Tuesday, 8 November 2011

A Souvenir of The Voluntary Peoples’ Fleet - Добровольный флот

A silver-plated footed fruit bowl by Josef Fraget
of Warzawie [Warsaw], pre 1872.

 A [then] tarnished but still elegant and obviously quite old silver plated fruit bowl spied in a back street Auckland second hand shop in 1992 has led me onto a fascinating line of research. It appears that this bowl may very well have been on board an early vessel of the unique Russian “Voluntary Peoples’ Fleet” [Добровольный флот] dating back to 1878. 

The engraved Russian Cyrillic letters “Д ф” in handwritten style
meaning literally "The Voluntary Fleet"

The first clue proved to be the engraving in the centre of the bowl,  “Д ф” , the Latin translation being Dobro Flot and in English literally “The Voluntary Fleet”.

The marks attributing the bowl to Józef Fraget
of Warszawie [Poland], 1860-1872
The second clue is provided by the manufacturers mark on the underside “Fraget W Warszawie” [Józef Fraget in Warszawie]. Warszawie, better known today as Warsaw, lay prior to 1918 within the Russian Empire. The “N” in an oval at right stands for silver plating on nickel silver while the abbreviated word “Galw :” stand for galwanizacja (in Polish) or galvanisation in English. The other small oval at left contains the coat of arms of the coppersmiths' corporation, being two crossed hammers with a pair of compasses. Crucially, these marks are confirmed as having been used only between 1860 and 1872. The manufacturing number of 3534 does appear to indicate a date nearer the end of this period. Having established the maker, location and period of manufacture we now need to look at the intriguing likelihood that it does indeed link to the unique Russian “Voluntary Peoples’ Fleet” [Добровольный флот]. 

A close-up of one of the silver plated cast handles in the form of branches
with  blossoms. Note also the beautifully detailed guilloche work.

Russian patriotism after the Russian - Turkish war of 1877-78 ultimately inspired the formation of the Voluntary Peoples' Fleet. England was openly preparing for war against Russia and a strong British Naval Fleet clearly demonstrated an intention to enter the Black Sea. However, this caused little despair in Russia but simply an explosion of patriotism among all classes of society which underlined the desire to create a means of resisting any hostile naval power. In April 1878 the "Imperial Society for the Promotion of Russian Commercial Shipping" under the chairmanship of Tsarevitch Alexander [the future Tsar Alexander III], launched an appeal to raise funds to purchase suitable vessels which could then be armed : "Fellow Countrymen! The Lord sends Russia a new test. A staunch enemy threatens us with war!”.

The Voluntary Peoples' Fleet [Добровольный флот] Committee
[source Internet]

Collecting 3.5 million roubles in a surprisingly short time, three second hand combined cargo and passenger steamers were purchased from Germany, being renamed “Russia”, “St Petersburg” and “Moscow”. They arrived at Kronstadt in June 1878 to have deck guns from the German armament firm of Krupp fitted. Further vessels were purchased, carrying further patriotic place names as Nizhny Novgorod, Eagle, Kherson, Kursk, Kostroma, Smolensk and Vladivostok.  

The Voluntary Peoples' Fleet [Добровольный флот] vessel "Russia"
 [source Internet]
When the military situation in the Black Sea settled, all vessels were disarmed. The fleet then engaged in foreign trade which, when compared to foreign and other commercially owned vessels, were able to land foodstuffs and goods at a much more favourable price. 

The Voluntary Peoples' Fleet [Добровольный флот] vessel "Moscow"
 [source Internet]
In 1880 a regular Dobro Flot service commenced with Vladivostok in the far east which then enabled the mass resettlement of peasants from European Russia. The previous dangerous and prolonged trek across thousands of miles through deepest Russia had proved somewhat of a disinsentive!

Travelling time ranged from one to one and a half months and over the first ten years of operations the fleet transported 3325 families (22,243 persons), more than 39,000 passengers, and 5.3 million tons of cargo. The Voluntary Peoples’ fleet in the far east thus became a major maritime shipping company. Ironically it also delivered materials for the Trans Siberian and other railways, thus providing itself with a competitor. 

Side view of the silver-plated footed fruit bowl
by Josef Fraget of Warzawie [Warsaw], pre 1872

By the beginning of the First World War, Dobro Flot had 50 steamers and owned large amounts of property in Russia and abroad including houses, warehouses, berths and floating port facilities. All this collapsed overnight after the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917. Although the name was revived after 1922 this was operated by the Soviet Government shipping authorities under the Soviet Flag.  

A close-up of the detailed and very attractive and
detailed machine guilloche work

But intriguingly this brings us back to the silver plated bowl engraved with the Russian Cyrillic letters "Д ф" [Dobro Flot]. While the bowl was manufactured on or prior to 1872 this pre-dates the establishment of the “Voluntary Peoples’ Fleet” [Добровольный флот] in 1878 by 6 years. Were it to be later the connection might indeed be viewed as spurious. Additionally – and all I have found is an obscure reference in Russian Cyrillic text – the Tsar provided items to equip the vessels, but so might other members of the aristocracy. Count Stroganoff is credited with the highest monetary donation of 100,000 roubles towards the cost of the vessels. Royal and aristocratic patronage of the Voluntary Peoples’ Fleet is therefore at least established.

The Ensign of the Peoples' Voluntary Fleet, approved
by the Tsar in 1881, and in use until 1898

It is therefore indeed an intriguing and very likely possibility that this elegant fruit bowl did indeed once grace the [Captain’s?] table of one of the early Dobro Flot vessels but its actual provenance and how it incredibly made its way to New Zealand will probably never now be known.

Bibliography :

- Russian language Dobro Flot sources (Internet)
- Fraget Silvermarks (Internet)

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