Shipwreck excavations off Kent coast shed new light on voyagers' untold stories

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A shipwreck that has laid off the Kent coast for more than 250 years is helping shed new light on international trade on the high seas, including the lucrative and endemic smuggling that went with it.

The Dutch East India Company vessel Rooswijk sank on the treacherous Goodwin Sands in 1740, with the loss of an estimated 250 lives, just a day after leaving the Netherlands bound for what is now Jakarta in Indonesia.

She was packed with an official cargo of silver bullion and coins with which to buy spices and Oriental porcelain that were in demand in the upper echelons of Enlightenment Europe.

But an Anglo-Dutch team excavating the wooden wreck six miles off the Channel coast has discovered items that shed a light on the untold stories of those aboard, including their efforts to get rich on the quiet by buying their own illicit luxuries.

They smuggled out their own silver cargo, ranging from a handful of coins secreted on the bodies of simple deckhands to the larger-scale rogue trading carried out by the ship's captain, Daniel Ronzieres.

Project leader Martijn Manders, from the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands, which is working with Historic England on the excavation, told the Press Association: "There was a shortage of silver and that shortage of silver was in the place where they could buy precious materials to sell in Europe again.

"Suddenly these few coins of silver were worth almost twice as much because they had transported them to the Indies. So it was quite lucrative.

"Everyone would smuggle silver; it was the simple sailor who smuggled coins in his belt, in his shoe, to the East Indies.

"But it was also the captain as well, who even had an office in Amsterdam and people were coming to the office and handing over money for him to bring to the Indies so they could earn more money from those silver coins."

The ship, which lies on and under the seabed 26 metres down, is being excavated because it is at risk from the currents and shifting sands.

An excavation in 2005 recovered lots of silver and more coinage has been found this time, along with irregularly shaped "pieces of eight" - weights of silver hacked off an ingot.

They have also found items including as-yet unopened chests, leather shoes, glass bottles and pewter jugs.

They are being desalinated, a process like that carried out on the Tudor warship Mary Rose, at a facility by the harbour in Ramsgate, Kent, which will be opened to the public for the first time on Saturday August 19.

Rooswijk was owned by what is known in Dutch as the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), which had a state monopoly on spice importation from the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia.

It lost some 250 ships over the years it was in operation, of which just a third have been located.

The Rooswijk set sail on January 8 destined for what was then a colonial outpost called Batavia.

But the ship, just three years old and on its second voyage, fell foul of the notorious sands in the channel that are littered with centuries of wreckage. There were no survivors.

Mr Manders said that the time the ship went down was "the heyday of the smuggling of silver".

Soon afterwards, the rate of losses and cost of lawsuits from those who gave money to the smugglers meant there was a clampdown on the practice.

The team has been diving the site over the summer, but important work has also been taking place in archives in Amsterdam.

Mr Manders added: "We have found already (information about) 11 people, from all different ranks, so we can tie up all the individual objects. But also the ship and the stories, you can tie them up to persons and that makes the stories really valuable."

Marine archaeologist Alison James, from Historic England, said the wreck was "hugely important".

She added: "The Goodwin Sands have been known in the past as The Great Ship Swallower. We know of over 800 recorded wrecks that have been lost.

"They are very treacherous as an area for boating and shipping, but they are great for archaeology.

"We knew it was incredibly vulnerable because the sands were moving and material was being exposed.

"We also knew we had reports of illegal diving on the site and perhaps people who were potentially there to do things that we might not want them to do.

"It was a case of act now or this material will be lost."