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« on: September 19, 2009, 07:45:32 am »
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VOYAGE NR: 5100.3

NAME OF VESSEL: Witte Leeuw

By Robert St?nuit.

When he recognized the hated banners, when he heard the coarse shouts of impending battle amid the rolls of drums and the blare of enemy trumpets, Capt. Dom Geronimo de Almeida hoisted the standard of Our Lady of Nazar? and commended his ship to the mercy of her guardian saint. The odds were against him: four heavily manned Dutch vessels to his two Portuguese carracks, or armed merchantmen.
Still worse, he had been surprised at anchor. Riding peacefully in a small bay of the remote island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic, de Almeida had no warning until the enemy ships rounded a nearby headland. Now, as the Dutch East Indiamen bore down on him in triumph, he readied his gun crews for unequal battle.

The Dutch triumph was brief. Though unable to maneuver, the Portuguese quickly found the range and opened fire with terrible effect. "Our men," a Portuguese chronicler later wrote of the battle, "fought in such a way that one of the largest enemy ships was sent to the bottom, another was most marvelously battered and had to leave the fighting, her forecastle shattered, the others so ill treated they had to flee, leaving to our people a total victory...."

The year was 1613, and the victory another episode in the bitter struggle between the Netherlands and Portugal over the rich East Indies trade. On the long route around Africa's Cape of Good Hope, St. Helena had become a favored stopover for repairs and provisioning by vessels en route home to Europe. The ship whose voyage ended so abruptly in a hail of Portugueses fire was a Dutch East Indiaman named the WITTE LEEUW, White Lion. Over the past three years I have come to know her well.

My acquaintance with the WITTE LEEUW came about through my research into other historic wrecks. From time to time I came across references to her in records of the Dutch East India Company, early correspondence, and narratives of marine battles and disasters. Gradually my file on the WITTE LEEUW grew until I felt I knew her as well as I ever would from mere documents. Three years ago I decided to go in search of her.

Support for the expedition came from two generous sources: the National Geographic Society, and Henri Delauze, president of a prominent underwater engineering firm, Comex, in Marseille, France. Before making a reconnaissance at St. Helena, I contacted my diving partners: Louis Gorsse, Michel Gangloff, Alain Fink, and Michel Tavernier. If I managed to locate the WITTE LEEUW, and she proved salvageable, they would join me in the attempt.
On the three-day voyage from Cape Town, South Africa, to St. Helena I reread my file on the WITTE LEEUW. Several things intrigued me about the ship, among them the fact that she had been lost on her return voyage from the East Indies. The only other East Indiaman fully salvaged had been outward bound from Europe. Such ships carried European manufactured goods and silver bullion, whereas the WITTE LEEUW was returning with the exotic treasures of the East.
I thought I knew what those treasures were, almost down to the last item. In the Dutch National Archives at The Hague I had found a copy of the WITTE LEEUW's cargo manifest, doubtless carried by one of her sisterships. She had gone to the bottom with a full cargo of spices and 1.311 diamonds, probably along with personal jewelry belonging to the ship's officers and passengers.

The Dutch East India Company had considered the WITTE LEEUW a major loss. In a letter from Amsterdam dated 1614, one of the company's officers had written: "The loss of the ship BANTAM (another East Indiaman)..... Also the loss of the ship the WITTE LEEUW near St. Helena while fighting two Portuguese Carracks laying at anchor there.... are mighty blows for the Company to take in one year."

By today's standards the WITTE LEEUW's cargo was immensely valuable, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it: pour it back into the ocean in the form of further undersea research. Five years ago I helped found an organization known as the Groupe de Recherche Arch?ologique Sous-Marine Post-M?di?vale, Group for Post-Medieval Undersea Archaeological Research. Since that time our study of 17th- and 18th-century East Indiamen has shed light on a period when two totally different cultures, those of Europe and Asia, were beginning to exchange not only goods but also ideas that shaped the course of history.

