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This archaeologist dives to VOC ship De Rooswijk

Martijn Manders conducts research on the sunken VOC ship De Rooswijk. Tirzah Schnater from the Ministry of Education, Culure and Science produced this impressive report of the work of this underwater archaeologist.

It is 9 January 1740 and there is a heavy storm. A ship is wrecked off the coast of England near Kent on the Goodwin Sands sandbanks. It is East Indies vessel De Rooswijk, only three years old, on its way from Texel to Batavia carrying valuable cargo: thirty boxes of silver rods and silver coins. It was an enormous blow, and not only for the VOC. The cargo also included illegal silver that was being smuggled, probably just as much as the official silver. From captain to deck hand and everything in between, everyone was out to get rich.

It is spring 2017, almost twenty years after the ship was discovered by sports diver Ken Welling and twelve years after part of the valuable cargo of the wreckage of the Rooswijk was salvaged by adventurer Rex Cowan, who had already dived on another VOC ship - 't Vliegend Hert. De Rooswijk is threatened by natural erosion,  souvenir hunters, and by sand extraction in the port of Dover, all of which accelerats the erosion process. The place where the Rooswijk is located, on Goodwin Sands, is now a heritage-at-risk site. The decision was taken to carry out a large-scale archaeological survey in the summer: a collaboration between the Government Agency for Cultural Heritage, Historic England and many other institutions.

Image of De Rooswijk. (Source: RCE)

Martijn Manders, maritime archaeologist at the State Cultural Heritage Agency, leads the project. At the beginning of October he returned from England, having spent three months on the English coast. Twenty divers worked on the wreck. In a specially equipped warehouse, another ten to twenty more people have been working on stabilising and photographing the finds. A further sixty men, including some from Historic England, are involved in other aspects of the project. And there are also 75 or so students, many of them Dutch. They include students of archaeology, but also conservation, communication and digital media.

Martijn Manders, maritime archaeologist and project leader of the excavation of VOC ship de Rooswijk. (Photo: Tirzah Schnater, ministerie van OCW)

In his time, Cowan managed to recover and sell some of the finds. Only a quarter of them were transferred to the Dutch State, which has a claim for ownership of VOC cases. Very unfortunate, in Manders' opinion, not necessarily for the financial value, but for the puzzle pieces of the story of the VOC that are difficult to fit together afterwards.

These pieces of the puzzle together make up the story of the illegal silver trade in the days of the VOC. Manders explains, 'Large-scale smuggling took place at all levels during the VOC years that the Rooswijk sank, from top to bottom in all VOC circuits. People from all over the world took part in it, and illegal trade was everywhere.

Coins found on De Rooswijk. (Photo: RCE)

For example, you gave a lot of silver in the form of Ducatons for which you received 62 stuivers (old Dutch coins) in the Netherlands and up to 100 in Asia. Just count your profit! But you could also invest that money en route, for example by buying slaves from them and selling them in Batavia. Surprisingly enough, you could make most money by selling it to the VOC, your own employer. This was often arranged via an intermediary because it was of course illegal to smuggle silver on ships. The money was reinvested in trade, which is why the VOC was able to pay so much for the silver. The profit in the Netherlands could be paid to the sailors or family members by means of bills of exchange'.

'It's like making a kind of space trip. Noise disappears and you just see small parts of the environment through your diving helmet.'  

The discoveries of the Rooswijk are therefore extremely important in the story of the VOC. They contribute to history formation, in combination with new techniques and historical research by such institutions as the Institute of Social History, among others. Manders: 'From the silver that has now been found, there is now a new technique that can be used to show which mines it came from, for example Bolivia, Honduras or Mexico. Coins with holes were also found, presumably because they were sewn into clothing. This suggests that the silver was smuggled. Then you get very close to the personal history of the people on board. Until recently, we only knew that Captain Daniel Rozieres was among the 237 people on board. Now we have once again rescued sixteen people - from officers to soldiers and ordinary sailors - from oblivion on the basis of all kinds of archive documents.

Martijn Manders during a diving mission. (Photo: RCE)

Manders sees numerous perspectives from which the finds of Rooswijk can be viewed. The tragedy of De Rooswijk, the trade between the VOC and Asia, the history of silver and the parallel economy of money smuggling . You can also tell the story from the perspective of a VOC big shot who went from deck hand to governor, something that was highly unusual at the time, but also from the perspective of a simple sailor seduced by the possibility of wealth.

All the finds are currently still in England, and are preserved under the coordination of Historic England. Because the Netherlands has the claim to the VOC property, all the finds will soon come to the Netherlands, where they will end up in the maritime depot in Lelystad. From there, museums and institutions can apply to loan the objects, which is what Manders hopes will happen.

The story of de Rooswijk, of the VOC, is for him also the story of the role played by water in the Netherlands' history. 'More than the events of WWII,  it is water that has determined how our country currently looks. We are a delta. If we give water free rein, the country would look very different. This relationship between water and man is the core of maritine archaeology. And my most important mission is to make sure that people understand the role of water; that they learn to regard water as a central issue in society, now, but also in the past.'  

Manders is one of only a dozen maritime archaeologists in the Netherlands, a small club among thirteen hundred or so 'standard' archaeologists. Underwater work is very technical, he explains. 'With your diving suit you are a kind of construction worker under the sea. His first dive was in the Waddenzee on the ‘Scheurrak SO1’, a 16th-century grain ship that sank on Christmas Eve 1593, and that was completely excavated between 1989 and 1997, although the remains of the wreck are still under watre. 'That's where I learned all the methods and techniques for diving in deeper waters.' 

Diving to a ship like De Rooswijk is like going in a time machine, Manders writes. Very different from on land, where you only have to look up to see the modern world. It's almost like making a journey in space. All sound disappears, you find yourself in a different dimension, and you only see small sections of the environment through your dive helmet. That makes it very mystical. There were days when visibility was very good, and you saw the canons standing straight up, and the big anchors lying on the sea bed. You could get a good picture of the ship and the tragedy of the disaster.

Manders is also a happy marine archaeologist, because he has heard that he can continue to dive on De Rooswijk in the spring with the rest of the team. 'Due to technical problems, we were unable to do everything this summer. We can now use the money that was left over to carry on the research. At the same time, we can evaluate what has already been raised. There is also a theory of how the ship collapsed that we want to explore further. The ship is on a sandbank, and half is still under the sand; we haven't even been there yet. Who knows what's left of it.... probably even more amazing stories.'

Copyright main image: National Cultural Heritage Agency (RCE).

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