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‘A rare and historical find’ archaeologist discovers 17th-century shipwreck in Tobago

Published: 
Sunday, November 9, 2014

A rare and historical find. That’s how Transport Minister Stephen Cadiz has described the recent discovery of the remains of a 17th-century Dutch ship, the Huis de Kreuningen, in Tobago.
The find, believed to be the ruins of the 1677 ship, was discovered during the July-August period in the Scarborough Harbour by University of Connecticut professor and maritime archaeologist Kroum Batchvarov. Huis de Kreuningen went to her watery grave on March 3, 1677.

Batchvarov, assistant professor of maritime archaeology in UConn’s Department of Anthropology, is an internationally known researcher specialising in 17th-century ship building and maritime archaeology. He is leading a multi-phased investigation to find and study the remains of 16 vessels that were sunk in a fierce battle that took place between the invading French and the Dutch in the harbour.

The sea battle, which was for control of the island, resulted in the loss of 2,000 people, including 250 Dutch women and children, and 300 African slaves. The story was published on October 21, on the Web site http://today.uconn.edu/blog/2014/10/uconn-archaeologist-discovers-17th-c... this year, Batchvarov and his team began a remote sensing survey in the harbour and picked up some promising signals. Batchvarov said although his team did not find the ship’s hull structure intact, they found cultural material that dates to the third quarter of the 17th century,  including seven or eight canons, delft and bellarmine pottery jars, lead shot that was never fired, dozens of Dutch tobacco pipes, and bricks that perfectly match the standard dimensions for bricks made in the Dutch city of Leiden in 1647. “To find what we believe to be the Huis de Kreuningen—almost by accident, as she was outside the boundaries where we expected to find her—undiscovered and untouched for over 300 years was an exciting moment,” Batchvarov said.

The find is a significant source of information for the maritime history of the period. “Although we have some written records of the battle itself, we possess no detailed plans of 17th-century warships. So our only sources of information about the ships of the day are the wrecks themselves. It isn’t an overstatement to say that what has been discovered is a treasure trove for archaeological researchers,” Batchvarov said. The Huis de Kreuningen, though the largest in the Dutch fleet at 39.6 metres long and 9.62 metres in breadth, was only about three quarters of the size of her French foe, the much newer and better armed Glorieux. In addition to the Huis de Kreuningen, which was the largest ship in the Dutch fleet, the Glorieux, the flagship of French Vice Admiral Comte D’Estrée, was also sunk and all but 80 of the 450 men aboard were lost.

With only 56 guns to her opponent’s 72, and with a crew of 129 instead of her full complement of 290 sailors aboard, existing records of the battle report that Huis de Kreuningen put up a valiant fight until her captain, Roemer Vlacq, either cut her anchor cables so she would run aground, or set her afire—accounts vary—in order to avoid capture. In the end, the Dutch lost more vessels, but they succeeded in repelling the French landing party and retained possession of the island. Permission to excavate the shipwrecks in and around the harbour has been granted by the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) to the Rockley Bay Research Project (RBRP), which is supported by the University of Connecticut and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology of the United States. The project works closely with the Tobago Division of Tourism in documenting and protecting this important cultural material. Recently, the RBRP was awarded the prestigious Ambassadors Cultural Preservation Fund grant by the US State Department to help with the cost of conservation of the material and local capacity-building in conservation.

Another benefit of the project is the opportunity it provides for students to participate in Batchvarov’s ongoing research. Students enrolled in maritime studies at UConn’s Avery Point campus, the only undergraduate programme in the country with a maritime archaeology minor, have a singular opportunity. Artefacts and other items found in the shipwrecks are the property of Tobago and will eventually be displayed there. Excavation is expected to take three to five years.

Cadiz: Full support for project
On Friday, Cadiz said there were multiple shipwrecks in the sea bed of the harbour. “We don’t see the wrecks posing any issue for us with regard to the normal use of the harbour. We fully support what the team is doing in Tobago,” he said.  Cadiz said to map out the wrecks will take some time. “Once the area is properly mapped out they can determine the exact condition of the wrecks and a further determination would have to be made.”

Cadiz said the Port Authority, THA, and the university’s team are working together to ensure “we do this thing the right way. We know what our responsibilities are. There would not be any crazy work going on in the harbour. It is all going to be properly evaluated and structured.” He described the 17th-century wreck as “one of a kind.” In the not too distant future,  the harbour will have to be dredged to facilitate cruise liners, Cadiz said, so “We would have to do further surveys before we dredge.” However, Cadiz said one particular wreck fell within the path of dredging works. “We need to determine what that one wreck consists of. We see something there, but we don’t know exactly what it is. The beauty of the wrecks is as a result of the ongoing sea battle. So there are multiple wrecks on the sea bed in Scarborough...This is a historical find...a rare find that has the potential to put Tobago on the world map.” He said the battle for Tobago between the Dutch and French would always garner keen interest.  Through the Ministry of Tourism, Cadiz said “a fair chunk of money was given” towards the project. A message was left on THA Chief Secretary Orville London’s cell phone, but he did not return the call.