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The Shipwreck Museum, Hastings, and the wreck of the Amsterdam

At very low tides, the remains of the Amsterdam, the most complete surviving example of a Dutch East India Company trading vessel, can be seen on Bulverhythe Beach near Hastings. CA Editor Carly Hilts visited the wreck, travelled to the Shipwreck Museum in Hastings’ Old Town, and spoke to Peter Marsden to find out more.

On 26 January 1749, the crew of the Amsterdam faced a desperate situation. Less than three weeks earlier, their journey – the vessel’s maiden voyage – had started with such promise, setting out from the Netherlands for Indonesia laden with luxury goods. The Amsterdam was a trading ship of the prosperous Dutch East India Company, and she was heavily armed to protect this valuable cargo, bristling with guns and counting 122 soldiers among the 333 people on board. These safeguards were powerless against the weather, however, and as soon as the Amsterdam entered the English Channel she met a storm so violent that the ship struck the seabed, shattering her rudder. The crew was in no state to respond to this disaster: 50 had already died of disease, and 40 more were dangerously ill. Furious arguments about the best course of action broke out: the captain, Willem Klump, wanted to try to reach Portsmouth where the ship could be repaired, but the crew was determined to drive the vessel ashore and escape. Discipline broke down, the cargo of wine was ransacked, and ultimately the Amsterdam was beached on Bulverhythe Beach, outside Hastings.

above The Amsterdam is the most complete surviving example of a Dutch East India Company trading ship. Her remains can be seen on Bulverhythe Beach in East Sussex at very low tides.
The Amsterdam is the most complete surviving example of a Dutch East India Company trading ship. Her remains can be seen on Bulverhythe Beach in East Sussex at very low tides. PHOTO: Simon Jones.

As sailors and soldiers waded ashore, abandoning their possessions, they would not have known that this stretch of beach overlies an ancient river valley rich in clay and peat. When the ship rapidly sank 8m into these materials, this environment preserved her remains and all the objects on board that could not be recovered. Today, some two thirds of the ship’s timbers survive, and at very low tides the tops of her ribs can still be seen protruding from the sand. Although the wreck was listed as a tourist attraction in writings of the 19th century, and treasure-hunters occasionally interfered with the site, this 18th-century time-capsule survived largely intact until 1969, when workmen building a nearby sewer outlet used their mechanical diggers to tear open the wreck. Artefacts ranging from bronze cannons and rigging to tobacco pipes and tableware spilled forth – much to the horror of local archaeologists, who had no legal powers to prevent the damage as, at that time, historic wrecks were not accorded the same protection as heritage sites on land.

Fortunately, archaeologist Peter Marsden was able to survey the site in 1969-1970, and would go on to play a key role in fighting for the establishment of the Protection of Wrecks Act in 1973. Speaking to CA, he described what it was like working on the site. ‘We had to work like mad,’ he said. ‘The ship had sunk so far into the beach that not a lot of salvage had happened, and I could not believe it was so well preserved. It was quite amazing to look at the gunports and the side of the ship. More than that, it was quite bizarre to see a ship of the 18th century lying among the remains of a prehistoric forest, and surrounded by rocks from the Cretaceous period (about 130 million years ago) containing dinosaur footprints and fossil fish.’

below Surveying the bow of the Amsterdam in 1970.
Surveying the bow of the Amsterdam in 1970. PHOTO: Courtesy of Peter Marsden.

He added: ‘Fortunately, at that time the BBC was running an archaeology series called Chronicle, and they decided to make an hour’s programme on our work, in collaboration with a Dutch TV company called KRO. The producer on the Dutch side got a huge amount of archival research done, and we found that not only was the archaeology amazing, the surviving historical records in the Netherlands are also extraordinarily detailed, so we had a very holistic view of the story of the ship. It was a very different situation to the prehistoric, Roman, and Anglo-Saxon sites I have worked on, where you are often completely reliant on the archaeology to understand what is going on, and where it is harder to recognise what should be there, but is missing – here we had detailed cargo records to fill in the gaps.’