Aside from the addition of five thousand inhabitants, St. Helena has changed little since its discovery in 1502 by the Portuguese navigator Jo?o da Nova Castella. In his journal, da Nova wrote of the island's fair air and water, a description I found accurate though incomplete. The fairness applies not only to St. Helena's air and water but also to the beauty of its mountainous landscape and to the hospitality of its people. St. Helena's most memorable contact with the outside world occured in 1815, when the British exiled the French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, there. Bonaparte lived in enforced isolation on St. Helena until his death in 1821.

His Excellency Sir Thomas Oates, British Governor of the colony comprising St. Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha, welcomed me to the small capital of Jamestown and offered me the assistance of his government. We were to call on him often in the months to come.

During my initial search for the WITTE LEEUW, I was guided by a single phrase in the account of her long-ago battle with the Portuguese. The WITTE LEEUW had closed with one of de Almeida's ships in an attempt to board and, according to one chronicler, "immediately sank, there and then." Since James Bay is the historic anchorage for St. Helena, the wreck must lie on the bottom somewhere inside it; she had had no time to drift out to sea. Moreover, modern British hydrographic charts warn sailors of 'foul anchorage' areas in the bay. Could either obstruction be the sunken remains of the WITTE LEEUW?

My reconnaisance failed to answer the question, but it proved that a full-scale search was feasible. With the single diving tank I had brought to St. Helena, I briefly explored the bottom of James Bay. The results were promising: a seafloor consisting largely of mud, visibility extending to eighty feet along the bottom, and almost no current. I was sure we could find the wreck.

Returning to Europe, I rounded up my diving team and set off for St. Helena again. An old friend, Ed Wardwell of the American firm Seaward, Inc., offered us the loan of a sonar-scanning device that could survey wide areas of the bottom from the surface. Ed promised the sonar would arrive at St. Helena soon after we did. On a June morning we set out into James Bay aboard a local charter boat, and the search began.

Within three days it yielded results, in the form of a tantalizing puzzle. Beginning with one of the 'foul anchorage' areas, we laid out grid lines along the bottom for a search by pairs of divers tethered to each other with eighty-foot nylon cords. During Michel Gangloff's and my turn at a depth of 110 feet, I was swimming a line due south when Michel suddenly gave three familiar tugs on the cord, meaning, "I've found something; come have a look."

It was undeniably a cannon, large, cast iron, partially buried, and so encrusted as to be unidentifiable. Within minutes we found three more cannons, then another two, all similarly encrusted. Michel's and my diving time ran out, and we surfaced with the news as Louis Gorsse and Alain Fink were preparing to dive. "Look for other evidence," I told Louis as he started down. "There must be an anchor, timbers, lead sheathing, perhaps pottery, something we can date by. I can't tell whether the guns are the right year or where they came from. They could be from the WITTE LEEUW or a later ship that either foundered or jettisoned its batteries, We must find out."

