Dutch ships that have slept on the seabed of the Scarborough Harbour for more than four centuries will soon be brought to the surface, now that the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) has given the green light to a project by the University of Connecticut and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology of the United States.
"Now the real work must begin," says Dr Kroum Batchvarov, assistant professor of maritime archaeology at the University of Connecticut, who will lead the project in Tobago. His team is expected to begin preliminary work in June. Batchvarov's interest in Tobago is simply because of the wrecks themselves. He has already secured the location of three Dutch wrecks from 17th-century battles in the Scarborough harbour area, but believes that there are more.
"This was a very important period in history and the Dutch were believed to be the leaders of shipbuilding at that time," he says. Now that he has been given the approval, what next? A trip to Tobago in June with a large team will kick-start the project with preliminary work, which will include further confirmation of the wrecks' location and surveying of the wrecks to establish their size as well as the size of the site.
"The archaeological season for 2012 has already begun, so the availability of manpower needs to be assessed as many other projects are underway." The real work will begin in 2013. "The material that will be recovered will be exceptional, and a very compelling tale can be built from what is discovered," he added.
"These were dynamic centuries and the Dutch were the best shipwrights at that time. No ships from this period have been studied before and we are hoping to draw conclusions with reference to the coherent structure of the ships themselves."
Batchvarov, who specialises in 17th-century ship construction, is known for his work on Sweden's Vasa, which is now housed in its own museum, and attracts over a million visitors a year.
"The Vasa is the longest-maintained shipwreck and its museum is hugely successful." He also worked on the Warwick Project in Bermuda (the 2011 excavation of the mid section of the hull of the merchant ship Warwick belonging to Sir Robert Rich, the Earl of Warwick which sank in October 1619, when a devastating hurricane wreaked havoc on the islands of Bermuda).
Massive undertaking for Tobago
He believes this is a massive undertaking for Tobago and "has the potential to be the leader in underwater cultural resource management and protection in the entire Caribbean". "The easy part will be raising the wrecks; it's their maintenance that is an intricate process."
Wrecks that are surfaced need to be kept wet, to prevent the timber from collapsing. The ships' wood will be completely waterlogged and will need to be sprayed with chemical agents to replace the water and bulk up the cells. "The Vasa, for instance, had to be sprayed constantly for almost 12 years and kept in a building where the temperature was kept constant at 16 degrees Celsius all year round," Batchvarov explained.
As for funding, Batchvarov confirmed that many organisations have expressed interest in the project, including National Geographic. Confirmed funders include the Global Exploration and Oceanic Society, whose president, Jason Paterniti, accompanied Batchvarov to Tobago earlier this year and will return with the team for the preliminary survey in June.
He sees great material coming out of this project, including books, articles and documentaries. Everything will be recorded in databases, no matter how small the item, and "everything is the property of Tobago." Batchvarov is very excited to begin his work in Tobago.
"I do hope that I can at least minimally contribute to Tobago. I loved Tobago. I have been down there three times now-twice in 2007, once early this year-but have not seen a tenth of what I would like to see. "Everywhere (that I went) I was met with great kindness, generosity and friendliness.
I appreciate it. Tobago is doing a very good job of preserving its history. The Trust members that I met are very wise people, who really know what is in the interest of the island and want to preserve it. They know and understand what a cultural treasure they have."