Awakening of Europe - M. B. Synge

How Peter the Great Learned Shipbuilding

"Nothing can be small to a great man."


One day in the year 1697, when William III. was yet ruling over England and Holland, the Dutch shipbuilders at the little village of Zaandam were surprised to hear that Peter the Great, Emperor or Tsar of Russia, was at the village inn.

"Yes," said the people, he had come to learn from the Dutch how to build ships, and he was disguised as a common sailor like themselves.

It was quite true. Peter the Great had come from the heart of his great country, Russia; he had crossed the Baltic into Sweden, and thence had reached Holland. It was but six o'clock in the morning when he arrived at Zaandam, and he had been the first to jump ashore and moor his ship to the quay. Meeting a Dutch workman, who had been employed once in Russia, he insisted on going to his cottage for a lodging. It was a small bare cottage built of wood. It had but one room, with a big chimney-corner and a wooden cupboard in which a mattress was laid for sleeping.

"We are only foreign craftsmen seeking work," he told the curious people. Then he bought himself a set of carpenter's tools, carried them to the cottage with his own hands, and set to work at once. He dressed in a Dutch suit, like the local boatmen, in a red waistcoat with large buttons, short jacket, and wide breeches. He spent hours daily watching the shipbuilders at work; he visited saw-mills, oil- and paper-mills, rope-works, sail-makers' and iron-smiths' workshops. He made a model windmill too. He also bought a small ship, made a mast with his own hands, fitted it up, and sailed about the bay.

But meanwhile the news had leaked out that the tall, handsome man, with long curling hair, in the dress of a Dutch sailor, was indeed the Tsar of Russia, and crowds of people began to follow him everywhere. So a week later he escaped to Amsterdam in a violent storm of wind, and there he was given a lodging in the great dockyards of the East India Company. Here he worked steadily for four months, so that he might help in the building of one ship from end to end. He rose early, lit his own fire, cooked his own food, and lived altogether like a simple workman.

It was a very different life to that he had lived in Russia. From his earliest years he had been surrounded with every luxury. As a baby he had slept in a cradle covered with velvet and embroidered with gold, his sheets had been of silk, his frocks of satin trimmed with pearls and emeralds. At three years old he had driven in a little golden carriage drawn by four tiny ponies, while dwarfs rode beside him as bodyguard. As a boy he loved sailors and soldiers, and was enthusiastic about ships and the sea. Such was the boyhood of the man who was to found Russia's army and navy.

[Illustration] from Awakening of Europe by M. B. Synge


Peter the Great was working away in the dockyard at Amsterdam, when one day the Duke of Marlborough visited the docks to see him at work. "Peter, carpenter of Zaandam, help those men to carry that wood," cried the foreman, in order to point him out to the Englishman. And the Tsar Peter obeyed at once.

When the ship was finished, it was offered to Peter the Great as a present from the city of Amsterdam. He accepted it with joy, christened it the Amsterdam, and carried it back to Russia. He had built his ship, but still he was dissatisfied. He thought the Dutch worked too much by "rule of thumb," that they had no knowledge of shipbuilding really. So he grew sad and out of spirits; he had travelled so far and had not "reached the desired goal."

"You should come over to England," said an Englishman who was present. "In our country shipbuilding is carried to the highest perfection."

Peter the Great was delighted with the idea. He had met William of Orange, and the King of England had sent him a beautiful ship, constructed on a new plan. Peter now asked him if he might come to England in order to visit the dockyards. William replied by sending over two large ships to conduct the Tsar to England. Arrived in London, Peter the Great went over the large docks at the mouth of the river Thames. He soon mastered the higher branches of shipbuilding to his satisfaction.

"I should have remained a carpenter only had I not come to England," he used to say afterwards.

But it would take too long to tell how Peter the Great returned to Russia and taught his people how to build ships, how he built the great city which bears his name, Petersburg, to this day. He built it on the shores of the Baltic, at the mouth of a large river, in imitation of Amsterdam, and made it the capital of Russia.

But the story of how he learnt to build ships in Holland and England shows how, in the eyes of the world, those two nations were in advance of all others in the art of shipbuilding.