But we didn't. Subsequent dives revealed a scattering of 18th-century jugs and bottles lying on the surface of the mud near the cannons, but these obviously dated from long after the WITTE LEEUW's time. There was nothing to identify the guns or to indicate whether a major wreck lay buried beneath them. At that point Ed Wardwell's sonar arrived with one of the finest engineers, Dick Bishop. Equiped at last for a broader search, we set out to survey the entire floor of James Bay. Hunched beside the sonar for ten hours a day in our boat's tiny cabin, Dick proceeded to draw a detailed electronic portrait of everything that lay on the bottom: several shipwrecks, anchors, oil drums, a sunken barge, and a variety of rubbish deposited by generations of St. Helenians. But nothing suggesting the wreck of the WITTE LEEUW, except our six guns.
To make doubly sure, we dived on everything of intrest that Dick's sonar picked up, but the answer was always the same, wrong ship, wrong century. In the end we came round to the original question: Could the six cannons belong to the WITTE LEEUW? In my view there was only one solution. "Let's bring up a cannon," I said. "and ask it."
Excavation with a vacuum device called an air lift took two days, but we finally managed to run a heavy strap around one gun, which on closer inspection proved to be bronze rather than iron. Louis went down with three stout neoprene bags and some air tanks and inflated the bags. With a tremor the cannon broke free of its centuries-old matrix and floated majestically to the surface, leaving a dark plume of mud behind.
We towed the prize to shore still suspended under its flotation bags, and a local crane operator lifted it onto the concrete quay. It was even more heavily encrusted than I had realized, not only with concretion but also with a substance I was later to be profoundly grateful for.... pepper. The WITTE LEEUW's manifest had listed 15.171 bags of that familiar spice, all of it unground and in the shape of minute corns. Unlike other spices the ship had carried, such as nutmeg and cloves, the pepper had withstood centuries of immersion in seawater and, as we were to discover, made superb packing material.
Slowly I chipped away at the cannon until at last part of an inscription emerged. In bold block letters I read "...REENICHDE..." and all at once our search was over. De Vereenichde Oost-Indig Comp, The United East India. Somewhere beneath the cannons lay the WITTE LEEUW's remains.

Success quickly led to complications. Further diving on the cannons revealed that only the original six were grouped together. We discovered a seventh gun some 170 feet from the others, and an eighth about 80 feet in an entirely different direction. The WITTE LEEUW, as I well knew, carried roughly thirty guns in a hull stretching more than a hundred feet. Obviously her remains were scattered over a wider area than accounts of the battle suggested. We decided to concentrate on the original group of six guns.

We turned a raft of empty oil drums into a diving platform by reinforcing it with lumber, then towed the platform to a mooring site directly above the group of cannons and set about finding what lay beneath them. Practically everything, as it turned out. Once past an initial layer of mud we came on a stratum of dead coral mixed with an incredible assortment of refuse, beer bottles, tin cans, old shoes, dinnerware, and even scattered bones that were likely those of St. Helena's wild goats. Then, on a memorable day, fragments of fine porcelain began to appear amid the rubbish.

We had reached a depth of ten feet below the floor of the bay and encountered a section of wooden decking above a mass of lead cakes, old bricks, and rounded riverbed stones. Plainly the latter were the WITTE LEEUW's ballast, and the decking, part of the lowest hold, was all that remained of her timbers. We would find no well-preserved hull such as that of the VASA, the famous 17th-century Swedish warship raised almost intact from Stockholm harbor in 1961. But other intact treasures were not far away.

We found them buried amid tons of pepper that lay strewn over a wide area under the guns in a dense layer as much as two yards thick. As we manned the air lifts to remove the layer, we literally 'peppered' the ocean floor with tiny granules. Underneath, as though carefully stored against the wear of centuries and the restless sea, we found more fragments and the whole masterpieces of exquisite Ming porcelain. As each new find emerged, we gazed with wonder at the miracle of porcelain, so fragile yet eternal.

Through my years of research into the Dutch East India Company and its trade with the Orient, I knew the history of what we held in our hands. This particular style of porcelain had been produced in the late 16th and early 17th centuries primarily at the city of Chingtechen, in China's southern province of Kiangsi. Fired during the reign of Emperor Wan Li, it represented one of the last flowerings of ceramic art under the great Ming Dynasty.

And it had taken Europe by storm. In the early 1600's the Dutch captured two Portuguese trading ships. Much of their cargo of lacquer ware, silks, and Ming porcelain, which the Dutch named 'kraak' for the carracks that bore it, was auctioned at Amsterdam, where the good burghers and their ladies were dazzled. Ultimately the Chinese use of cobalt oxide became known, giving rise to the Dutch blue-and-white pottery called 'delft'.


