Marstrand, Sweden: The tiny Swedish island that was once a refuge for criminals

Lasse-Maja might have been a thief and an opportunistic scoundrel who profited from cross-dressing, but the canny soul, who was born in 1785, is also proof that the best way to a king's heart is through his stomach. Lasse-Maja's colourful story found its voice during his sojourn on the small Swedish island of Marstrand, in the country's far west, where the Gothenburg archipelago ends and open sea begins.

We've come to this charming island, decanted by Zodiac from our small adventure-cruise ship, to experience Marstrand's vivid history. Founded in late Viking times by the Norwegian king Hakon Hakonsson and mentioned in Icelandic sagas, it has been fought over for centuries. Norwegians, Swedes and Danes have desired it because of its mostly ice-free, wind-protected harbour and its strategic position between the Kattegat and Skagerrak, with the North Sea directly west.

The tiny island, the historical importance of which granted it city privileges in 1200, has variously been a tax-free port, refuge for criminals, place of wild living, holiday island for royalty, a smugglers' lair, Europe's herring capital and a place of religious freedom – Scandinavia's first synagogue was founded here.

With its colourful wooden buildings and pedestrianised cobbled alleys, Marstrand is now Sweden's sailing capital. It hosts the Match Cup Sweden, the World Match Racing tour's final event, drawing the world's finest sailors.

One of Marstrand's more interesting stories, however, had its genesis in 1658 when the island passed into Swedish hands and King Carl X Gustav of Sweden began building the massive medieval stone fortress that dominates the island. Workers to drag the stone to the top of the island were hard to come by on sparsely populated Marstrand, so Sweden wrote a new law called "Marstrand's work". Swedish criminals were then conscripted to build the fortress, which was often a death sentence – about 20 per cent of them died in winter. This is where Lasse-Maja made his/her appearance (Lasse is a feminised version of the male name Lars and Maja is a version of the common name Maria).

Born Lars Larsson in 1785, Lasse-Maja travelled the country on a "theft tour" – stealing church silver and other items – wearing women's clothing and then switching back to male attire to evade arrest.

When he was eventually caught, he received 40 lashes and was imprisoned at Carlsten Fortress, where life was harsh. He cannily deduced that he could soften his sentence using his stunning culinary skills. He eventually persuaded officers that he could whip up a toothsome French meal and was promptly appointed their personal chef.

Lasse-Maja served large parts of his 26 years in the warm confines of the kitchen, avoiding the 14-hour days of hard labour, though not the small, cold and damp prison cells that each held 20 to 30 prisoners.

Food in prison was a privilege, not a right. Prisoners received a tiny salary for their labour and used it to buy bread, fruit, soup and Swedish brandy. If they got sick, they couldn't earn money and that meant starvation. Prisoners also wore the "tvakilos birdo" attached with chains around the ankle and, for escape-prone prisoners, the "Iron Crown", which weighed 36 kilograms.


Despite his relatively cushy life, Lasse-Maja still managed an escape through the front gate dressed as a woman but was captured, at which point he came up with the island's first "tourism" scheme, changing prisoners' lives. He persuaded officials to allow tourists visiting by steamship from Gothenburg to "feed" the prisoners by chucking morsels down into the prison yards. Prisoners were happy to caper about if it meant staying alive.

Details are somewhat sketchy but our guide tells us that in 1838, Lasse-Maja observed that one of Napoleon's generals, one Jean-Baptiste, was so disgusted by Swedish food that he ate only boiled eggs for a month. Lasse prepared him a French meal and was pardoned by King Karl XIV Johan in 1838. Some say the enterprising prisoner also cooked for the king.

He went on to become a society darling, writing a book, dressing as a woman and entertaining guests at fine soirees.

Marstrand, now quite exclusive – a house sells for up to $4 million – remembers this lively character with a "Lasse-Maja" ferry and myriad Lasse stories to spice up tourism.


Alison Stewart was a guest of APT.



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