Turku, the oldest city and - under its old Swedish name Åbo - formerly the capital of the Swedish Duchy of Finland, is today a busy ferry-port of some 170.000 inhabitants, set on the banks of the River Aura at the south-western corner of Finland. Since it was founded many centuries ago, its geographical position has always made it the gateway for travellers from Sweden - whether they have come in conquest or on more peaceful missions. In the 12th century the Swedish King Erik IX attempted to open trade routes to the Russian city of Novgorod across what we today call Finland. With him was Bishop Henry - by tradition an Englishman (or possibly a Welshman) - whose intent was to convert the heathen in these Eastern regions. Henry - and the story is still quoted today - was eventually murdered by a peasant. Unlike Swedish rule however, Christianity did survive.
Wars between Sweden and Russia proved inevitable as control of the Baltic became more and more important. The Great Northern War began in 1700 and for 21 years Finland was a battleground. More fighting occurred in 1741-43, in 1788-90 and again in 1808. By 1809 the Swedes were beaten and Finland became, this time, a Russian Grand Duchy, with broad internal autonomy, the Czar himself as Grand Duke and Helsinki as the new capital from 1812. Only during the Russian Revolution did Finland finally achieve independence, but then had to undergo the trauma of its own civil war in the Spring of 1918. Again, in 1939, Finland was attacked from the East and some of the Society’s older members may recall the tenacity with which the Finns fought back. Today Finland is a member of the EU and well-known for its high-tech products and stunning design - of which many good examples can be found in Turku’s shops.
But let us turn back the clock; forgetting the busy, cobbled market square with its colourful flowers, fruit and vegetables. The striking Orthodox Church in neo-Classical style, the Sibelius Museum, the Swedish University known as Åbo Akademi - and let us cross the river, for there can be few more pleasant pastimes on a hot, sunny August day than wandering among the quaint wooden houses and workshops of Luostarinmäki, the former artisans’ quarter and now an open-air museum. Occasionally the visitor can even be fortunate enough to see craftsmen at work - glovemakers, clockmakers, bookbinders and the like. Since the great fire of 1827 Luostarinmäki is the only remaining vestige of the 18th century city of Åbo.
Apart from the famous Cathedral and the great Castle of Turunlinna, both much changed, these old wooden houses would probably be the only part of his native city that Herman Diedrich (or Dietrich) Spöring would recognise today. However, the city has retained, even in this twenty-first century, one quaint and curious custom with mediaeval origins: the Declaration of Christmas Peace from the Town Hall - and this proclamation, designed to encourage "best behaviour" from all citizens - would undoubtedly have been familiar to Spöring.
The fire of 1827 - one of many such catastrophes over the centuries - destroyed not only buildings but, in this case, the city records as well. Thus we have no documentary evidence for the birth of the future Endeavour voyager, although this is usually dated to 1733. The young Herman Diedrich, named after his father, and one sister were the only survivors of a family of eight children born into an "enlightened" family - for the elder Spöring (1701-1747) was Professor of Medicine at the University and a correspondent of Linnaeus.
Herman Diedrich began studying medicine at the University in Åbo but later moved to Stockholm, where natural history seems to have caught his attention. He then abandoned his plan to qualify in medicine and went - in about 1755 - to London, where he became a clocksmith and draughtsman. Eventually he was to become assistant to the Swedish botanist, Daniel Solander, who was to embark on the Endeavour as one of the supernumeraries and would be ranked next after Sir Joseph Banks himself.
In the spring of 1769 Fort Venus was set up at Matavai Bay on the north coast of Tahiti and the theft of the vital quadrant from behind the fort’s palisade is a dramatic, though well-known story. But is it equally well-known that the man who managed to put the damaged instrument together again in time for the observation of the Transit of Venus was Spöring? Perhaps it was as a reward for this achievement that Cook named an island after him off the coast of New Zealand. He was, at least, the first member of the expedition to be honoured in this way and he has also, in more recent times, lent his name to some streets in Australia.
It was on January 25th 1771 that Captain Cook was to write "… hot and sultry weather. Departed this life Mr Sporing a Gentleman belonging to Mr Banks’s retinue". Having survived the dangers of Endeavour’s close contact with the Great Barrier Reef, he had fallen victim to dysentery during the ship’s enforced stay in Batavia.
On another bright but windy August day my husband and I set off to find the Spöring memorial. In a tree-lined street beside the river Aura, it is set into the wall of a building known as Rettigska palatset, which houses two museums, Aboa Vetus and Ars Nova. Not particularly difficult to spot, but well-nigh impossible to photograph properly because of the fearsome reflection! Behind a large, square glass panel a boulder is visible, together with an explanatory text. Of course, this is not just "any old stone" but has been brought from Spöring Island (Tolaga Bay, New Zealand) and was unveiled with due ceremony in 1990. A fitting memorial to one of Åbo/Turku’s famous sons! Was he a Swede or was he a Finn? This is something the purists continue to discuss…
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 19, volume 29, number 2 (2006).