But what of the diamonds, 1.311 of them, that had gone down with the porcelain? Obviously they lay somewhere among the WITTE LEEUW's remains, though doubtless seperate from the other cargo. Such valuables were often stored aft in the safekeeping of the captain's quarters. If we could locate that section, we might add an even greater treasure to the one we had found.

To me, however, the thrill of recovering a unique work of art from the sea is perhaps greater than finding something as precious but familiar as diamonds. As I vacuumed away mud with the mouth of an air lift, my heart would begin thumping, for there would be the edge of a beautiful bowl or dish, as if suddenly created by the touch of a magician's wand. Putting aside the air lift, I would excavate with my fingers, probing as delicately as a surgeon. Often the treasure was heavily embadded, requiring extra work, while my diving watch told me I should already be at my first decompression stop.

Ah! At last I had it, almost free. No breaks so far; perhaps intact. Then suddenly it would drop into my outstretched hands and the crack or chip, if there was one, would reveal itself, always hidden until the very last. In such a way we recovered not only porcelain but also items of a more personal nature: a silver boatswain's whistle, a brass oil lamp complete with gimbals, perfectly preserved eggs, a collection of exotic Indonesian seashells, and the humble tableware with which the WITTE LEEUW's crew had perhaps eaten their final meal. We also found two beautiful bronze bow-chaser cannons, each weighing more than two and a half tons, with the name of the Amsterdam maker and date of casting inscribed on them: Henricus Meurs me fecit 1604.

And still no diamonds. Gradually the evidence indicated that the WITTE LEEUW broke in two as she sank, and though we ran exploratory shafts all around and into the mud, we could not locate the missing stern section. In other respect the WITTE LEEUW was an ideal wreck to work. On many a diving project we have had to contend with icy water, strong currents, heavy seas, and bad weather, but the WITTE LEEUW presented no such difficulties other than depth. Located inside James Bay in the lee of St. Helena, the wreck lay in calm water, and the surface wheather generally was mild.
One particular type of find needed only a kettle of boiling water and Alain Fink's genius with butter, cream sauterne, and grated cheese. From an underwater cave near the wreck, we occasionally extracted half a dozen sumptuous lobsters and brought them ashore for one of Alain's superb thermidors.

Seven months passed, and we finally concluded that our search methods had taken us as far as we could go. The job now called for a magnetometer to locate the remainder of the WITTE LEEUW 's buried cannons, her shot lockers, and other iron fittings that register on a magnetic probe. In that way we might find the ship's all-important stern section, with the diamonds, the officer's and passenger's jewelry, and most likely the very finest pieces of porcelain. Packing up, we said good-bye to the St. Helenians and returned to Europe to plan another diving season and to assess what we had so far recovered.

In the midst of those preparations I received a stunning surprise. Mr. Charles Kendall, the government secretary who had been a great help to us, forwarded a letter to me in Brussels that had been sent to him by a South African historian interested in the English East India Company. The letter contained a document that was totally unknown to me: an account of the 1613 battle as told by an English officer whose ship had witnessed the fight.

There was no mistaking the document's authenticity. Every detail matched the Portuguese and Dutch accounts of the battle, with one glaring exception, the manner of the WITTE LEEUW's end. Where others had reported the ship merely as "sunk", the Englishman had been more explicit. Of the WITTE LEEUW he wrote "...his men still plying his lower Ordnance.... one of his Peeces brake over his Powder Roome, as some thought, and the shippe blew up all to pieces, the after part of her, and so sunke presently."

Blew up to pieces, the after part of her..... Suddenly it became clear why we had failed to find the WITTE LEEUW's stern section: It no longer existed. Nor did the fine porcelain, while the jewelry and the diamonds obviously had been scattered far and wide by the explosion. If we spent years at it, we would find no more than a handful of the gems. The search for the WITTE LEEUW was over.

