The Rooswijk was a Dutch East India Company (VOC) retour ship built in 1737 in the Company’s shipbuilding yard in Amsterdam specifically for the India trade. She had a length of 145 foot and was of 850 tons and her armament consisted of 26 cannons. She had already completed one trip to Batavia in the Dutch East Indies in 1737 when she set sail from Texel in the north of Holland on 8th January (28th December 1739) for her eight-month journey to Batavia. Her captain was Daniel Ronssieres (also spelled Ronzieres) and she carried around 300 sailors, soldiers, merchants and passengers.
On 9th January, she was driven into a dangerous area of the Goodwin Sands off the Southeast coast of England during one of the most severe storms recorded in the previous hundred years. The Dutch archive includes the following regarding the incident. “The ship Rooswijk, captain Daniel Ronssieres, left the 8 this month from Texel, to East India, a couple of days later due to heavy fog, ran ashore on Goodwin sands, all perished.” The weather impeded the usual practices of the Company to engage divers to retrieve their precious cargos. Bad weather persisted until the late spring, by which time the ship had disappeared without trace.
The Dutch East India Company was divided into six chambers, and Rooswijk belonged to the largest, the Amsterdam Chamber, which accounted for over 50% of the Company’s business. During this period the Company shipped large consignments of Company monies to the Indies and China to buy the spices, porcelain and silk goods wanted by the West. The complete inventory for the Rooswijk has not yet been found, but cut stone blocks, iron bars and specie were listed. Particular attention was made in accounting for Company monies, and the vessel is listed with 20 chests of silver ingots, each chest containing 50 ingots each weighing 1968.672 gram. In 1737 the value of each ingot was 25.6 guilders. The loss was great to the Company and as quickly as possible it despatched another retour ship, the Kastell Van Woerden, with a large consignment of Company money to replace the lost treasure of the Rooswijk.
The history behind the discovery of the site, like so many other shipwrecks, is the result of dedicated historical research over many years and visual and magnetic searching of a particular area combined with a certain degree of luck. Since 1996, (Ken Welling) has been actively researching English casualties of Dutch East India Company vessels, in particular any which had met their fate on the South East coast of England between Dover and Ramsgate. Although popular books often highlighted the most spectacular shipwrecks, any relating to the VOC were researched through the sourcing and reading of contemporary English newspaper articles. These casualties often raised much local interest, not in the least due to the potential for salvaging of material, often of high value. Three vessels were of particular interest, the Rooswijk, the Meremont and the Loosdrecht. In particular the Rooswijk had foundered in such atrocious weather conditions that no salvage could take place for several months, by which time the wreck had vanished, although reports suggested some items washing ashore at ports such as Ramsgate.
The reports often went into sufficient detail regarding the disaster to be able to recreate the prevailing weather conditions at the time. An accurate depiction of time together with date enables tidal predictions regarding both strength and direction to be made. The tide at the time of sinking was ascertained by interpretation of records held within the Proudman Insititute. Detailed weather records were obtained from John Kington’s published works. These can be used to help with suggesting potential locations for the site, and how a vessel of this size and build might exhibit itself on the seabed through the process of wrecking taking into consideration the seabed topography and character of the sediments. In 1996 the decision was made to search in earnest for the Rooswijk, and Ramsgate was chosen as the closest port with access to specific areas within the Goodwin Sands which had been highlighted by historical research as being the best areas to search for the Rooswijk. Early charts were obtained which demonstrated the positions of the moving sandbanks through time. Although the earliest of these was dated 1737, the Admiralty chart of 1868 was the most useful, charting the area of the Kellet Gut before it had formed. An area with a length of two nautical miles and a width of 200m was chosen for a magnetometer survey. A contact was almost immediate, this later proved to be bars of strip iron of 2-3 metres in length and with a width of 88mm and thickness of 12mm. The distribution of heavy material within this area suggests that it may have been a point of impact where many heavy objects were lost. Although the detailed inventory for the Rooswijk has not been found, among the few items listed are bars of iron, carved stone blocks, and twenty chests of silver ingots together with 10 chests of silver specie in the form of coinage.
