Monday, 14 December 2009

The ‘last prisoner’ and the Bohus Fortress

By Paul Okunola
THE solitary figure sits motionless in a corner of the deep dungeon; silent, forlorn, and absolutely oblivious of the persistent stares that gaze down intermittently from a barricaded square frame six metres above the floor. Though what appears to be a grayish film of dust that gently coats the entire enclosure hints at the long passage of time, something about the reticent pose of the figure suggests the gait of a man, who may be in chains, but has refused to be broken.
No one would tell precisely how long the figure has occupied the tiny, poorly lit confinement; or for that matter, for what reason the inmate was placed in confinement. Some say, it may have been political, given the stormy battles of supremacy that characterized the region’s past. Others whisper tales of sorcery, or even witchcraft, and some still, talk of a military captive taken in the heat of a particularly bloody battle.
Whichever way the story is told, however, given his acquired reputation as the last prisoner in Bohus Fortress — a colossus in brick and granite that sits at what was once the confluence of the three Nordic nations of Sweden, Norway and Denmark — there is little doubt that the truth can only be shrouded in turbulent past of its abode.
But Bohus Fortress itself is much more than an imposing medieval relic. Sitting on the Island of Fastningsholmen, where the River Gota branches into the smaller North River in what is today Gotenborg, Sweden; official records state that “the river formed a natural boundary between Sweden and Norway, making Bohus Fortress a target for border fighting at the heart of an area of great importance to the three nations.”
Construction of the structure is recorded as having begun in 1308 by King Hakon V of Norway, after an earlier castle by the Norwegian king was destroyed. First recorded as a castle in 1319, Bohus became the seat for the Norwegian government and in 1320, as Sweden and Norway united under King Magnus Eriksson, the royal court was established at Bohus until 1340. His wife, Blanche de Namur from Flanders, reportedly introduced European culture to the castle.
Built essentially to defend the southern border of Norway, the fortress was attacked without success for instance, six times consecutively during the seven years Nordic war of 1563 to 1570 alone.

REBUILT extensively after this seven-year war, Bohus was reinforced with large bastions in a star-shape, surrounding the middle-age courtyard. “The bastions were large earth walls covered with several metres thick outer walls of granite as a shield against canon fire. Under the inner corners, bombsafe rooms were built, while the inner fortress was rebuilt at the same time into a renaissance palace, as the fortress and the palace became two separate working parts in one building,” official guides say.
But over the years, conflict persisted in the region and eventually, in a peace treaty declared in 1658, the structure and surrounding county became Swedish.
Going by historical records, however, “The Norwegian governor Ulrich Frederik Gyldenlowe besieged Bohus for the 14th and last time 20 years later, with a 16,000-man army, which bombarded the 900 strong Swedish soldiers for two months in a battle, which consumed between 20-30,000 canon balls, thousands of bombs, grenades and stones. Eventually, only 400 of the defenders survived.”
In a way, the portrait of defiance painted by the captive figure stands out as a fitting metaphor for the history of a castle that through its years, ranked not only as one of the largest and best fitted in Northern Europe, but also as the only one that was never conquered in battle, all through its almost 700 years of use.
For instance, legend has it that the invading Norwegian army eventually withdrew on the verge of victory during the final battle, when unknown to them, food supplies in the castle were already down to the last cow. “The Soldiers deceived the invaders into believing they still had lots of food by draping the last cow with the skins of others earlier eaten and making the cow to parade on the top walls of the castle, giving the impression of large remaining stocks” the story goes.
The damage to the castle was reportedly so extensive that it took the next 100 years to repair or restore the structure.
By this time, the Bohus had begun to lose its military significance, transforming at various times into a quarry and state prison for notable crimes against the government. Life or death sentences were occasionally repealed to several years of hard labour and, at one stage in the 1600’s, prisoners endured a “living death” as they laboured for 13 years to dig a 22 metres deep well for the facility, using elementary implements with fire and water to break down the rocky courtyard.
By the end of the 19th Century however, more contemporary restoration work began on the structure and in 1925, the Swedish National Board of Building and Planning took over the responsibility and rehabilitation of it.
Nevertheless, ‘the last surviving prisoner’ is not the only object of mystery surrounding the imposing relic of the only military structure that was never conquered in its days as a military bastion in Europe; that is, if one chooses to believe today’s representation of queen blanche.

QUEEN BLANCHE, known as the fairy tale queen, was herself a mystery, a role that is aptly portrayed by tour guide Yvonne Hallberg. She had first stunned the visitors when she said: “You are indeed welcomed to my humble home, where my husband and I raised our five children in the 14th Century. Unfortunately, we were forced to leave when it was shut down in 1789, but not all the people inside were able to make it outside and they were shut in. Sometimes, if you look closely, you may still see some of them waving to visitors through the windows.”
Well gifted in the art of mischief, ‘Queen Blanche,’ was however, also full of good counsel.
“Never step on the large stones, the small ones are always safer,” she chipped, looking somewhat regal with a gold tiara sitting on her cropped blond hair as the chilly wet wind playfully tugged at the floor-length red cape draped around her shoulders. “That way, if you slip, there’s always something to stop the slide,” she explained, gliding seamlessly in and out of time and reliving various historical periods as she led the way up the 40 feet climb to the summit of her ‘home’ in the towers.
Although the ruins today remains a state monument maintained since 1993 by the Swedish National Property Board, which permits the use of the medieval courtyard as a venue for weddings, concerts and other public events; there have been persistent questions as to why the landmark is yet to be accorded the status of a UNESCO heritage site.
“It is rather surprising that such a structure has not been made a UNESCO heritage site, while other less significant ones have been listed,” noted Anna Tibaijuka, Executive Director of the Nairobi-based United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat), who led a tour of the site during the Goteborg Award for Sustainable Development late last month.

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