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Plans to separate Finland from Sweden in the 1780’s


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Quarterly Vol. 12 No1 2003

Plans to separate Finland from Sweden in the 1780’s.

By Gunnar Damstrom

In 1778-1780 Swedish Finn noblemen Göran Magnus Sprengtporten and Gustaf Mauriz Armfelt were visiting Paris where they became acquainted with Voltaire’s and the North American colonists’ theories of Government. France was actively supporting the rebels. At the time Benjamin Franklin was US minister to France. Sprengtporten volunteered for service in the French forces fighting alongside the colonists but was refused. About this time he started developing thoughts of separating his homeland from Swedish rule.

In 1785-1786 Sprengtporten was visiting Holland. At that time Thomas Jefferson was US minister to Paris. Did Sprengtporten and Jefferson meet? Influenced by the government philosophies Sprengtporten conceived a plan for establishing the United Provinces of Finland, a republic according to the North American model under protection of the Russian Empire. In early 1786 he submitted a memorandum concerning his plan to the Russian ambassador to Holland. The memorandum was promptly delivered to Catherine II and the Russian ambassador to Stockholm.

Sprengtporten got more and more alienated from Swedish king Gustavus III who he had supported during the 1772 Revolution. In 1786 he participated in the Diet meeting in Stockholm where he joined the opposition to the King. In the fall of 1786 Sprengtporten sailed from Stockholm for St. Petersburg, never to set foot in Sweden again. In St. Petersburg he was received with great honors by Catharine II, made General of the Russian Army, and received a sizable salary.

The endless wars Sweden got involved in brought misery over Finland. Either Finland was the war theater or Finnish men were disproportionately drafted into the Swedish Army. Russian forces occupied Finland for eight years during the Great Wrath 1710-1721 and again during the War of the Hats in 1741-1744. Many citizens doubted The Swedish Government’s capability to defend Finland from Russian aggression.

The discontent among the Finnish nobility came to a head when Gustavus III in clear conflict with the Swedish Constitution declared war on Russia in 1788 without obtaining consent from the Congress. The army officers mutinied and initiated negotiations with Russia for ending the war, which they considered unlawful. The King who personally led the war from his admiral’s ship fled to Sweden, leaving the command to his brother. The officers’ mutiny had probably been successful, had the rank and file soldiers not remained loyal to the King. The mutineers who had formed a group called the Anjala League were later imprisoned and taken to Stockholm where most were condemned to death for high treason. All were pardoned save for one of the leaders, Swedish Finn Colonel Johan Hästesko. He was beheaded September 9, 1790 in Stockholm.


Johan Hästesko

Colonel Hästesko was a man of honor who refused to flee Swedish Justice and take refuge in Russia like many of the Anjala League members. In his trial he argued his actions justified and driven by patriotism.

The discontent with Swedish Rule continued. During the Russian invasion of 1808 (the campaign was planned by Spengtporten) the Swedish Army mostly retreated. A critical event in the war was the surrender of the Sveaborg Fortress outside Helsinki, the strongest in Europe at the time. The commandant was Admiral Karl Olof Cronstedt, the aging hero of the 1792 naval battle of Svensksund. His qualifications as fortress commandant were questionable in the first place. He surrendered the fortress without a real fight with the consent of his officers some of which turned out to be agents of the Russians. There were collaborators among the civilian population of Helsinki, ostensibly among the Swedish officers’ wives who carried false and demoralizing information to the garrison. The loss of Sveaborg pretty much gave the death knell to the Swedish war effort. In the treaty of Fredrikshamn 1809 Sweden forever surrendered Finland to Russia.

Czar Alexander I decided to follow Sprengtporten’s recommendation, retaining Finland as a distinct nation, a Grand Duchy part of the Russian Empire. The Finnish Diet was summoned to Borgå March 1809, where Sprengtporten was given the honor to read the Czar’s Sovereign Affirmation and the Diet swore allegiance to the Czar. In the affirmation the Czar promised to uphold Finland’s old laws and religion and respect the old rights of its citizens. This event can be considered the birth of Finland as a distinct nation.

In 1810 Gustaf Mauriz Armfelt acquired Russian citizenship and moved to his estate Åminne in Halikko. Before long he was summoned to St. Petersburg where he was appointed chairman of the Committee of Finnish Affairs. Armfelt and Sprengtporten belonged to the inner circle of advisers to the Czar. On Armfelt’s recommendation the territory lost in the wars of 1710-1721 and 1742-1743 were reincorporated with Finland. Sprengtporten was appointed the first Governor of the Grand Duchy serving in 1809-1810.

From 1809 until the outbreak of WWI the Finnish Nation was spared from warfare, save for some raids by the British in costal areas during the Crimean War. From 1809 to 1878 Finland was exempt from military draft, and from 1878 the draft was numerically small in relation to the population. The unlawful expansion of the draft by the Governmental Edict of February 1899 could never be enforced due to civil resistance and draft dodging. As a result the Finnish Nation was spared the terrible losses suffered by the Russian armies in the Russo Japanese war and World War I.

The independence struggle of the 1780’s is largely forgotten although the movement had a major influence on the foundation of Finland as an autonomous Nation in March 1809.

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