I felt no regret. We had been the first to find, study, and thoroughly salvage the wreck of a Dutch East Indiaman homeward bound from the Orient. Many of the items recovered, including the Ming porcelain, had not even appeared on the WITTE LEEUW's manifest. Other ships in the returning Dutch fleet that year had listed cases of china among their cargoes, but none gave a detailed description, much less even mentioned a different type of coarser ceramic, a stoneware known as Swatow, that we had also recovered from the WITTE LEEUW. And of course the personal items were absent from the manifest.

Thus, if one had tried to reconstruct the cargo of the WITTE LEEUW and her importance in the East Indies trade from documents alone, the picture would have been not only incomplete but misleading. As to the porcelain, experts find it extremely difficult to date 16th- and 17th-century styles precisely. Chinese ceramists, allthough they developed different styles in different periods and dynasties, always did so gradually and with considerable overlap among styles. To make matters worse, they frequently copied styles centuries afterward. The WITTE LEEUW collection, known to have been fired prior to the year 1613, provides an important baseline from which to analyze and date other contemporary Chinese porcelain.

Today, after a delay of some three and a half centuries, much of the collection is on display in Amsterdam's renowned Rijksmuseum, where scholars and experts the world over may study it for new knowledge and perspective on a culture that once had sizable impact on our own. There, too, many Dutch citizens will find fresh and dramatic evidence of the triumphs, the failures, and above all the courage of their seafaring ancestors. Perhaps that is the WITTE LEEUW's greatest treasure.

Bibliography and Sources:

Bruijn, J.R., Gaastra, F.S., Sch?ffer, I. Dutch-Asiatic Shipping In The 17th and 18th Centuries (3 Vols). The Hague, 1979, 1987

St?nuit, Robert. The Sunken Treasure of St. Helena. National Geographic, October 1978

St?nuit, Robert. De 'Witte Leeuw'. De schipbreuk van een schip van de v.o.c. in 1613 en het onderwateronderzoek naar het wrak in 1976. Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 1977

Pijl-Ketel, C.L. van der. Kist, J.B. The Ceramic Load of the 'Witte Leeuw' (1613). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 1982

Wilson, Derek. The World Atlas of Treasure. London, 1981

Muckelroy, Keith. Archaeology under Water. An Atlas of the World's Submerged Sites. New York, 1980


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Offline divesoton
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« Reply #1 on: November 08, 2009, 09:17:57 am »
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Excellent read,

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Offline Idaho Jones
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« Reply #2 on: November 08, 2009, 01:49:25 pm »
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Very neat story. I bet when she broke in half the stern captured an air pocket and drifted before settling. Almost like a whole new wreck still out there  Smiley

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« Reply #3 on: January 23, 2010, 11:16:33 pm »
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I thought I knew what those treasures,But wow
those treasures,Thay're Great

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« Reply #4 on: February 26, 2010, 01:04:39 am »
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I enjoy reading Christians story post very much....PLEASE don't stop.

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« Reply #5 on: February 26, 2010, 03:41:07 am »
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great  reading --wonderful story -- the portugese did a amazing thing 2 at anchor ships surprized and yet they fended off 4 dutch vessels --sinking 1 and damaging another forcing the other 2 to flee as well -- the capts on those boats I sure went to church later to thank god for his aid --

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« Reply #6 on: June 20, 2010, 11:24:23 pm »
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this is an incredible story. very inspiring for someone who is interested in archeology. i found it thouroughly fascinating.

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« Reply #7 on: September 30, 2010, 03:50:16 pm »
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Awesome read. That's an adventure we all aspire to.
Some day I hope to have an opportunity like that. Research some more and come tell us about it
Viking

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« Reply #8 on: October 12, 2010, 11:10:41 am »
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Awesome story very intresting

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« Reply #9 on: February 21, 2018, 08:33:41 am »
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I was fortunate to dive this site in 1998, and we recovered one of the last bronze cannon's from the wreck and gave it to the maritime museum on the Island of Saint Helena, where it sits on display to this day. No diamonds found though, which is a shame.

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