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Dutch East Indies destined merchandise preserved in North Sea shallows

VOC treasures back in the Netherlands

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

Vlissengen, the Netherlands - Some of the merchandise aboard the VOC ship ‘De Rooswijk’ destined for the Dutch East Indies in 1740 has been returned ‘undelivered’ to the Netherlands over 265 years later. Now declared heritage objects and worth a fortune, the items never made it past the English Channel. Instead, the treasure lay hidden on the bottom of the North Sea for centuries where the ship sunk in a heavy January storm. Now on display in Flushing’s nautical MuZEEum, the collection quickly attracted the attention of two outgoing cabinet ministers, Van der Hoeven of Education and Zalm of Finance.

The coming months, the MuZEEum will be involved with the preservation of the ‘Rooswijk’ artifacts which will be examined and studied by museum personnel along with a team of the National Department for Archaeology, Heritage Landscapes and Monuments (Rijksdienst voor Archeologie, Cultuurlandschap en Monument). Afterwards, the artifacts will be sent to other museums, so the public elsewhere will be able to view these historic treasures as well.

Rooswijk tragedy

On January 9, 1740, just one day after setting sail from Texel, the ship De Rooswijk tried to weather a violent storm by dropping its anchor on Goodwin Shallows near Ramsgate off the southeastern tip on the English coast. Eager to depart after having waited for weeks for suitable weather, the sudden storm surprised the crew. Unfortunately, the crew failed miserably in its attempts to steady the ship, and lost everything, including the ship’s precious cargo.

In late 1739, De Rooswijk was one of a number of the ships of the Dutch East India Company that plied the freight route to and from the Indies. At the company’s Amsterdam warehouse, accountants and other officials had, among a long list of merchandise, checked off the 30 chests of silver coins which primarily were minted in Mexico. Each pine chest was wrapped in canvas, tied with rope, and sealed in red wax with the seal of the captain.


Today, the Rooswijk’s numismatic treasures offer a rare opportunity to examine the coinage of that period. What makes this shipwreck and discovery so unique is that the coins represent a transitional period in the history of the Mexico City Mint. In the early 1730's, the introduction of new minting equipment lead to the gradual phasing out of older methods and numerous different coin types and varieties.

In 1733, the Mexican mint produced more different types and varieties of 8 Reales than in any other single year, and marked the end of the end of the "Cob" coinage production. The four major types were: Cobs, Cobs struck with "Klippe" dies, Klippes and the Milled "Pillar Dollar".


In December 2005, it became known that a team led by Rex Cowan had recovered a part of the ship and its contents. The recovery work had been carried out quietly to stave off looters. Discovered by an amateur diver the year before, Rooswijk lay at a depth of about 24 metres in a shallow area where hundreds of ship wrecks dot the bottom of the sea. The artifacts recovered include approximately one thousand bars of silver and many gold coins, worth a fortune. There are still plenty of other artifacts to admire, including cooking utensils, a pair of glasses, and a mustard jar with a spoon still in it. A thick layer of sand protected them from oxygen and bacteria, preserving the relics well.

According to museum officials, seen from a historical viewpoint, the other objects on display from the VOC ship are more important than all the silver coins and gold ingots. The ship was carrying a great deal of cargo which the crew, soldiers and passengers would need on the voyage as well as things which had been requested by company officials in Asia. Little is currently known about these kinds of artifacts and how they were packaged at the time, making a find of this kind priceless, and much more important and interesting than the silver treasure.


The VOC, also dubbed as the "Floating Republic," was the world’s most powerful corporation in the 17th century. Established on March 20, 1602, when the Estates-General of the Netherlands granted it a 21-year trade monopoly in Asia, the VOC was the first multinational corporation in the world, and the first one to issue shares. The VOC remained an important trading concern for almost two centuries, until it after years of struggling to stay afloat, it went bankrupt in 1798. Although corruption affected the company badly, the capture of Dutch ships by the English who were at war with France and its conquered neighbours hastened this failure. The company’s assets fell to the Batavian Republic, the legal successor of which is the current Dutch State, which therefore is entitled to the artifacts of the Rooswijk.

Under the succession law, the State Property Department represents the Netherlands as proprietor. In case of underwater archaeology abroad, three ministries cooperate in order to preserve the heritage pieces for future generations. The ministries involved are the Ministries of Education, Culture and Science, of Finance and of Foreign Affairs.