Excavating a Dutch East India Company merchantman

A Dutch and British team are excavating the site of the Rooswijk, a fully laden Dutch East India Company (VOC) merchantman on route to the East Indies.

In the 18th century, the Dutch East India Company (or VOC, as it was known in the Netherlands) was one of the most powerful companies on the planet. This mighty mercantile enterprise had its own fleet, territory, and soldiers to protect its holdings. Now exploration of the wreck of a fully laden VOC merchantman bound for the East Indies is providing a glimpse of how this state within a state prospered. Martijn Manders, Alison James, Angela Middleton, and Dan Pascoe told Matthew Symonds about the dawn of a global world.

In January 1740, a chest full of letters washed up on the shore of Deal, in Kent. It provided the first clue that a tragedy had unfolded offshore on the Goodwin Sands. This labyrinth of submerged sandbanks had claimed a heavily laden VOC merchantman, the Rooswijk, just one day into a six- to eight-month voyage from the Texel Roads, in the Netherlands, to Jakarta, in the East Indies. In the event, those letters proved to be the last voices ever heard from the ship. The stricken vessel broke apart with no survivors, condemning 237 crew and an unknown number of passengers to death. Poor weather prevented any search for survivors or salvage until the spring. When the conditions finally calmed, all visible traces of the wreckage had been erased. By then, the remnants of the Rooswijk were lost among the thousands of vessels populating this notorious ships’ graveyard.

A wooden rigging block from the Rooswijk. (Image: M Symonds)

There, matters rested until the 1990s, when a recreational diver found old chests resting on the Goodwin Sands at a depth of 26m below sea level. Stashed inside some were silver ingots, which ultimately proved to be from the Rooswijk. As well as illustrating how the ever-shifting Goodwin Sands could rear up to rip the belly out of a ship in 1740, before receding far from harm’s way today, the reappearance of the Rooswijk posed a problem. The wooden elements of the wreck were safe while they were cocooned within the sand, but exposure placed them at the mercy of wood-boring creatures. Although the Goodwin Sands lie in British territorial waters, the Netherlands claims ownership of all VOC wrecks. When the Rooswijk was added to the Wrecks at Risk register, Historic England and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands decided to mount a joint project undertaking the first extensive archaeological investigation of a VOC vessel. The results are illuminating the enterprising zeal of a company and crew that were on the make in a new world of global commerce.

A new world

‘The story of the Rooswijk is the story of silver’, says Martijn Manders, Maritime Heritage Programme Manager at the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands and project leader of the Rooswijk project. ‘The VOC was ferrying silver to the East Indies, where there were no silver mines, so that they could buy exotic goods. Because there was no local supply, there was always a lack of silver, and because there was always a lack of silver that gave it a special value. Put simply, silver was worth more in the East Indies than in the Netherlands. That meant you could make a profit simply by buying silver in the Netherlands and selling it in the East Indies. It created a big opportunity, and as a result there was both official silver being transported by the VOC on board the Rooswijk, and illegal silver that was being smuggled by the passengers and crew.’

The Dutch East India Company had its own soldiers to protect its interests, a point reinforced by this musket firing plate, which bears the VOC emblem. (Image: M Symonds)

‘It was a crazy situation. People were smuggling silver in shoes and belts – probably to hide it from their fellow sailors more than anything – and we think that by the time the Rooswijk went down maybe half of the money being transported on these ships was illegal. Once in the East Indies, crew and passengers employed by the VOC would sell the smuggled silver to the VOC through a middleman at East Indies prices. The VOC would then use the silver to buy spices and porcelain, which became even more valuable when they were traded back to the Netherlands. Used this way, the value of the smuggled silver almost doubled, allowing both the smugglers and the company to make money from it. For a long time, the VOC tolerated the smuggling because of the mutual benefits, and even wrote letters that could be sent back to the Netherlands, allowing the smugglers’ families to collect the profits. Foreign sailors would sign on and take money from an entire community to exchange. It reached a stage where the skipper of a vessel would set up an office in the Netherlands, so that people could take him silver to sell overseas. He’d then give them a receipt, creating an official paper trail for illegally smuggled money!’

Rather than the scuba divers often popularly associated with underwater exploration today, the Rooswijk archaeologists are tethered to the survey ship – the Terschelling – by ‘umbilical cords’ that supply them with oxygen. (Image: Historic England)

‘Until now, our sources for all of this have mostly been archive, but excavating the Rooswijk allows us to test these accounts. If we’re finding lots of identical coins in chests, it’s going to be official cargo, but little caches of lots of different types of currency will be smuggled. This is our chance to take an objective look at the past and find out what the real practice was.’ So far, two types of coinage have been found at the wreck site, and the difference between them is a product of the search for new ways to grease the wheels of global exchange. The first are examples of the legendary ‘pieces of eight’, which had been minted in Mexico to a recognised standard weight, making them perfect for international trade. Like modern coins these had an accepted face value, so they were very user-friendly. The other coins on board were older, far more roughly cut issues, which had to be weighed to establish how much they were worth, making them less convenient to use.

This intact glass onion bottle still has its cork stopper in place. (Image: M Symonds)

Of course, the Rooswijk was not just carrying silver. Indeed, the rules of supply and demand that made silver such a sound investment also applied to other metals. Although the opportunities to turn a profit were less dramatic, the absence of local sources of copper and iron meant that shipping them out would also pay off. Even sailors who surreptitiously scooped up a pocket full of nails at the shipyard might be able to barter them for a handful of peppercorns. Sure enough, sheet metal and a suspicious quantity of copper pots and pans were being transported on the Rooswijk. Sharing space with the various metals in the hold were enough glass onion bottles brimming with wine to stock an enviable cellar. One has survived its centuries in the sand with the cork still intact, meaning that its contents could be syringed out and sampled – or at least studied. Investigation of other wrecked VOC vessels has revealed that the ornate ashlar stone gateways for fortifications could be transported in pieces like monumental flat-pack furniture. The presence of substantial stone blocks on the seabed where the Rooswijk foundered could suggest that it, too, carried prefabricated architecture.

This is an extract from the full article in featured in issue 86 of Current World Archaeology. Click here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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