An account of its loss in 1740 on the Goodwin Sands
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Goodwin Sands Silver
By David Chamberlain
The Rooswijk foundering off the Goodwins
Captain Daniel Ronzieres was not overtly distrustful; he was merely obeying company rules as the boxes, containing thousands of silver bars, were stowed neatly and securely in his cabin. Along with the bullion, over 36,000 silver coins in similar boxes joined the hoard. As each chest was being checked against the manifest the rest of the less valuable cargo was being loaded into the holds of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) ship Rooswijk.
The Dutch port of Texel had been busy with other VOC ships, although the three-year-old Rooswijk was deemed to be the largest. Most of the cargo that was being stowed below her decks was mundane. Sheet copper, masonry blocks, cases of sabres and other weapons were being taken to establish and maintain the forces and buildings in the Dutch East Indies Company headquarters at Batavia, South East Asia.
In that year of 1740 it seemed that the eastern continent had no need for European goods. However, their spices, porcelain and silks were in demand and fetched excellent prices. It was because of these circumstances that the VOC ships had to carry vast amounts of specie, with which to purchase their produce.
The ingots of silver were originally mined from Spanish-held Mexico and then sold to the Dutch to be melted down into four pound bars with the Amsterdam VOC stamp upon each one. The ingots would have been converted in Batavia - now Jakarta - into Javanese currency with the rest shipped off to Siam (Thailand) and Bengal to be made into their local coinage.
Inside some of the bonded boxes were thousands of silver eight reales, along with roughly cut and stamped cobs. These coins - about the size of a British crown - were known and used throughout the world as 'pieces of eight'. The silver content, which was also mined and minted in Spanish Mexico, contained a regular 26.5 grams of .903 fine silver.
As the hatches on Rooswijk's cargo holds were covered with canvas and secured with rope, Captain Ronzieres' thoughts were with the voyage ahead. They were not of the fear from pirates or privateers as the ship carried a formidable amount of cannon and a crew of 250 men, which included soldiers, but of the adverse weather.
It was the beginning of January and a bitterly cold north-east wind had set in. As they set sail on the 8th the wind increased to gale-force. The relatively calm confines of Texel were soon behind them as the off-shore wind rapidly reached storm force. All that day and night they fought against the elements. When darkness fell the following night, further vision was obliterated by a blizzard. Daniel Ronzieres' men found working the pitching and rolling 850 ton ship extreme and hazardous. They were continually making sail changes to the vessel as she tacked back and forth making for the open sea and away from the shallow Dutch shoals.
While the night wore on conditions became worse and navigation impossible. In the thick weather Ronzieres had lost his bearings as the ship was being driven further westward by the wind. He calculated that he could not beat up against it and reduced his sails to a minimum. The captain had no idea what part of the English Channel they were in; however, the constant sounding of the lead showed that he had plenty of water under the keel. He also considered that it was too deep for the ship to anchor and wait for the storm to abate.
Most of the soldiers were being sick and trying to hold on to anything that was secure in their restricted quarters. Freezing condition permeated throughout the vessel and all the cooking fires had been extinguished soon after they had left port. Those below decks were becoming hyperthermic and, with sea-sickness, were losing the will to live. The seamen were too busy to succumb to this malady and merely cursed the weather - although the least courageous of them were starting to realise the desperate state that their ship was in. Apart from her billowing sails the rest of the Rooswijk was covered in snow, building up in small drifts on the windward side of her bulwarks. Footprints on the deck from the crew were soon covered, as the ship careered along with the storm.
As the vessel ran up on to the Goodwin Sands the crew and troops felt the ship jolt to a halt and then start to slew uncontrollably, beam on to the heavy seas. Immediately, tumultuous waves overwhelmed her and giant seas crashed down upon the deck, sweeping away any persons that were still standing. The masts were wrenched out of the steps in her keelson, splintering and ripping up the deck. Within minutes the heavily laden Dutch East Indiaman was gripped by the sand and started to break up, as the massive seas pulverized her to pieces. The deaths of the entire crew and troops were almost instantaneous. They were drowned in the freezing conditions and their screams for salvation went unheeded.
