Wednesday, December 14, 2005

 

Holland gets its sunken treasure back

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The Age
By David Keys
December 13, 2005

Ingots lost at sea 266 years ago have been recovered from a wreck in the English Channel.

THE DUTCH Government has started taking possession of tens of thousands of dollars worth of silver bullion that it last saw 266 years ago.

The silver had been on a Dutch East India Co. ship that vanished in a storm in the English Channel in 1739.

Although wreckage was found at the time on Britain's south coast, nobody knew precisely where it had sunk. The disaster meant that the Dutch East India Co. lost around 250 crew and soldiers, and a large silver treasure, which was on the way to the East Indies to be converted into local coinage.

Despite the disappearance of the ship, the Rooswijk, the lost vessel and its treasure remained the property of the Dutch East India Co. When the company was taken over by the Dutch government in 1798, the Netherlands became the legal owners of the vanished bullion.

Last year a British sports diver — Cambridgeshire carpenter Ken Welling — found the wreckage.

The Dutch Government was contacted, and the discovery was kept secret until this week, when Holland's Finance Minister, Joop Wijn, took possession of original wooden chests full of bullion.

The silver was handed over at a ceremony in Plymouth Harbour aboard a frigate of the Royal Dutch Navy, the De Ruyter.

The loss of the Rooswijk in December 1739 was a financial disaster for the Dutch East India Co. and for Holland as a whole, as well as being a catastrophe in human terms.

There were no survivors, and the world learned of the disaster because English fishermen, looking for potentially valuable storm debris found a wooden chest full of letters that identified the ship as the Rooswijk.

It had sank just a day after sailing from the Dutch coastal island of Texel.

Underwater excavations have recovered all the silver bullion, and more than a thousand artefacts. Other cargo seem to have included substantial quantities of sheet copper, sabre blades and masonry, presumably for some construction project in the Dutch East Indies.

Evidence of life on board was found in layers that reflected the vessel's social and architectural stratification.

When some time after the disaster the floor timbers had collapsed, the contents of each deck had simply fallen on top of one another.

All the silver had been stored near the officer's dining area. The archaeologists knew how much they were looking for because the Dutch Government still has precise records of what was lost.

The silver — mainly in 1.9-kilogram bars — had all been mined in Spanish-ruled Mexico.

Originally it had been carried by Spanish vessels from Mexico to Cadiz.

It had then been sold to the Dutch and shipped to Holland, where it had been melted down and converted into silver bars bearing the imprint of the Amsterdam Chamber of the Dutch East India Co. The "re-branded" treasure was then loaded onto the Rooswijk, bound for Batavia — modern Jakarta.

There, some of it would have been converted into Javanese currency, while much would have been shipped to Siam (modern Thailand) or Bengal to be converted into local coinage.

Before yesterday's handover to the Dutch, a full archaeological study has been carried out into the hundreds of bars recovered. Most were still in their original wooden chests.

The discovery of so many silver bars complete with "packaging" is unique, and is helping archaeologists understand the scale and nature of the 18th-century international bullion trade, which financially underpinned most of the European colonial ventures of that time.

"This discovery is unique," said marine archaeologist Alex Hildredas. "It has provided a near complete assemblage of silver ingots cast for a single voyage, and would have been melted down to produce coinage if the vessel had not sunk."


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