Charlotte Cowan, a student at East Sussex College Hastings and about to start a degree in archaeology at York University, visits a neglected treasure.

News came through recently that a Dutch company wants to take the Amsterdam from our shores. I went to investigate what we were losing, and along the way discovered just how much we as a community are gaining
from her. Could we do a better job at preserving her narrative? Is this the wake-up call we need to take better care of our history? We as a town can, and need to, do better.

The wreck at low tide
CREDIT: Bob Beaney

19.40. It’s a low tide and the sun is just setting after an unusually hot March day. Just across the bridge at West St Leonards train station lies Bulverhythe beach – home to one of the best-preserved East Indiaman vessels known to exist. Strolling along this part of the beach you may not realise that you are walking on top of what is left of the famed Amsterdam. But, at the lowest of spring tides, the ship’s ribs are exposed, and she emerges from her peaty sand grave – I was lucky enough to witness her in all her glory.

Of the large handful of people who had also come to catch sight of this rare appearance, a small group of adults took my interest. They were laughing and drinking on top of the wreck (odd place for a night on the town I thought). I got to talking with them and discovered they had come to make a toast to a 16-year-old boy who had supposedly died on board the ship. 

While reading through an article written by Peter Marsden in 1972, I came across a passage that surprised me. Allegedly, a man was shot during a raid on the ship when fighting broke out; however, the Hastings coroner decided it was not his responsibility to investigate further as he considered the man had “died at sea”. This led me to wonder whether this was the mysterious 16-year-old I can’t find any information about. This small gesture shows just how important the ship is to our personal history and illuminated the connection the locals have with it to this day.

At the lowest of spring tides, the ship’s ribs are exposed, and she emerges from her peaty sand grave

Having grown up in Hastings, the Amsterdam has always been there. I remember as a kid walking along the beach at Bulverhythe and coming across the wreck. To me, it was a playground – an exciting structure for me to explore, climb, and jump over (but please do not do as I did and climb on historic landmarks… it is damaging!) I would have been able to tell you it was remains of a ship, but my knowledge was very limited, even until recently. It doesn’t make sense to me that such a significant ship can be left on the side-lines of our history.

Here’s some history for those that want to know more about the best-preserved merchant ship of the 18th century that lies on our very shores:

The Amsterdam began her first (and last) voyage in 1749 from the Dutch island Texel to the East Indies after two failed attempts – unsuccessful due to adverse winds. What ended as a tragedy was not smooth sailing from the start: not only were the 203 crew on board tackling a series of violent storms, an apparent mutiny broke out among the crew members during crucial hours of the ship’s journey. To make matters worse, many of the crew had already died of ‘yellow fever’ (now considered to have been the plague) leaving the fate of the ship in the hands of a horde of drunken seamen. 

The fate of the Amsterdam was indeed grim as she lost her rudder sailing into the haven of Pevensey Bay, which left her vulnerable to the merciless storm. Captain Klump, who had previously commanded the Dutch East Indiaman ‘Eijndhoef’ on a voyage to the Indies, desperate to save his precious cargo, dropped anchor on the shore of Bulverhythe where, remarkably, much of her keel* remains to this day.

Amongst the valuable goods that the ship was transporting were textiles, wines and nearly 30 chests of silver bullion.† Many personal objects were found during excavations. These items offer us a glimpse into the lives of those on board: bronze candlesticks, a smoothing iron, pewter spoons, sticks of red sealing wax, a flute, European glazed pottery shoes, and hundreds of other items in an incredible state of preservation. Some of the findings are on display in The Shipwreck Museum.

Tide covers the wreck 
CREDIT: Charlotte Cowan

The wreck was left unowned and unprotected for a long time, before the Dutch government eventually became the rightful owners of the wreck, be that more than a year after the start of archaeological investigation. The ship is currently protected by Historic England.

The Dutch proposal is to recover and relocate the wreck to Amsterdam without ever taking it out of the water. The wreck is to be lifted from the seabed using a large basin or salvage dock made from steel. The basin will then be sailed to Amsterdam where it will be permanently docked and transformed into an underwater museum. A glass tank will be built around it so that visitors can view the ship from all angles. 

It is an incredible idea, especially given that any proper archaeological surveys and excavations have been near impossible due to the precarious condition of the wreck and the fact that it is engulfed by water most days of the year. It seems like a risky operation. As far as I am aware, no proper archaeological survey has been carried out to determine the safety and feasibility of the project. Our top priority should be the preservation of this spectacular ship.

The main thing I took away from my experience at Bulverhythe is the realisation of how many individuals value our heritage. However, we as a local community need to be more pro-active about valuing our heritage, and making the Amsterdam as accessible as possible for everyone, while it remains in place.

I left the wreck wondering if this was sunset for the Amsterdam.

* the lengthwise timber or steel structure along the base of a ship
† a piece of high concentrated silver

For further information about the Dutch plans go here: ZJA reveals underwater Docking the Amsterdam museum

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