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Monday, 24 January 2005
 

DEATH OF AN EAST INDIAMAN

In 1748, the Verenige Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) was the largest trading company in the world. Although it was destined to lose that supremacy in the years to come, the company then owned six shipyards, at Hoorn, Enkhuizen, Delft, Rotterdam, Middleburg and Amsterdam. 

In March of that year, the Amsterdam yard launched an east Indiaman, the twentieth to be built in six years, naming her after her home town.

 

Up to the early 1740s Dutch ships had tended to be produced to a master shipwright’s instinct, rather than from actual designs. The shipwright would be given basic details to work on – the number of guns in the case of a warship or the required carrying capacity for a cargo boat – and it was up to him to build a ship of any length/beam ratio he wanted, as long as these fundamental requirements were met.

In 1745, the VOC decided that their ships should be standardized and commissioned an Englishman, Charles Bentam, to make drawings and construction models. Henceforth, the largest VOC ships were to be 140 ft (42.5m) long and 38ft (11.5m) beam. Amsterdam was the twentieth ship to be built to Bentam’s drawings.

It took about 18 months to build an East Indiaman, leaching the timber by immersing it in water for six months, and then allowing it to dry for three months. The VOC’s Amsterdam yard employed more than one thousand men, so building the basic hull did not take long. Less than another three months went by before Amsterdam was afloat and being finished off, moored securely between pilings.

In October 1748, thirty three year old captain William Klump and a skeleton crew took the Dutch East India Company’s newest merchant ship to sea. The 43 metre Amsterdam headed first for the island of Texel for, in those days, the port of Amsterdam was inaccessible to heavily laden, large ships. Her main crew and cargo had to be brought to her in smaller boats, after she had crossed the Pampus sandbar, obstructing the passage from the Zuyderzee.

Off Texel, Amsterdam took on 230 seamen, 127 soldiers and 5 passengers. The crew of an East Indiaman was always much larger than required, when it set off for Java, because of the expected high mortality rate.

Crews were signed on from among the poorest classes and were often sickly and undernourished men who couldn’t stand the rigours of the long months at sea. Homeward bound vessels were crewed by hardened men, whose stay in the East had made them immune to many diseases, so a ship only took on about half the number engaged for an outward voyage.

Amsterdam was heavily armed with twenty 12 inch cannons to protect her against possible enemy attack. Who that enemy might be was not known for, in those days, petty incidents could spark major wars and, in the 17 th century, some bloody battles were fought because the English and Dutch couldn’t agree about whose ships should be first to dip their ensigns!

For ballast, on her journey to Asia, Amsterdam would have loaded building stone, cannons for forts and anchors for company ships stationed in Asia. Then French and German wines would have been put in the vast hold, together with European textiles and consumer goods for the Asian settlement – copper pans, seamen’s clothing, paper, tools etc. To ensure that not a single bit of space was unused small items, such as nails, would have been scattered amongst the rest of the cargo.

Apart from two brief, unsuccessful attempts at getting through the English Channel, Amsterdam remained in the Texel road-stead for almost three months, stormbound by persistent and ferocious south-westerly gales. On January 8, 1749, the wind changed and, in company with five other ships, Amsterdam set sail for Batavia.

Less than three weeks later, this great East Indiaman lay wrecked in the mud.

The troubles, which led up to, this tragic end began just after Amsterdam left Texel, when a virulent fever broke out on board. Every East Indiaman carried a so-called ‘surgeon’ but no formal medical qualifications were required in this post. Applicants merely had to attend a company interview and convince their future employer that they would be able to pull teeth and hand out medicines for dysentery and other common shipboard ailments. Amsterdam’s surgeon had no weapons to fight the mysterious illness, which was swept quickly through the crew.

