Mystery of the vanishing Dutchman
WITH THE MID-DAY SUN high in the sky, light levels and vis at such a shallow depth could not have been better.
My American girlfriend and dive partner Kiersten Mottl was close by my side as we worked our way through the wreckage spread across the rocky reef.
A hint of gold had caught her eye and raised her excitement level. According to records of lost ships along the African coast, the wreck at this site could possibly have been carrying gold. Although we weren’t treasure-hunting, it was an exciting prospect.
A clear buzzing in Kiersten’s earphones from the Garrett underwater metal detector had signalled a promising lead beneath the seabed. As she dug in the sand, the bright sunlight revealed a beautiful gold ring, possibly a signet ring of some description belonging to one of the ship’s officers.
Could we determine the name of this ship lost to history, and what exactly she was carrying when she sank
WE HAD TRAVELLED TO Africa’s west coast and Sierra Leone, a country that rarely crops up on divers’ radar. This was to be an expedition the likes of which I had never experienced before – the chance to base myself on a remote jungle island with a group of international divers, and explore a shipwreck much older than I had ever experienced.
During the surface interval, Kiersten and I made plans for our second dive as we changed cylinders. The wreck lay only 10m below us and extremely close to the shore, and we couldn’t wait to get back in the water.
Could this have been a heavily armed slave ship, wrecked in a storm This part of Africa was well-known as a slave-trading location and we were close to the town of Kent, in which
the remains of slave-trading compounds and holding buildings were still evident.
We rolled over the side of the small banana boat for our second dive. Our task was to search in and among the rocks of the shallow reef for any signs of porcelain, other cargo or anything that would give us a clue as to why the ship met her end on the western
tip of Banana Island.
Previous dives on the site had already recorded 29 large cannon and five large anchors, so this was no small ship. Towards its south-western end lay an extensive area of fragments of porcelain from the Kang Shi dynasty, most probably a stern cargo area located in the lower hold.
We made our way to where several cannon were located at the stern, checking under every rock as we went. With several resident moray eels spotted, care had to be taken when feeling under rocks, so it became easier to move each one as a team.
Our average dives would last about an hour with no deco time; visibility was good and working as a team made the dives easier.
The first two weeks of the expedition had been spent recording and making a non-intrusive analysis of the site. Kiersten and fellow-American Mark “Sharky” Alexander, also from Missouri, worked with me to set up an archaeological grid system so that we could photograph systematically. We wanted to produce a photo-mosaic of the entire site.
Thirty-five grids were prepared and left in overnight so that the following day’s work could be continued without confusion.
SO HOW EXACTLY HAD MY AFRICAN adventure begun The previous year I had received a phone call from a good friend, Polish diver Peter Wytykowski, and was asked to join the expedition he was leading. “It’s not deep,” he had said, “but logistically it will be quite challenging.”
Peter had organised a previous expedition to the island with his Polish colleagues to investigate the site.Now he wanted to return with another team.
He had originally heard about the wreck from a Greek diver called Greg Delichristos, who had set up a small dive location on Banana Island during his travels across Africa, and had dived the site.
We knew that there were a number of cannon, anchors and fragments of porcelain on the site, and began researching the manufacture of English and Swedish cannon from around 1720 to see if that might offer any clues.
Peter told me that all I would need was a wetsuit and a stab jacket, but where was the trusty, bullet-proof Buddy Commando BC that had seen me through the 1980s when I needed it
It had been years since I had dived with a standard scuba rig rather than a closed-circuit rebreather, and I needed to make sure that I had suitable equipment for such shallow dives.
My O’Three shortie was still in Truk and my regulators were all set up for side-slung cylinders for deep wreck dives. It was back to the drawing board and in some respects like starting diving all over again!
In the months leading up to the expedition plenty of preparation was necessary for all the team-members in their respective countries. Sierra Leone is subject to serious health issues, as seen since we got back this summer with the Ebola outbreak there. So many painful injections and weeks of prescribed tablets were required.
We finally arrived in the capital city of Freetown, which is an experience in itself. We spent several days navigating its bustling streets in search of the supplies that would be needed on remote Banana Island, because Greg was not set up to cater for an expedition like ours.
We planned among other things to build our own airlift to excavate the seabed below the rock reef, so would need compressors not only to fill our cylinders daily but also to drive any such lift from a surface dive-boat.
Any equipment we had not brought from home or bought in Freetown we would have to build or make.
SIERRA LEONE IS ONE of the poorest countries in the world. It’s best known to many from the film Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and telling the story of the corrupt diamond trade set against the backdrop of the civil war that ended in 2002.