Morning arrived with the storm still blowing. Deal boatmen, unable to launch their boats in the heavy surf, wandered the beach in search of any scraps that the onshore wind had blown in. It was soon evident to the men that there had been a shipwreck in the night. However, the pieces of washed up timbers were so smashed up that they could not identify the unfortunate vessel. When one man came upon a chest, surging about in the surf, he eagerly risked becoming drenched as he snatched it from the waves.
On being opened, a look of disappointment clouded his face. In the casket were vast amounts of waterlogged letters written in a foreign hand. When the honest fellow handed the mail in to the authorities, the name of the ill-fated ship was then discovered. The loss, to the Dutch company, was a great one, financially, as well as in human terms.
In the year 2002, Ken Welling, an Essex builder, had worked out an area on the Goodwin Sands where the wreck of the Rooswijk might have been. This was achieved after many hours of research and deduction from English newspapers of the 18th century and Dutch archives. In the years that followed he searched, with the limited amount of equipment he could tow from his 17ft boat, on and around the hostile waters of the Goodwin Sands. His quest would always be fraught with danger; as when he found wreckage protruding from the seabed, he would dive upon it alone.
With the shifting sandbanks of the Goodwins he knew there was always going to be a chance that the wreck would never reappear.
Eventually, in the summer of 2004, he found what he had been looking for. It started off as just another bottom target on the echo sounder, although his magnetometer showed that there was a vast amount of metal causing the machine to peak. Whilst diving on these new wrecks he was always hopeful; nevertheless, he was used to disappointment. Over the years he had found many old rotting timbers on the seabed which he could eliminate from his search. When he found some cannons amongst the timbers, he was soon to realise that this was a wreck of status. Further exploration showed that there were chests, although worn, still intact. When he prised the top off one of them he saw the glint of silver. At last his vision had been fulfilled.
During 1798 the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was taken over by the Dutch Government who, to this day, is still the legal owner of all treasures that were lost from the VOC ships. Ken made contact with a representative and, in total secrecy, they arranged for the bullion to be recovered.
Through the dive season of 2005, from July until late August, the 209 ton salvage vessel Terrschelling appeared on the sky line off Deal. The Terrschelling was skippered by Nigel J Boston, who, along with his team of professional divers, was very skilled in the art of recovering old and valuable relics - in the past the vessel had spent numerous periods on the wreck-site of the Mary Rose. Also aboard was the eminent underwater archaeologist Alex Hildred and it was she who oversaw and catalogued over a thousand artefacts. Amongst these objects were the personal items of the crew; from the officers mess deck, pewter plates, glass wine goblets and a pewter mustard pot with a spoon still in it. A huge copper cauldron from the galley and fifty muskets from the Master at Arms' cabin were rescued. For Alex, all these artefacts were making a social statement from the 18th century.
Although the vessel could be seen from Deal and Ramsgate there was, apart from a few inquisitive fishermen, little interest in her goings on. It was certainly unknown, to the majority, that she was salving a vast fortune of silver, which had lain on the Goodwins for 265 years.
Four months later some of the treasure was handed over to Holland's government finance minister, Joop Wijn. He accepted it, along with many artefacts destined for Dutch museums, aboard the Dutch Royal Navy frigate De Ruyter, at Plymouth in a ceremony of entente cordiale. Because of the tragedy in 1740 the silver bullion never reached its destination. However, it was not completely lost when the Goodwins released its centuries old secret location - thanks to the determination and dedication of diver, Ken Welling.
Some of the wine bottles recovered from the wreck 36,000 pieces of eight were on board The Real de a Ocho, also known as the Spanish dollar, the Eight Royals Coin, or the Piece of Eight (Spanish Peso de Ocho), is a silver coin, of approximately 38 mm diameter, worth eight Spanish reales, that was minted in the Spanish Empire after 1598.
Copyright © David Chamberlain 2016
Footnote: More stories of ancient shipwrecks on the Goodwin Sands can be found in David Chamberlain's book "Lost And Found" available from local bookshops (at £3.99) and online from eBay and Amazon.