Discovering a 17th-century Dutch warship off Eastbourne
The discovery of an anonymous shipwreck off the coast of Sussex set archaeologists on the trail of a 350-year- old mystery. Mark Beattie-Edwards reports on efforts to identify the sunken vessel and to protect its historic remains, sharing a story of bravery in battle, acts of ‘piracy’, and tragic loss of life.
For almost 20 years, skipper David Ronnan has operated his dive boat, Our W, out of Sovereign Harbour in Eastbourne. These trips were initially taken with his wife Sylvia Pryer to find and explore wrecks in local waters, and since 2004 they have made many contributions to the database of sunken vessels listed along the Sussex coastline. After Sylvia died in early 2019, Dave kept up their love of searching for new wrecks to dive – and in April of that year he accepted the challenge of investigating a magnetic anomaly found by the UK Hydrographic Office. First documented in a survey of September 2015, the unidentified lump was listed as being 35m long and 15m wide, but standing just 1.5m proud of the seabed. The shape was suggestive of a partially buried wreck, but on his initial visit to the site Dave took a charter of just two divers, on the chance of diving something or maybe diving nothing – which often happens.
Tom Stockman and Graham Owen (who is registered blind) had both dived with Dave before, though the three had never previously worked as a trio, and all were keen to investigate. As Tom (a diver since 2009) told me, ‘nine times out of ten [a new mark] turns out to be nothing important, but you do it for the tenth one’. Sure enough, he now describes this trip as one of his most memorable.
As they explored the site, the first thing that the divers noticed were several very large, deliberately shaped blocks of stone on the seabed that were clearly not natural. Where had they come from? The answer became clear as Tom and Graham swam a bit further, and came across a cluster of iron cannons – a first for Tom. These had surely come from a wreck and, after swimming along a little more, Tom’s torch suddenly picked out the turquoise green of another cannon, this time made of bronze. Tom remembers shouting out to Graham with excitement – not easy underwater – and grabbing Graham’s hand to help him feel what they had found. In total, that first dive identified five bronze cannons and at least eight of iron, and when Tom and Graham surfaced to tell Dave about what they had seen, he got on the phone to me at the Nautical Archaeology Society. Dave and I know each other of old: we have worked together for almost ten years, primarily on the Holland No.5 submarine (one of the first submarines to be commissioned by the Royal Navy, in 1903; see www.nauticalarchaeologysociety.org/holland-no5-submarine) and the Normans Bay wreck, a 17th-century warship that was also found close to Eastbourne (www.nauticalarchaeologysociety.org/normans-bay-wreck) – though at the time of Dave’s call I had just returned from my Easter holidays. I recall turning my phone back on at Heathrow Airport to find an intriguing message, saying that they had found something that I was ‘going to be interested in’. Of course, I called Dave right back, and we put together a small group of divers to assess the site with our own eyes.
In the dive that followed, I was buddied with Martin Davies from InDepth Photography. When you are 32m underwater, visibility is often not great, but on this occasion it was good enough to see the iron cannons that would explain the UK Hydrographic Office’s magnetic anomaly, as well as some of the bronze cannons and a lot of wood from the ship’s hull structure. Promisingly, it was also evident that some of the bronze cannons were marked with letters and numbers – vital clues that might help to identify the ship’s date and nationality, though it was already obvious that this was a vessel of some age. With that in mind, and with Dave’s blessing, I sent an email to Historic England, whose role it is to recommend to the Secretary of State at DCMS whether a site should be protected. They agreed, and the site was designated a Protected Wreck under the Protection of Wrecks Act (1973), with that designation coming into force on 5 July 2019 – pretty swift work for any nation’s legislature. Protected Wreck status means that access to, and work on, the site is regulated by licence, and from the beginning Dave and I were named licensees so that we could both undertake dives on the wreck and continue to gather the evidence needed to identify it. It was the start of an exciting journey, and our findings did not disappoint.
IDENTIFYING THE WRECK
Diving any wreck site at 32m requires some planning. To some people, this is not deep, but for others it is pretty demanding – and undertaking any actual work at that depth is vastly different to diving for a look around. When you have a job to do in the water, 45 minutes goes in a blink. Since 2019, we have undertaken more than 450 dives of the site, working between April and December, during which time visibility has ranged from 2m to 10m. We tend to tailor tasks to the conditions expected or experienced – there is no point trying to do a photogrammetry survey in only 2m of visibility, for example – while first-time divers are not given a specific job but are sent off with a waterproof site-plan to get their bearings and witness what a wreck looks like after 350 years in the English Channel.
Just like Tom and Graham’s first visit in Apil 2019, one of the first things people notice are still those rectangular-cut blocks of stone in the middle of the site. They are definitely man-made and, at 3.5m long, would be very heavy. Divers often ask if they were ballast to help keep the ship low in the water, but they are far too big and heavy and would have been cumbersome to move; instead, we think they were cargo.
Details from gun no.1 reveal the maker’s name (Ouderogge, indicating that the ship was made for the Admiralty of Rotterdam), and the year of manufacture: 1670. IMAGES: Cathy de Lara/Martin Davies/James Clark
The mass of cannons on the wreck is equally eye-catching, and they have proven particularly important in terms of establishing the ship’s identity. While the iron ones are all rusted and concreted (covered with corrosion), two of the bronze examples have yielded very helpful clues. Both bear the name ‘Ouderogge’, which testifies that they were made for the Admiralty of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and cannon no.6 is also marked with two crossed anchors and the initials ‘P P P’ – pro patria pugno, ‘I fight for the Fatherland’, the admiralty’s heraldic motto. Better still, one of the guns has even revealed its date of manufacture: 1670. Armed with this information, we reached out to wreck researcher and previous Deputy Receiver of Wreck, Becky Austin, and to Nico Brink, an expert in Dutch historic ordnance. These efforts swiftly bore fruit, and a likely candidate was suggested: the Klein Hollandia.
Built in Rotterdam in 1654, the Klein Hollandia was involved in all the major sea battles of the Second Anglo- Dutch War between 1665 and 1667. Unfortunately, we have no records for the ship’s construction, as the archives that were held in the Department of Navy at The Hague were destroyed by fire in 1844. What we do have, though, are two drawings of the ship, both by Van de Velde the Elder, and both held by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The ship was built using 11-inch Amsterdam feet, and it measured 133ft 10in long from stem to sternpost, 32ft 5in broad, and 13ft 3in deep in hold. In modern terms this is about 37m long by 9m wide, and in accordance with the English rating system the Klein Hollandia would have been a fourth-rate ship. Naval ratings refer to the number of guns that the vessel carried, and we know that the Klein Hollandia was listed as a 56-gun ship, though a reference from 1672 attests that it carried fewer in peacetime, at least: it was armed with only 44 at the time of its loss.
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