During 1998 and 1999 more information about the distribution of iron bearing material was made through the interpretation of magnetometer and echo sounder surveys. In 1999 diving in poor visibility revealed a small pile and scatter of bricks and two cast iron cannons. During 2000 the sands had uncovered substantially more material around the area of the initial magnetometer anomaly. During periods of good visibility, it was possible to see wreckage indicative of both cargo and ballast-cargo, but little timber. It was clear that the strips of iron were a substantial portion of cargo still together on the seabed and in a defined area east of the bricks. Beside the strips of iron, a 20m long pile of cut stone blocks was clearly visible. Further investigations south of the blocks revealed two large anchors. The magnetometer survey and the seabed distribution were beginning to provide a picture of the scattered nature of the site. Continued magnetometry that year revealed two more anomalies to the west, the most westerly of these was covered by a sandbank, the other proved to be a small anchor and a quantity of strip iron disappearing into the sandbank. Debris extended between this and the site suggested as being the first point of impact, approximately 40 m to the east. This area has been termed the ’middle site’.
During 2004 scouring action caused by the presence of a large sandbank over the impact site revealed more cannon and artefacts on the northern periphery of the area. Although the middle site was still covered, a new area, 100m west of the initial site of the first iron bars, was uncovered, revealing two cannon, substantial amounts of eroded and often broken timber, chests of silver ingots and coins, together with empty chests. A number of these chests and loose artefacts from both the western site and the middle site were lifted during 2004. Many of these chests were held within a light concretion formed by the corroding barrels of muskets still retaining the brass side plates displaying the arms of Amsterdam over the initials of the Company, and Company issue swords. It is suggested by the artefactual assemblage that this represents the contents of the stern of the vessel, collapsed timber and objects from the great cabin, the captain and officers’ quarters, the constable’s room and the cartridge locker beneath.
During 2004 Ken Welling made unofficial approaches to both the office of the Receiver of Wreck (ROW) and Wessex Archaeology in England and made a trip to Den Hague to report his findings to the Dutch Ministry of Finance. Being unsure of how to proceed, he made a decision to keep his findings out of the public domain at this stage. In February 2005 Rex Cowan approached the Ministry of Finance in the Netherlands with the aim of renewing a long-standing contract he had with them regarding VOC vessels on the Goodwin sands. The primary aim of the contract was for the purposes of searching for specific VOC vessels, but the Project Design also included the proviso for controlled excavation and recovery of objects should any Dutch vessels be found. The contract was ratified, with the States of the Netherlands devolving their ownership to Mr Cowan in return for a portion of any artefacts raised. Colleagues known to both parties eventually introduced Mr Welling and Mr Cowan, and the current project was devised and a Project Diving Plan written and approved by the Dutch authorities. Mr Welling submitted his list of artefacts raised to the Receiver of Wreck (ROW), and Rex Cowan and Alex Hildred had a meeting in early July with the ROW where proposals for the project were outlined. The primary aims of the project were to position and raise artefacts visible and vulnerable on the seabed, and add to the pre-disturbance survey which had been generated by Mr Welling over the years and to gather together any information which could be gained from a study of any structure and artefacts identifiable on the seabed. During discussions with the Receiver of Wreck the possibility of scheduling the site under the 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act was discussed. Whilst it was agreed that a wreck of this period was undoubtedly important historically, it was suggested that scheduling the site at this time would not confer any greater protection than could be given by the presence of an active programme of work onsite. To position and recover artefacts immediately would be better protection than would be achieved through putting the wreck forward for designation which would inevitably cause delay and enable the potential both for material loss through natural erosion, but also for potential looting. In particular, the high commercial value of the artefacts so far raised gave causes for concern regarding the safety of both the objects, and the persons who were involved with their curation. It was felt that as the assemblage had no relevance to the cultural history of England, with the exception that the wreck itself was part of the history of the wrecks within the Goodwins as a whole, that the entire project should be kept out of the public domain until the artefacts were returned to Holland.
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