Archives For Dutch Shipwrecks

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CC Courtesy of Harold Meerveld on Flickr

Engineers and archaeologists have successfully raised a 600 year old sailing cog from the depths of the Ijssel River in the Netherlands. The 55 ton vessel, along with a barge and punt, had been deliberately sunk to alter the flow of the river to make it more navigable and easier for ships to dock on the Ijssel’s banks. Then, as now, maritime trade was essential to the Dutch economy and any impediments to riverine traffic directly affected the economic well-being of the area’s inhabitants. As such, medieval maritime engineers devised a plan to divert the flow of silt from the river’s banks making docking along the bank easier. The engineers strategically sank the cog, barge and punt to achieve their goal. The river quickly silted up over the vessels which created the anaerobic environment essential to the state of preservation they are currently in.

The vessels were rediscovered in 2012 and a lifting platform was built to raise the vessel from the seabed. As is the case with many scuttled vessels, the cog had been stripped of all items of value, however, archaeologists hope to study the techniques in the construction of the vessel. Now begins the lengthy preservation process which involves slowly removing salt from the vessel’s timbers and eventually drying it out. If successful, then the vessel would be a smaller version of England’s Mary Rose or Sweden’s Vasa.

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Cape Rachado CC Image Courtesy of M. King on Flickr

Cape Rachado
CC Image Courtesy of M. King on Flickr

From August 16th to 18th, 1606 the seas off Cape Rachado (Tanjung Tuan) in modern-day Malaysia echoed with the sounds of naval gunfire as two European fleets wrestled for control of the Straits of Malacca. The Dutch East India Company had dispatched a fleet of eleven ships from Holland in mid-1605 in an effort to pry the Portuguese from their strongholds in the East Indies. The Dutch besieged the Portuguese garrison at Malacca in May 1606, however, in August a Portuguese fleet of twenty ships from its colony in Goa, modern-day India arrived to lift the siege.

The two fleets engaged one another for several days with long-range cannon barrages but neither fleet gaining an advantage over the other. Finally, the Portuguese decided to close the distance and use their numerical superiority to overwhelm the Dutch fleet. Early on August 18th, the Portuguese closed with the Dutch and boarded the Dutch vessel Nassau. As additional ships from both sides sailed into the fray the cannonade set the Dutch ship Oranje ablaze threatening both the Nassau and the Oranje as well as the two engaged Portuguese vessels. Eventually all four of the vessels were set ablaze and a truce was declared to allow the fleets to lick their wounds and repair back to their respective anchorages. While the battle was a defeat for the Dutch as the siege of Malacca was relieved, it enabled the Dutch to gain favor with the Sultan of Johor, the local leader, and when the fleet returned two months later it destroyed a much reduced Portuguese fleet.

The dates of the final sinking of the four vessels lost in the battle: Sao Salvador, a Portuguese galleon, Nassau and Middelburg vary from August 18th to 22nd. Some sources claim the wreck of the Nassau finally succumbed to the sea on the 22nd, but what is not in dispute is that they were located in 1995 by British marine archaeologist Mensun Bound and successfully excavated. Some of the artifacts from the wrecks are now on display at the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur.

Royal Navy

HMS Exeter Sinking

In the months following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Japanese juggernaut swept through the Pacific in an all out quest to secure natural resources and eliminate its opponents. A prime target in the Japanese crosshairs was the Dutch East Indies – modern-day Indonesia. In February 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy dispatched a task force consisting of two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and 14 destroyers to escort an invasion force of ten transports. Opposing the IJN task force was a motley assortment of Dutch, US, British and Australian naval assets including two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers and nine destroyers.

The Allied force was outmatched in numbers and firepower as the Japanese heavy cruisers possessed more heavy caliber guns than their Allied equivalents. Additionally, they were also hampered by communication and coordination issues stemming from trying to integrate ships from four navies into a single task force. In a desperate attempt to destroy the Japanese invasion force before it offloaded its troops, the Allied force sailed into the teeth of the Japanese task force late in the afternoon on February 27, 1942.

The Allied force tried vainly to close within gunfire range of the Japanese transports, but each time they were rebuffed by a hellish rain of gunfire from the Japanese escorts. As the afternoon progressed the Japanese advantages began to tell with Allied ships succumbing to torpedo attacks, gunfire and even mines. By midnight, three destroyers and two cruisers, HNLMS De Ruyter and HNLMS Java, had been lost along with the Dutch admiral in charge of the Allied task force.

Later the next day, two of the surviving three cruisers were annihilated in a follow-on battle in Sunda Strait. Only a day later, on March 1, in the Second Battle of the Java Sea, the remaining Allied cruiser, HMS Exeter, and her two destroyer escorts were sunk. In just three days, the Allies had lost five cruisers and another six destroyers while the IJN had suffered the loss of only a few escort vessels and transports sunk or damaged.

