that at first it was used only as jewellery for the ladies, but soon they learned that the new metal opened up ways for new and more advanced hunting methods. The settlers now began to spread out, moving their small round huts to more fertile soil and began keeping animals, mainly sheep who managed to survive outdoors even during the winter time-

From the last period of the Bronze Age, around 700 – 500 B. C. there still remains some remarkably intact living sites, and especially so at Otterböte, Kökar, which is by far the best preserved site in Scandinavia from this period of time.

The ancient burial mounds at Eckerö is dated to the time around the birth of Christ. One of the larger stone mounds at Storby, contained unburned human bones from the early bronze age, otherwise burning of the corpses was the common procedure on Åland from ca. year 1000 B.C until Christendom finally reached this area. Several stone burial mounds – ca. 2.500 years old can still be seen at Saltvik, Vårdö and at Granhamn in Föglö.

After this period of time follows a blank space in the history of Åland. From year 300 till the end of year 500 A. D. there are no evidence of findings that can certify there were any human beings living on Åland during these years.

The new wave of settlers took place ca. year 600 A. D. with a heavy stream of people from the west and south-west, they were farmers and cattle men that came to settle mainly on Eckerö and the main Åland. Ancient findings certify of their origin, they were Scandinavians, our present generations forefathers.

All through the Dark Ages the outer islands remained uninhabited and this period of time between the Dark Ages and the beginning of Christendom marks a separate era of time in history on Åland as well as of the entire Scandinavia.

The first stone Church built in the year 1100 on Åland was that of Sund’s Church, all the other many stone Churches were built shortly thereafter, all by unknown architects, remarkably enough, and is referred to as Åland’s unwritten history.

The earliest written history of Sweden is extremely limited and is therefore and is therefore almost impossible as a source of information. The only writings shedding any light from this time in history are the writings on Ansgar’s life, written year 870 by his successor Rimbert. If Åland actually is included in this referral is debated. The then powerful Denmark wared and send crusades against Finland during the entire 1100, but Åland, ruled at that time by Linköping’s Diocese, apparently escaped distraction at this time, on the contrary this was the time when the churches on Åland, even as we know them today, were being built replacing the olden wood chapels from dark ages.

The Kastelholm Castle.

The Kastelholm castle was built in 1380 by the powerful Bo Jansson Grip, but he lost it in 1440 to Karl Knutsson, who managed to make himself the king of Sweden in 1448. In 1480 Svante Nilsson claimed Åland and Kastelholm under his rule and installed Knut Poese as centurion (hövitsman) at the castle. By the year 1497 Sten Sture senior took over but by 1500 it was owned by Erik Johansson, the father of the king Gustav Vasa.. Two years later the wayfaring Danes arrived and conquered the castle, Gustav Vasa then send Henning von Brockenhus to Åland to reclaim the castle, but the Danish commander Lyder Frisman would not be defeated. Finally it was decided that the fate of the castle would be decided by a duel by two men the following morning at 8 o’clock in the castle’s courtyard.

Both men sat on their horses facing each other when the question was asked in who’s name they would fight. Frisman answered “ in the name of the Danish ladies and maidens” – but von Brockenhus answered “in no other name than that of my lord and master Gustav Vasa”. But luck was with Frisman as von Brockenhus horse fell as they charged and Frisman’s men soon struck von Brockenhus. The castle remained in Danish hands for 2 years, but after that Lyder Frisman gave up and left the castle to Gustav Vasa.

Gustav Vasa, the strong ruler of Sweden, was friendly inclined toward Åland and his father’s holdings there, and by 1537 he cut some of the taxes for Åland and bought two big farms for himself there. After a 2 months visit in 1556 at Kaselholm, the king granted a dukedom for his second son Johan, consisting of Åland and Åbo provinces with the condition that Johan and his offspring would always remain loyal to the king of Sweden.

The king meant it as a good will gesture toward his beloved second son, but Johan soon saw that his older brother, king Erik XIV was toppled from his throne and Johan took over the rule of Sweden, and Erik was imprisoned at Kasthelholm for a couple of months in 1571, where the guide to this day, points out the room where the king was imprisoned.

In 1671 the young Swedish king Karl XI came for a short visit to the castle, but after that it remained unused and uncared for, for a long time. During the Great Unrest years 1714 – 1721 the Russians all but destroyed it, and what was left of it was put on fire in 1745.

