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Experts close to identifying 17th-century shipwreck

  • Mapping exercise: students from the maritime studies programme at East Carolina University map the wreck site (Photograph supplied)

A centuries-old shipwreck could shed further light on how early settlers survived in Bermuda.

Archaeologists investigating the unidentified wreck believe Bermudians salvaged materials after it grounded on the island’s western reefs.

Bradley Rodgers, Eastern Carolina University professor of maritime studies, said: “Salvage marks are plentiful on the disarticulated wreck and, though many of the fasteners and planks have been removed, many of the timber remains are in great condition.”

He added that it was not unusual for ships to be salvaged in the West End during the 17th century because this would put them out of sight of customs officials in the East End to avoid taxes or levies on the goods and materials retrieved.

The archaeological evidence suggested that Bermudians may have secretly transported the cargo ashore and floated the ship off the reef.

It was later hidden in a shallow bay to salvage arms, lumber and hardware, essential commodities for an isolated but growing colony.

The team from East Carolina University and the National Museum of Bermuda also believe they are one step closer to linking the ship to the almost 400-year-old story of a grounded Dutch privateer or pirate ship.

Dr Rodgers said: “The ship remains appear to be early and significant, and archaeological evidence demonstrates unmistakable traits of northern Dutch design, techniques that have not been used in four centuries.

The team said the shipwreck may be a wooden sailing ship, described by Nathaniel Butler, the fifth governor of Bermuda, as a Dutch pinnace, a light ship often used for smuggling or raiding, which had travelled from the Caribbean.

The ship was said to have grounded on the reef in 1619 and the Dutch and English crew were rescued and repatriated within a year.

It is hoped further historical and archaeological studies will reveal new details about life in the 17th century and the early settlement of Bermuda.

Elena Strong, NMB executive director, said: “The economics and impact of salvage in the early settlement of Bermuda has not yet fully been explored by academics and can provide a fascinating window into how the first Bermudians survived on an isolated island.

“Bermuda’s rich underwater cultural heritage, which is protected by law, is not only a valuable cultural tourism asset, but also comprises a tangible archive of the interaction of African, American and European cultures over five centuries.

“Over the past 40 years, research on these wrecks has yielded considerable data informing historical narratives about the lives of the people who depended on these vessels to ferry goods and people to various ports along the Atlantic littoral.”

Dr Rodgers first examined the wreck, in a harbour at the West End of the island and a short distance from the Dutch pinnace’s last known position, in 2008.

He recognised it as an early and significant vessel type and returned with a team from ECU in May 2017.

They mounted the first scientific exploration of the site with the NMB, archaeologically examining, mapping and recording the exposed sections of the wreck.

The team has documented enough of the site to identify ship construction techniques matching those described in Dutch documents from the 17th century.

The wood was also identified as greenheart, a New World timber harvested in Dutch trading territory in South America, likely what is now Suriname.

The few artefacts seen also reflected early 17th century Dutch and northern European origin.

Dr Rodgers said more work was needed to verify the find, which he said was “one of the more confusing wreck sites we have ever studied — it has been completely taken apart down to the fastenings”.

He added that it may represent one of the earliest colonial-built Dutch vessels discovered in the Americas.

Dr Rodgers said it could also be the earliest and perhaps only properly archaeologically documented privateer or pirate vessel.