In the late 18th Century the Dutch East India Company, or VOC as it was known, was one of the most powerful commercial companies across the globe. It had its own fleet, territory and soldiers to protect its interests around the world.
Built in 1737, the Rooswijk set sail from Amsterdam at the end of December 1739, destination Batavia (now Jakarta). Laden with 4lb silver bars minted in Mexico, sheets of copper, slabs of stone and passengers, her crew also smuggled their own smaller supplies of silver currency, often sewn into their clothing for safekeeping, to be exchanged for their own personal profit. Apart from being used for trading purposes, actually selling the silver for its own worth was a rewarding business in itself and one that was tolerated by the VOC on account of the mutual benefits to both the company and the sailors’ families.
The first indication that something had happened to the Rooswijk was when a chest full of letters was washed ashore at Deal in January 1740. It soon transpired that the tough East Indiaman had been driven on to the Goodwin Sands by strong easterly winds, just one day into her eight-month voyage to Indonesia. None of her 237 crew or passengers survived.
In the late 1990s local diver and researcher, Ken Welling conducted magnetometer surveys to locate the wreck. The surveys revealed several large magnetic targets spread over a wide area. These targets were ground-truthed in 1999 and Ken initially found that there were two sites with evidence of heavy cargo, guns and several anchors.
There was little evidence of structure as the sites were predominantly buried. Ken had to wait until 2004 for the sands to shift and reveal further guns, structure and a large conglomerate of wooden chests containing silver ingots. The ingots were marked with AVOC, standing for Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company), the chamber of Amsterdam confirming that this was the wreck of the Rooswijk.
This detection was initially kept quiet to enable the safe recovery of the silver bullion, which was subsequently handed over to the Dutch Government who had inherited the assets of the VOC and artefacts were handed to the Maritime Museum in Vlissingen.
In 2015 the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency approached Historic England to suggest a combined diving operation to further investigate the wreck. Surveys and dives took place in 2016, 2017 and 2018 when over 1,000 artefacts were retrieved, given first aid and put on temporary display at a warehouse in Ramsgate. These included muskets, ebony knife handles, swords and scabbards, cutlasses, a ‘concretion’ of cannonballs, pewter dinner plates, leather shoe soles, wine bottles, brass candlesticks and a copper cauldron.
A geophysical survey in 2017 identified a scatter of guns 300m away from the first site, which divers confirmed through ground-truthing. The sizes of guns are consistent with those found on the main site and are thought to have also come from the Rooswijk. The whole site is archaeologically interesting because it provides evidence of the large scale of trade between the Netherlands and Asia in the 18th century.
The Rooswijk is currently one of three shipwrecks on Historic England’s Heritage At Risk Register (HAR); the other two are HMS Northumberland, which also lies in the Goodwin Sands and HMS London, situated just 50m from the principal shipping lane in the River Thame
s. Wrecks on the HAR register are regularly surveyed and assessed so that preservation management plans can be put in place.
A wealth of information about the discovery, excavation, recovery and display of the Rooswijjk artefacts can be found at www.msdsmarine.com.
Historic England has funded the creation of a fascinating Virtual Dive Trail of the Rooswijk. This trail features archival evidence, geophysical surveys, underwater photos and footage and cutting edge computer generated imagery. The tour takes viewers through the archaeological process from discovery to post-excavation.