Sweden’s period of a mighty power was a very difficult time for Åland with very high taxes in order to help finance the conquering powers war machine, and often the Ålander himself was found standing behind the cannons on the Swedish battle ships.

It was during this period that another phenomena occurred on Åland. It all started in 1666 when an old lady by the name of Karin, in Emkarby was dragged into court accused of witchcraft, by torturing her she was forced to admit she had been to Brocken ( Blåkulla, a place of fiction) she therefore was found guilty, beheaded and burned at the stake. Her fate was soon shared by several more good housewives and the likes, felled and judged by waging tongues who saw their opportunity for revenge. This Åland originated spiritual disease called witch - persecution, soon spread all over Sweden.

King Karl XII unfortunate war with Russia brought grave consequences for the Åland Island. Almost all of Åland seafaring men was killed in the battle on the Neva river. The Russian naval fleet arrived in the Åland archipelago in July 1714 raided, burned and killed in a way that defies all description. Almost the entire population of Åland had to flee to Sweden and had to remain there until spring of 1722 when peace between Sweden and Russia finally was agreed upon.

In July 1719 tsar Peter himself arrived on Åland aboard his fleet and anchored at Ledsund, Lemland, from where he led the raids against the coast of the Swedish mainland. Villages from Gävle to Norrköping was plundered and burned. The tsar let his emblem and date be chiselled into a granite rock at Ledsund to commemorate his victories over Sweden on that date, it can still be seen at Ledsund today. On July 27 the following year, a small Swedish naval unit with vice admiral Carl Georg Siöblad in charge, sailed right into the mighty Russian fleet anchored at Granhamn, near Flisö, Föglö. A fierce battle took place, the Swedes lost four of their warships but the Russian losses became so heavy that the entire fleet quickly decided to withdraw from Åland, leaving 43 sunken ships and 1.000 dead Russians behind to be buried at Flisö on that day. This sea battle was decisive for the outcome of the Nordic War.

The next war was followed in 1742, and Åland was again occupied by Russian troops, this period is known as the “Small Unrest” and many fled again to Sweden, although the Russians behaved less barbaric at this time.

The war of 1808-1809 became disastrous for Åland. For the third time the Russian troops occupied the islands. The Ålanders expected help from Sweden but none was forthcoming, in desperation a handful of men decided to take up arms themselves, - and so on May 6, 1808 at 8 PM, 100 men from Finström with the sheriff Erik Arvén and curate Johan Gummerus in charge marched to Strömvik, determined to take as prisoner the Russian officer in charge, major Neidhart who stayed there. However the major had been forewarned and had already fled. The die was herewith cast and the mood of the entire Åland became that of fighting back encouraged by this first little victory. More farmers joined and the march this time went to Bomarsund’s fort where Russian troops were stationed. At the sight of this marching farmers army the Russian fled out to the island of Töftö were more local farmers were waiting for them, attacking them and taking them prisoners. This victory was sweet for the farmers but the main Russian forces had their headquarters on the outer islands of Kumlinge and Brändö.

Early on May 10th, a bold group of 450 Ålanders sailed out to Kumlinge where the local people was waiting for them. The group landed at Blockholm’s point at Marskil under fire from the Russians, 2 Ålanders fell, but the group fought back and with the help of the local people managed to get to a hill point from where they could open fire on the parish house where the Russian commander Vuitsch lived, and with that the entire Russian unit of 500 men capitulated and was taken prisoners. The victory for the Ålanders was total.

Later that summer a unit of 6.000 Swedish soldiers came to Åland and together with Åland’s home guards of 900 men, was placed under the command of George Carl von Döbeln, guarding against the Russians. King Gustav IV Adolf of Sweden came for a visit to show his appreciation to the Ålanders shown courage.

But in beginning of March 1809 a Russian war unit of 17.000 men came marching over the ice toward Åland. On March 6th, 160 Russians attached and destroyed a Swedish post stationed at Bänö, Föglö. On March 13th two more huge Russian column came marching toward Föglö and Vårdö. On the following day the Russians and the Swedish forces clashed at Lövö, after which the Swedish regiments stationed at Hulta, Bomarsund and Lumparland eagerly marched out to meet them. All the church bells on main Åland were ringing, to warn the people of what was about to take place.

