Early Modern Times – wrecks and wreck-creations

Early Modern Times - wrecks and wreck-creations

Dear readers,

The New Year of the Rat heralds the return of Early Modern Times! Technical issues in December meant that even (an often wooden) blog is not unsinkable. As we encounter sea-changes in the Lunar New Year, let us ponder reversals of fortune in the wake of significant early modern shipwrecks, coincidentally the topic of several recent online articles.

Last month, divers discovered two 500 year-old anchors off the Mexican coast: archaeologists conclude that they were from the fleet of Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés, who sacked the empire of the Aztecs. The two items, found near Veracruz, followed the discovery last year of another anchor from Cortés’ fleet, containing Spanish wood. Who was responsible for wrecking these ships in 1519, just two years before the invasion of the Aztecs? It may be none other than Cortés himself: he is said to have done so to prevent his crew from abandoning their expedition and returning back to Spain. These are significant artefacts in a dramatic, and catastrophic, turning-point in world history: remains of shipwrecking by the Conquistador in order to anchor the establishment of the Spanish empire in the Americas. Once that Conquista-door was opened, the violent winds of change could not be shut out.

Similarly, historians are searching for the remains of a 17th-century shipwreck which led to the Dutch colony in South Africa. The ‘Golden Age’ of the Netherlands in that century was built on its trading empire especially in Southeast Asia, through the Dutch East India Company (VOC, in its Dutch abbreviation). In 1647, the VOC ship Nieuw Haarlem sailed into Table Bay near what became Cape Town five years later. The waters were too shallow for this ‘Haarlem Globetrotter’, which foundered there. 58 members of the crew sailed back to the Netherlands on VOC rescue ships, but 62 others remained to protect the valuable cargo of ‘spices, pepper, textiles and porcelain’ until a larger fleet could carry the commodities. The latter camped down at the Cape, surviving on rhinoceros meat (these were tough times) as well as 800 penguins and penguin eggs (such that the flightless birds were not peng-uinners but peng-losers) from Robben Island–later the site of the notorious prison which held Nelson Mandela in the 20th century. These Dutchmen soon recognised the value of this area for VOC ships sailing to and from the Netherlands to Asia, which led to the settlement of Cape Town. Soon West African slaves were shipped to support the growing colony. Local inhabitants could well have protested that these Europeans interlopers were just ‘robben’ their land out of greed, and that the ‘Dutch touch’ was far from light.

Less unhappy, at least in its long-run consequences, was the wreck of the Swedish warship the Vasa, which sunk in 1628. The ship was meant to show the naval might of warrior-king Gustav II Adolf, especially as it was built during the Thirty Years War–in which Sweden was a major player. 20 minutes after it sailed from the Bay of Stockholm, the ship sank, killing 30 passengers on board. Historians speculate that the cause of this disaster was the ship’s design. It contained 64 cannons, an exceptionally heavy armament for the 68 metre-long ship, and these weapons may have been incorrectly placed. A strong wind-gust fatally tilted the Vasa, and water soon flooded through the open cannon ports. It stayed underwater for the next 300 years; but when it was raised in 1961, about 98% of the wood was intact, due to the lack of worms and bacteria in the Baltic sea: the waters there are cold and low in oxygen. Hence, while the ship’s design may have been the cause of its demise, its construction as well as its submergence in the Baltic has rendered it the best-preserved ship from the seventeenth century–though its top-heaviness has caused the ship in the Vasa Museum to lean over and sink about 1 mm a year. Still, historical posterity has snatched victory from the watery depths of defeat: this Scandi-navy warship lives on in an astonishing well-preserved form, like the Catholic saints whose corpses are thought to be incorruptible. In that light, the Vasa, though meant to fight Catholic ships in the 17th century, could well be an excellent candidate for cannon-isation.

’til next time,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Studies Program

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