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I’m looking for information on a shipwreck (16th-18th century)

Towards the end of the 16th century, the Dutch started to expand their trading empire to territories in Asia, Africa and Brazil, the main incentive initially being the lucrative trade in spice. The Dutch Republic cleverly catered to the growing demand for spices in Europe. Expeditions to the far-flung East Indies attracted substantial investments. In Amsterdam’s VOC shipyards, for example, more than 1700 merchant East Indiamen were built and went on to make about 8000 voyages to and around the East. These were long and hazardous sea voyages. As a result of storms and enemy attacks, many of these ships never reached their final destination and they sank to the bottom of various oceans. A number of these shipwrecks still lie there, bearing silent witness to Dutch merchant history.

Evidence of this illustrious past can be found in the various collections of the Nationaal Archief. If you are looking for information about ships lost at sea to the Dutch East India Company (VOC), the West India Company (WIC) or the Admiralty, you can consult a number of different archives. Of these, the most important are the VOC archives (catalogue reference 1.04.02), the WIC archives (1.05.01.01 and 1.05.01.02), those of the Naval Colleges (1.01.46) and the States-General (1.01.02).

How do I proceed?

Information about the VOC

When researching wrecks of VOC ships your research will start at the website Dutch Asiatic Shipping (DAS).
Here you can find essential details of all voyages made by the VOC, including the name of the ship, name of the captain, tonnage, year of construction, shipyard where the ship was built, dates of departure, waypoint and arrival, and the size of the crew.

More information about the crew can be found in the database listing VOC sea voyagers. You can search here for ships lost at sea by choosing ‘shipwrecked’ as the reason the sailor’s tenure ended. Please also refer to the research guide ‘I’m looking for a VOC sea voyager’.

Archives about the VOC

In addition to the archives named above, various private archives – such as those of individual governors – may also contain information useful for your research.

Archives about the WIC

If you are looking for information about a WIC ship, you can search in a number of different archives. For searches in the archives of the Old WIC, you should be aware that some of the archives have been lost.

Archives about the Admiralty

If you are looking for information about ships belonging to the Admiralty, you can start your search in the following archives:

As mentioned above for research involving VOC ships, additional research can also be done in the various private archives of individual governors.

Cartographic material

The Leupe Collection at the Nationaal Archief (4.VEL, 4.VELH) has a large number of sea charts which have now been partly digitised and can be found in the Nationaal Archief’s image library.
The same goes for the Comprehensive Atlas of the Dutch United East India Company (Grote Atlas van de Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie), which contains 600 maps. The maps are derived partly from the Nationaal Archief collection and partly from collections housed in institutions in other countries. There are seven volumes, of which the first two can be found in the Nationaal Archief’s image library.


You can find images and information about the Dutch colonies of the VOC and the WIC in the digital catalogues of the ‘Atlas of Mutual Heritage’.

Example

Let us say you are looking for information about the Admiralty ship De Utrecht. You have come across the database managed by MACHU (Managing Cultural Heritage Underwater), which contains information on the location a wreck is found and the type and history of the ship. On the MACHU website you have found some background information about the ship De Utrecht, such as when and where the ship went down. If you then use this information to search further, for example in the archives of the States-General, you will find a journal kept by Joost van Coulster, captain of the ship Gelderlandt, in which he describes his journey to Brazil and back from 26 December 1647 to 9 April 1650. Here you can read about the military action De Utrecht was involved in and how it was ultimately blown up.

To see the original entry you can now submit a request online for the following:

Catalogue reference 1.01.02
Inventory number 9319

Once you have the record in front of you, you will find the information on folio (page) numbers 9 and 10.

Other sources

For more information about shipwrecks please refer to the following books and websites:

Reference works

  • Diebels, P.G.M., Op Papier Vergaan, Onderzoek naar Vergane Schepen in de Archieven van de VOC [Lost On Paper, Research into the Lost Ships in the Archives of the VOC] (Nederlands Archievenblad, September 1991)
  • Diebels, P.G.M. and Meeter, J., Scan study on wrecks of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), Ede 1995
  • Parthesius, R., Dutch Ships in Tropical Waters. The development of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) shipping network in Asia 1595-1660, Amsterdam 2007

Websites

  • DAS (Dutch Asiatic Shipping)
  • MACHU (Managing Cultural Heritage Underwater)
    This website has a database with information about the sites where shipwrecks have been found, the types of ships and their history.
  • VOC website
    This website (in Dutch) has a database with information on roughly 2000 VOC ships. It includes descriptions of ships lost at sea and the voyages made by these ships.

More information is available from the Nationaal Archief’s Mutual Cultural Heritage programme, which has produced a comprehensive guide for research into shipwrecks. Read more in the ‘Research Guide to Dutch Shipwrecks’.

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