Rod Webb visits the Amsterdam wreck

Why on earth would upwards of 150 people gather on the beach in Bulverhythe at 8am on a Saturday morning in February? OK, it was a lovely morning, more like May than February, but it does indicate something of the power of the Amsterdam to attract sightseers. 

It turns out that 2019 is the 270th anniversary of the Amsterdam’s arrival in Hastings, driven ashore during a violent storm. Not only that, but the remains can only be seen at low tide and 8am on 23rd February was the lowest tide for 15 years – an ideal opportunity to find out more.

So there we all were: well-heeled couples in wellies, a few curious young and elderly folk, families with children, plenty of dogs and a poet who performed his poem about the Amsterdam. There was an atmosphere of discovery and childlike pleasure as we listened and sank slightly into the squidgy mud.

There’s not a lot to see, just the outline of the boat formed by timber poking up through the sand. But when the guides from Hastings Shipwreck Museum bring it to life, you realise there’s pretty much a whole boat buried under your feet, preserved by the salt water. Even the outline is misleading as boats of that type were much wider down below decks. Three storeys of goods are stashed away, much as it was when the ship ran aground – although the captain managed to recover most of the silver bullion it was carrying at the time.

We heard that the only ‘successful’ attempt at salvage in recent years took place in the ’60s when nearby workers dug up more bounty in their lunch hour with a JCB. Although this impromptu salvage operation was quickly
shut down they apparently managed to get away with a few interesting items. These days the Dutch government, who still own the boat, keep a close watch with a CCTV camera pointing at the wreck to warn fortune hunters to think again.

We also heard how the Amsterdam was beached at high tide making use of a tiny gap in the rocks. At that point, fifty of the crew had already died of plague, perhaps yellow fever, and forty more were sick or dying. There had also been an attempted mutiny and on top of all that the ship had lost her rudder in Pevensey Bay. The final straw was when the crew apparently broke into the wine stores and arrived on land completely drunk. It was a miracle – as well as down to the skill of the captain – that nobody died in the actual shipwreck.

According to the Shipwreck Museum, the Amsterdam is “the most intact East Indiaman of any country known in the world.” Under the sand in Bulverhythe is a living testament to the global reach and power of unregulated organisations, like the East India Companies, that plundered the globe in the 1700s, behaving in ways that make the actions of current transnational corporations pale in comparison. 

Guided tours organised by the Shipwreck Museum in 2019 are scheduled for: 7.00pm, 20th April; 8.00pm, 5th July; 7.45 pm, 3rd August; 6.45 pm, 31st August

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