Sussex wreck identified as historic Dutch warship

NAS divers measuring timbers on the Klein Hollandia (Martin Davies)
NAS divers measuring timbers on the Klein Hollandia (Martin Davies)

A protected wreck found by a scuba diver off the Sussex coast has been identified four years on as the 17th-century Dutch warship Klein Hollandia.

Built in 1656 and owned by the Admiralty of Rotterdam, the ship was involved in every major battle of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667) before sinking in 1672, says Historic England (HE).

Over the past year, HE specialists have worked with experts from the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) and the Nautical Archaeology Society (NAS) to examine evidence being gathered by a team of professional and volunteer divers. They have also undertaken archival research and tree-ring analysis of timber samples from the 32m-deep wreck. 

Bronze gun with cuttlefish (James Clark)
Bronze gun with cuttlefish at the wreck-site (James Clark)

The wreck was first noted as a seabed anomaly by the UK Hydrographic Office in 2015. Four years later Eastbourne dive-operator David Ronnan dived the site and confirmed that it was a shipwreck. He reported his discovery to HE, which considered it important enough to recommend that same year that it should be granted the highest level of protection, under the Protection of Wrecks Act.

Only licensed divers are allowed to visit the wreck-site. Licensees Ronnan and NAS CEO Mark Beattie-Edwards have been investigating it since 2019, and with NAS staff and volunteer divers have undertaken 282 dives to build a comprehensive picture of a wreck they describe as being in “remarkable” condition.

Much of the timber hull has been found, along with cannon and Italian marble tiles and pottery.

Diver holding Bellarmine jug (James Clark)
Diver holding an intact Bellarmine jug (James Clark)
Marble tile (NAS)
Marble tile (NAS)
Bricks (NAS)
Bricks (NAS)

New technology

In August 2020, with all the clues pointing towards the wreck being Dutch, the RCE funded an NAS survey that included the recovery of two cut stone tiles for analysis by HE experts.

Microscopic and isotope analysis identified the marble as coming from the Apuan Alps quarries near Carrara in Italy. Bound for the Netherlands, the tiles would have been used to build high-status homes.

During 2021 the divers documented damage to the site, which added urgency to their investigation. The joint project involved iusing new technology to forensically mark the objects on the seabed, making them traceable and representing what HE describes as “a large step forward in the protection of vulnerable underwater archaeological sites”.

NAS diver examines the brick galley floor (Martin Davies)
NAS diver examines the brick galley floor (Martin Davies)
1670 date marked on gun (Martin Davies)
1670 date marked on gun (Martin Davies)
Gun-maker's name (James Clark)
Gun-maker's name (James Clark)

“From our very first dive on the wreck, back in April 2019, we have been fascinated by the range of material on the seabed,” says Beattie Edwards. “The impressive amount of wooden hull structure, the ship's cannons, the beautifully cut marble tiles, as well as the pottery finds, all point towards this being a Dutch ship from the late 17th century coming back from Italy. 

“Now, after four years of investigation and research, we can confidently identify the vessel.”

Surprised at Isle of Wight

In 1672, the Klein Hollandia was part of the squadron of Admiral de Haese, escorting a fleet from the Mediterranean into the English Channel en route to the Netherlands. This was then attacked by an English squadron under Admiral Sir Robert Holmes at the Isle of Wight.

A fierce battle on the second day, 23 March, resulted in severe damage to the Klein Hollandia and the death of her commander Jan Van Nes. The ship was boarded by the English but sank shortly afterwards, taking both English and Dutch sailors with her. The surprise action contributed to the start of the Third Anglo-Dutch War.

Two guns found at the site (Cathy de Lara)
Two guns found at the site (Cathy de Lara)
Conger eel in gun barrel (James Clark)
Conger eel in gun barrel (James Clark)

“Without responsible management, wrecks like these will disappear,” commented Dutch State Secretary for Culture & Media Gunay Uslu. “Therefore international collaboration with partners like the UK is important and highly appreciated; it helps us to actively preserve valuable maritime heritage for current and future generations.”

HE and the RCE have previously collaborated on investigating the Rooswijk, a Dutch East India Company ship lost on the Goodwin Sands in 1740. The Klein Hollandia wreck will be featured on the BBC2 TV series Digging For Britain at 8pm tomorrow (29 January).

Mark Beattie-Edwards with Alice Roberts in Digging For Britain (BBC)
Mark Beattie-Edwards of the NAS with Alice Roberts in Digging For Britain (BBC)

Also on Divernet: Divers Find Smuggled Coins On Rooswijk, Spotlit: England's Historic Shipwreck Sites, Cash For Divers Recovering Artefacts, Hack Means NAS Needs Help With Anchors

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