It was the weather which struck the next blow when, driven off course by increasingly strong winds, Amsterdam lost her rudder on a sandbank. This in itself was not a disaster, for a square rigger can be steered by its sails, the problem was that soon Amsterdam might not have enough crew to sail her, for forty bodies had already been flung in the sea and fifty more men were close to death. Captain Klump decided that he must find a safe anchorage and wait until the winds became favourable and he could return to Holland for repairs and a new crew. He decided that Hastings was the nearest safe anchorage.

Alas, instead of abating the wind blew even stronger whilst Amsterdam lay at anchor off Hastings and the mortality rate from the fever also increased. Company rules required regular airing of bedding, disinfection by smoking with gun powder and juniper berries, followed by the sprinkling of vinegar but such measures were impossible on the storm tossed Amsterdam. The ventilators had to remain closed and only fresh air below came from sailcloth bellows, which crew members took turns to pump.

Gales presented no terror to the East Indiaman for her seasoned oak timbers, hardened by their prolonged immersion in water, formed a immensely strong frame. Nevertheless, as Amsterdam lay under bare poles, battered by raging seas, William Klump became increasingly anxious about her safety. She had no power winches, or other modern aids, to trim her vast spread of canvas, and so many of her crew had been struck down by the unidentified virus that, even if the wind died away, it would be difficult to get her back home.

By Sunday, January 2 , Amsterdam’s sickbay had long been crammed to capacity and, now, dying men lay in their own hammocks. Sickness and diarrhoea, combined with lack of fresh air, turned her main deck into a stinking pit. The spring tides had come and, with them, even more violent winds and captain Klump decided that he must beach the East Indiaman, whilst he still had sufficient crew to sail her onto the shore.

A small spread of canvas was hoisted and at high water the ship touched the bottom then, as the tide went out, the sick crew members were lowered from the upper deck to the mud, many metres below. Silver ducattons, carried to pay for goods purchased in Asia, were also lowered down and taken safely ashore, but before the rest of her cargo could be saved the ship was trapped be the mud and the incoming tide engulfed her.

Salvage attempts were unsuccessful and, on March 11, one year after her launching. The Dutch East India Company officially declared Amsterdam to be a total loss.

Going Dutch?

Every now and then, a combination of a particular shift in the sands and an exceptionally low tide reveals Amsterdam’s upperworks and a group of English and Dutch enthusiasts have formed a Foundation and organized several explorations of the wreck.

Sandy mud has filled the hull and protected not just the ship’s timbers but also the cargo. It appears that Amsterdam is remarkably well preserved and still packed with goods loaded over two hundred and fifty years ago. A few items have already been recovered including pewter plates, lead wrapped barrels, ointment jars and, most exciting of all, more than 200 onion shaped bottles of French wine. This proved to be a Montbazillac and news of the discovery caused great excitement among Bergerac’s viticulteurs. Growers and tasters from the region promptly traveled to Holland where, at a gala dinner, they pronounced the ancient vintage to be ‘sublime’.

Such exciting discoveries fired the Foundation with even more enthusiasm and, after favourable reports from Dutch Salvage experts Smit Tak international, they formulated a plan to salvage the East Indiaman and take her back to her home port.

The plan hinges on being able to tow the excavated ship, underwater, to Amsterdam and house her in a unique museum on the banks of the river Ij. The museum would highlight the cultural and economic importance of the Dutch East India Company and the role of the city of Amsterdam in global trade. The focal point would be a transparent basin, housing the salvaged vessel. It would be a massive project, costing in excess of €30,000,000 and would add a new dimension to other displays of recovered historic wrecks.

Amsterdam must be the most perfectly preserved great sailing vessel yet discovered and the only one with a virtually intact eighteenth century cargo. If the Ij museum were to be created, the exploration and excavation of that cargo would be carried out in the transparent basin, allowing visitors to share for the first time the diver’s thrill at discovering a long buried relic.

Marian Martin

A full size replica of the 18th century East Indiaman Amsterdam lies at the Maritime Museum, Katenburgerplein 1, Amsterdam, Holland. Photographs in this article have been supplied by the museum and Amsterdam foundation.

Last Updated ( Monday, 24 January 2005 )
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