With Allied naval power in the region either destroyed or driven off to Australia, the Japanese conquest of the Dutch East Indies was virtually assured. Not only did the battles of the Java Sea and Sunda Strait represent a stinging defeat for the Allies, but it also signaled the beginning of the end of Dutch colonial power in Indonesia.

slaveryThe Telegraph is reporting that a combined British and Dutch group of explorers are mobilizing for an expedition to South America to locate the wreck of the Dutch slave ship Leusden. Widely believed to be the deadliest disaster to befall a slave ship, the Leusden ran aground on January 1, 1738 with a “cargo” of nearly 700 African captives. Prior to the early 19th century crusade of William Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists to outlaw the slave trade, slave ships regularly plied the waters between Africa and the New World exchanging human cargos for sugarcane, molasses, silver, gold and other valuables. Although the trade was outlawed in 1807, it was only the iron fist of Royal Navy enforcement that prevented the horrific trade from continuing to occur.

The Leusden, a Dutch West Indiaman, departed Ghana on November 19, 1737 after having waited six months to collect a full cargo. The ship had an uneventful passage until she was dragged ashore by a strong tidal current. Tragically, while the ship was aground, the rudder broke off and water flooded into the crowded confines of the hold. Abandoning ship, the crew left the 664 Africans trapped below-deck where they all perished as the sea clawed the Leusden and her 664 souls into her dark depths.

In less than two months, the British and Dutch team hope to return to the site of the sinking off the coast of Suriname and conduct an in-depth survey of the wreck. The team has narrowed their search area and intend to use side-scan sonar to locate and survey the wreck. Not only would the discovery be archaeologically important, but it would also serve to highlight the heroism of men like William Wilberforce, Lord Grenville and Foreign Secretary Charles James Fox who passionately fought to end the disgusting and repugnant trade in human flesh.

Edward Pellew

Stephen Taylor’s latest book, Commander, documents the life of Edward Pellew, a British naval officer who rose to fame during the Napoleonic Wars. Taylor builds on the work of two previous biographies to present the most complete and balanced description of a man considered to be the greatest frigate captain of the Royal Navy. Most Americans, and perhaps many British citizens, associate Pellew with the same-named fictional commander of HMS Indefatigable in C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels. Pellew, though, is considered the inspiration (along with Sir Thomas Cochrane) for Forester’s Hornblower character as well as Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey character.

Taylor meticulously documents Pellew’s entire life including his youth in Cornwall, his path to the sea, and his early service in the American Revolution on the Great Lakes. Relying on personal correspondence and the efforts of Pellew’s son at preserving his father’s legacy, Taylor reconstructs for the reader Pellew’s various single ship commands and joint operations, including his most famous command, HMS Indefatigable. Especially noteworthy is the behind the scene squabbles that occurred between Pellew and various members of the British nobility and naval establishment.

For instance, while serving as commander of the Indian naval station, Pellew engaged in rigorous conflict with the Admiralty in England as well as another commander on station. Taylor highlights how this particular conflict not only hurt Pellew’s career, but also prevented the taking of the French island of Mauritius (an idea Pellew was pursuing) until later in the war. As a result, French privateers and men of war continued to operate from Mauritius at great cost to British shipping. Taylor concludes with Pellew’s masterful victory over the Barbary Pirates at Algiers in August 1816 and his retirement in England.

Overall, Taylor presents the reader with a well-documented and readable account of Pellew’s life. While some readers may wish for more swashbuckling tales a la Horatio Hornblower, Taylor’s intent was to present a well-rounded account of Pellew’s entire life and not just the daring exploits for which he became famous. Commander is an excellent read and anyone wishing to better understand the Napoleonic Wars and a central figure from them would do well to purchase and read it.

Aagtekerke

CC Image courtesy of Enrique Ruiz Crespo on Flickr

Australian shipwreck diver Hugh Edwards believes he has located the wreck of the 18th century Dutch East Indiaman Aagtekerke in waters off the Abrolhos Islands in Western Australia. Lost in 1726, the Aagtekerke was en route from Africa to Batavia in the Dutch East Indies (now Jakarta, Indonesia). This isn’t the first wreck Edwards has discovered in his 50+ year diving career. In 1963, Edwards located the Dutch East Indiaman Batavia which had wrecked on its maiden voyage in 1629. Over a period of four years from 1970 – 1974, marine archaeologists worked to recover and preserve artifacts from the Batavia and they are now housed in the Western Australia Museum in Perth. The author intends to make a site visit to the museum in the near future and will post his findings when he does so. Additionally, a replica of the Batavia serves as a museum ship in Leylstad, Netherlands.

In the same year Edwards found the Batavia, he located another Dutch East Indiaman, the Zeewyck, which had sunk in 1727. In subsequent trips to the wreck site Edwards discovered several artifacts including an elephant tusk that didn’t coincide with the historical record for the Zeewyck. After nearly 50 years of piecing together various clues, Edwards has come to the conclusion that the Zeewyck and the Aagtekerke sank within 300 meters of one another and their debris field intermixed. Translated journal entries from survivors of the Zeewyck indicate that they had come across debris from another shipwreck when their own ship sank and the presence of the elephant tusk (the Aagtekerke was carrying 214 tusks and the Zeewyck none) seem to confirm his thesis.

Edwards is continuing to explore the site and is hoping to locate the ~30,000 silver coins believed to be among the Aagtekerke’s cargo. Under Australian law, any artifacts raised from the site would belong to the Australian government, however, under generally recognized principles of admiralty/salvage law, Edwards might be entitled to a salvage award for any artifacts he recovers.