Wreck of 17th-Century Dutch Warship Discovered

Diver at wreck site measuring cannon
A diver measures a cannon found at the wreck site in Tobago's Rockley Bay. (Image credit: Courtesy of the University of Connecticut)

NEW YORK — The wreck of a 17th-century Dutch warship has been discovered off the coast of Tobago, a small island located in the southern Caribbean. Marine archaeologists believe the vessel is possibly the Huis de Kreuningen, which was lost during a bloody fight between Dutch and French colonists. 

On March 3, 1677, the French Navy launched a fierce attack against the Dutch in Tobago's Rockley Bay. European settlers coveted Tobago for its strategic location; in fact, the island changed hands more than 30 times after Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World.

The abbreviated story of this particular battle is, "Everybody dies, and every ship sinks," according to Kroum Batchvarov, an assistant professor of maritime archaeology at the University of Connecticut. Indeed, about 2,000 people were killed and up to 14 ships went down during the skirmish. But until now, none of those sunken vessels had been recovered. [Shipwrecks Gallery: Secrets of the Deep]

This past March, Batchvarov went searching for wrecks in Rockley Bay. Through remote sensing and historical accounts, his team identified a spot where shipwrecks from the battle might have settled on the bottom of the bay. One day, while the rest of his colleagues were sorting out an issue with their GPS systems, Batchvarov and another diver decided to explore under the surface.

"Quite literally, the first thing we saw at the bottom was a cannon," Batchvarov told a small audience here at the Explorers Club headquarters today (Nov. 3).

During that initial, 20-minute dive, the researchers found at least seven cast-iron cannons, some of them large, 18-pounder guns.

"This was one of the most interesting experiences of my life in archaeology, and I have been in this field for about 17 years," Batchvarov said.

None of the sunken ship's timbers have been uncovered yet from the jumbled wreckage, but divers did find relics from life aboard a military vessel, including 72 clay smoking pipes, an array of dining utensils and burned bricks from the ship's galley. They also found a beer jug with three engravings of military generals from antiquity: Joshua, David and Alexander the Great.

Several clues led the team to conclude they were dealing with a Dutch warship from the 17th century. For example, many of the pipes had the mark of a manufacturer that operated in Amsterdam from the 1650s to the 1680s, Batchvarov said.

Because of the size of the cannons found at the site, the archaeologists suspect the wreck could be the 130-foot-long (40 meters), 56-gun warship Huis de Kreuningen. Only one other Dutch vessel, the flagship Bescherming, could have supported such large guns, but it survived the battle, Batchvarov said.

The French boarded the Huis de Kreuningen during the Battle of Tobago. To avoid capture, the Dutch captain, Roemer Vlacq, blew up the ship. The blaze spread and destroyed the French flagship Glorieux. Despite their major losses, the Dutch, led by commodore Jacob Binckes, were ultimately successful in holding back the French. (Years earlier, Binckes had re-captured New York for the Dutch; the city was, however, returned to England shortly after.)

Without proper conservation facilities nearby, the artifacts Batchvarov and his colleagues discovered had to be reburied underwater. But the project has just been awarded a grant from the U.S. State Department's Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation so that the artifacts can be conserved and displayed in Trinidad and Tobago. Batchvarov and his colleagues plan to return to the site next year; their main goal is to establish the extent of the wreck.

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Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and Space.com since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.