Electricity comes from private generators, and at night the whole country is wreathed in darkness. Medical care is a privilege few enjoy, and life expectancy is around 43. The people are, however, extremely friendly and dignified.
To undertake a full archaeological analysis of the wreck-site and recover artefacts for further scientific investigation, full permission was required. The team had an expedition permit to work from the Monuments & Relics Commission, a Sierra Leone Tourism & Culture department.
During our stay it would be necessary to travel back to the capital periodically to brief government officials on the expedition’s progress. Artefacts recovered and not deemed necessary for further scientific analysis would be donated to the Museum of Sierra Leone for conservation and display.
Receiving permissions pre-arrival in Africa had meant a long drawn-out process of paperwork and correspondence, yet gaining permission from the government was easy compared to gaining that of the island’s tribal chief. It was clear that he wasn’t pleased for us to be there. Neither was he pleased that the Monuments & Relics Commission had granted us permission without asking him first.
It had taken another day for things to be smoothed out and the team made to feel welcome. After all, this was Africa!
The island consisted mainly of jungle, and the only barrier at night between us and the unwelcome touch of a spider or scorpion was a mosquito net over a bed.
Following one dive I returned to base camp to see billows of smoke from my bamboo jungle hut. In a state of panic, I soon discovered this to be a proven method of flushing out the 2m cobra that villagers had seen slithering into my bedroom!
The wreck-site was a 45-minute boat ride from the camp but everything was done at African speed, which of course does come with a degree of rhythm and style. “TIA” was the acronym we kept in our heads – This Is Africa.
Diving continued on the site for almost three weeks, with hundreds of images taken and all the cannon fully documented. Having received expert advice prior to the expedition, Peter and his dive partner Robert Gluchowski were able carefully to remove coral and marine growth from one gun and reveal markings on the trunnions to help with dating and manufacturer identification.
One marking discovered was an F – most likely for Finspong, a Swedish gun-maker but within a Dutch context.
The De Geers, a family of Flemish-Dutch origin, ran Finspong, the single biggest supplier of cannon for the Dutch market. Its customers included the VOC (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie or, in English, the Dutch East Indian Company), which was set up in 1602. Our wreck was most likely a VOC ship.
My knowledge of ships of this vintage, especially those with cannon, had been limited, but the more I investigated the site, the more I learned.
WE DISCOVERED SEVERAL fixtures that helped to expand our knowledge, one example being “coaks”, the bronze bearing bushes fixed in the centre of wooden sheaves or pulley-wheels to reduce wear.
These coaks rotated on an iron pin, and their octagonal shape meant that they couldn’t work loose within the sheave, while the lugs with holes on each side allowed them to be fixed in place.
These fixtures were common finds on 18th century VOC ships, and identical examples had been discovered on the Adelaar (1728) wrecked off western Scotland, the Zeewyk (1727) lost off Western Australia, and the Hollandia (1743), wrecked on the Scilly Isles.
Sadly, our expedition yielded no such solid evidence of the vessel’s name. Positive identification of a ship of this vintage is difficult but we hope that continued research deep into the archives will help, or perhaps a follow-up expedition will reveal that elusive clue.
The way in which the vessel lies on the reef indicates that it most probably came close to the island with stern to the west, possibly to shelter from a ferocious storm, and was pushed onto the reef by high seas.
The positions of the cannon and anchors indicate that the port hull was almost level alongside the shore, and the location of porcelain and other fragments of cargo suggest that the keel was in slightly deeper water, but almost touching the reef.
Whether or not any of the crew survived remains a mystery, though being so close to shore it is likely that they did. How long these sailors would have survived in the jungle 300 years ago is anyone’s guess, particularly in a part of the world known to be a slaving location, where they would have been regarded as the enemy.
Porcelain recovered from below the seabed using the airlift has made a more precise indication of the date of this mystery shipwreck possible. Ceramics specialists dated the porcelain to between 1725 and 1750.
We are still waiting for detailed porcelain reports and chemical analysis of metal samples, although the results of these will perhaps do no more than confirm existing findings.
If this was a Dutch East India Company ship that sank in the second quarter of the 18th century, according to Dutch-Asiatic Shipping in the 17th & 18th Centuries only two ships fit the description in this location – the s-Graveland, which left Cape Town on 18 June, 1729, and the Abbekerk, which left the same port on 12 June.
Neither ship reached its destination, but what happened to them has always been a mystery.
After two years of research, the team is now on the border of certainty that one of these vessels found its resting place on the western tip of Banana Island in Sierra Leone. But which of these vanishing Dutchmen was it