The first shots had already rang out when a courier on horseback on horseback arrived at the Swedish headquarter in Jomala with the message that a revolution had broken out in Stockholm. Västmanland’s regiment, which had order to immediately depart for Åland for reinforcement to the troops already there, had instead revolted and marched on Stockholm and overthrown the king. vpn Döbeln became so enraged that his first intention was to strike the messenger dead, but made instead the instant decision to leave Åland in order to save his men.

After a hurried meeting with the Russian commander von Knorring, in Klemetsby on March 16, 1809 where agreements for ending the conflict was decided, von Döbeln and his troops left Åland by way of Eckerö and over the frozen Gulf of Botnia, back into Sweden. Åland had fallen to Russia with the entire Finland.

After the Åland Islands came under Russian rule, it didn’t take long before the islands with their strategic location was taken advantage of. By 1830 preparation for a big fort at Bomarsund was on its way. The plans called for a two story high fort with place for 88 cannons. Wide military roads were cut right through the woods, piers and storage magazines were built.

In 1854 when the fort was half ready, the superior French and English naval fleet came to the island during the Krim war. The Bomarsund’s fort was blown up, and 1700 Russian soldiers was taken prisoners and brought to France and England.

The Ålanders were now hoping for a reunion with Sweden and let their wishes be known to the Swedish government shortly after the fall of Bomarsund’s fort. But Sweden remained guarded from such action fearing Russian retaliation, but at the Peace Conference in Paris, King Oscar I of Sweden did mention that Sweden also desired a reunion with the Åland Island. The reunion was not granted, but instead and Åland Convention was established in 1856 which prohibited the Russians to build forts on the Åland Island in the future.

The first world war 1914 – 1918 affected Åland also, in spite of agreements against it the Russians still came and build small forts and trenches all over Åland. Housing of several thousands soldiers and force labour for their constructions became a hardship for the local population but as long as the troops practised discipline it was not so bad, but after the Russian revolution discipline was gone, violence and murders spread fear amongst the local population.

In Feb. 1918 a corps of preserver from Nystad arrived on Åland, fleeing from the red garde and was involved in fighting with the Russian garrison troop and the red garde from Åbo. In order to prevent further violence the Swedish government intervened, in accordance with agreement, and was to ship the two clashing parties out from Åland, the white garde to northern Finland and the red garde to Åbo. They were to be transported on Swedish vessels, but before this could be done, German troops arrived and took them all as prisoners.

With the fall of the Russian Empire, and Finland declaring independence from the Russian rule in 1918, the Ålanders again hoped to be reunited with Sweden. With the editor Julius Sundblom in charge they decided to bring a petition directly to the Swedish king about their wishes. Sundblom arranged a popular vote to be taken, demanding a reunion with Sweden and got 96% of Åland’s population to sign it. Brazenly enough the Åland leaders formed an illegal county council on June 8, 1918 in Mariehamn with the local leader Carl Björkman as chairman.

In May 1920 this council with Sundblom and Björkman in charge went to see the king of Sweden with their demand. Upon arrival home in Mariehamn both gentlemen was arrested and removed to prison in Finland, charged with “ attempted high treason” but was freed after a time.

When Finland became an independent state, the Finnish authorities issued an order for military service also for the young men of Åland. The Ålanders stubbornly refused and left for Sweden. The striking Ålanders blew up a storm of resentment against Finland that to this day, is a part of Ålanders way of life. The arrests that followed resulted in sharp notes between the Swedish and Finnish governments which finally led to that this question had to be settled at the League of Nations at their session on Sep. 5 1920. The verdict fell on June 24, 1921 which granted Finland sovereignty over the Åland Islands, but that the island should be denaturalized and receive guaranties for its Swedish language and Swedish culture.

Åland’s autonomy was granted on June 9, 1922 when it met for its very first session. This self-government has through good relations between the Åland’s and Finland’s authorities developed and become a great asset for the Ålanders. The Åland Island even managed to get its own flag in 1954.

The monstrosities of war was bygone in the 1950’s and the island began an extraordinary expansion, by 1960 the shipping and tourist industry was blossoming making possible and undreamed of high living standard, which is still very much on its upswing today. One can therefore summarize that the Ålanders of today, are a privileged people.

  • Translated by Hjördis Sundblom, 1992.
  • Transferred to file by Ingemar Ekman 2003

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