Exhibiting the Amsterdam

Many of the salvaged artefacts have since been sent to the Netherlands, where they are held by the National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam, outside which floats a life-sized replica of the ship that shares the city’s name. The processes of excavating a foreign vessel and later transporting the finds abroad were not straightforward, however. ‘As soon as we brought bottles of wine from the wreck ashore, there were import duties due,’ Peter said. ‘I had to go and queue up with the lorry drivers at Newhaven, who were bringing goods across from France. Getting an export licence for the artefacts was also complicated – they expected us to get finds like a cask of Irish butter X-rayed to make sure that there weren’t treasures hidden inside.’

Some of the discoveries have remained in the UK, and are now on display in the Shipwreck Museum, which Peter Marsden founded in Hastings’ Old Town in 1986. These include wine glasses, buttons, and pewter cups, as well as a more poignant find: the leg bones of the ship’s cabin boy, Adrian Wegevaren, which were found in the stern close to a number of musket balls – it is thought that he was killed during the crew’s revolt, which took place on his 16th birthday. Peter described how the boy’s remains had come to rest in a museum case: ‘If we had found the bones on land they would have gone before a coroner, but in the sea the coroner had no jurisdiction,’ he said. ‘You can’t own human remains in law, and we had no one to report them to – so they were sent back to me in a cardboard tube. I tried reporting them to the police, but they passed me back to the coroner. I asked the coroner, and was told to try the Home Office – the Home Office told me to try the coroner. I then took Adrian’s bones to a church in Leerdam, where his parents were buried, but the pastor there said that they had closed the cemetery long ago and it had been paved over, so they couldn’t take him. So his bones came back to the museum. No one else wanted to take responsibility for him, and he is part of the Amsterdam’s story.’

above A full-sized replica of the Amsterdam floats outside the Dutch National Maritime Museum. right The remains of the Amsterdam being dug into in 1969, before archaeologists could intervene. At that time, historic wrecks did not have the same protections as heritage sites on land.
A full-sized replica of the Amsterdam floats outside the Dutch National Maritime Museum. PHOTO: Magnus Hagdorn.

That story is a sweepingly international one, Peter said. ‘East Indiamen like the Amsterdam represent the birth of global trade; they were the great transporters of bullion to the East, and brought silks, spices, and porcelain to Europe.’ That international perspective is also reflected in the collections of the Shipwreck Museum, which feature wrecks mainly identified in the English Channel (though other locations also appear) but which link the maritime histories of Denmark, England, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Take, for example, a series of ‘pieces of eight’ (Spanish silver dollars) recovered from the Hollandia, similar to the Amsterdam, but which sank off the Isles of Scilly in 1743. Their materials were mined in central America and the coins themselves minted in Mexico, before they were sent to Spain and later taken to Indonesia aboard Dutch trading ships.

The remains of the Amsterdam being dug into in 1969, before archaeologists could intervene. At that time, historic wrecks did not have the same protections as heritage sites on land. PHOTO: Courtesy of Peter Marsden.

Other vessels spotlighted in the displays reflect key moments in naval history, including the Anne, a 70-gun galleon that was launched in 1678 on the orders of Samuel Pepys, then the Secretary to the Admiralty, in the early days of the permanent Royal Navy. She was beached and burnt in 1690, to avoid capture following damage in combat against the French in the Battle of Beachy Head. Moving away from the South Coast, there are also objects representing Peter’s pre-Amsterdam career, when he was excavating the remains of Roman London and other Thames-side sites in the 1960s (see CA 333). These include a fragment of the original London Bridge, dendrochronologically dated to AD 85-90; the remains of a 2nd-century Roman vessel known as Blackfriars Ship I, as well as some of the cargo of Kentish ragstone it was carrying; an Anglo-Saxon dugout canoe; and timbers from the 15th-century Blackfriars Ship III. Whether the remains on display are from London, the Hastings area, or further afield, they show the importance of preserving historic wreck sites, and the vivid insights they can give into our shared history.

Further information

Today the Amsterdam is owned by the Dutch government, and is designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973. The wreck can be seen at very low tides, via the railway bridge at the end of Bridge Way, West St Leonards.

The Shipwreck Museum is open every day from April to October, and at weekends in November to March. Admission is free. Tours of the Amsterdam wreck, run by the museum, will recommence in spring 2022. For more information, see https://shipwreckmuseum.co.uk.