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Atlantic Ocean blaze signalled end of reliable service record

M.S. Johan Van Oldenbarnevelt sank at age 33

Tags: Immigration

The M.S. Johan van Oldenbarnevelt - named after a 17th century Dutch statesman who, having been accused of treason died on the scaffold - died an unnatural death as well. The ship - just months earlier it had been renamed 'Lakonia' - was destroyed by fire at sea about 200 miles off Madeira, Spain on December 22, 1963. She had over 1,000 people on board of whom 128 perished in the quick-spreading blaze. The survivors all took to the life boats. Affectionately referred to by many as (just) "the Oldenbarnevelt", the ship sank a week later while it was towed to Gibraltar by the Norwegian salvage tug Herkulus.

The Johan van Oldenbarnevelt was built in Amsterdam at the Nederlandse Scheepsbouw Maatschappij, dockyard 194. Upon completion the ship registered 19,040 GRT, measured 185.4 by 22.8 metres, had twin propellors and came equipped with a Sluzer diesel engine. "Johan" had a maximum speed of 19 knots and was launched on August 3, 1929. Construction was completed on March 13, 1930, after which she made her maiden voyage under the flag of Stoomvaart Maatschappij Nederland of Amsterdam. She (a ship is always a 'she' in English) provided four levels of passenger accommodation, 366 in first class, 280 in second, 64 in third, and 60 in fourth class. The crew numbered 360. At the outbreak of WWII the Johan van Oldenbarnevelt had been chartered by the Holland America Line to sail to New York. As was the case with many liners, she was directed to a shipyard (of Harland & Wolff) in 1940, to be refitted as a troop transport ship. Until 1945, Willemstad, Curaçao served as "Johan's" home base.

In 1946, she resumed her services on the Amsterdam-Batavia route after a work over in the shipyards. She took back (and forth) survivors from the Japanese concentration camps who were being forced out of a politically volatile colony of whom many returned for awhile. In 1950, the ship was used for the first time to transport Dutch immigrants to Sydney, Australia. Subsequently she was specifically refitted to transport immigrants, after which she could accommodate 1,414 passengers, nearly double the original number of 774.

In 1959, the Johan van Oldenbarnevelt again underwent remodeling, now for world cruises. She was then able to accommodate 1210 passengers in the tourist class and in April she set sail on the new Amsterdam-Sydney-New York-Amsterdam route.

In 1962, the Johan van Oldenbarnevelt was sold to a Greek ship owner. She was again remodeled and in 1963, re-christened 'Lakonia', she began cruises between Southampton (England) and the Canary Islands. It was on this route that she went down.

The "Johan" which for many from the Dutch East Indies was the ultimate escape vehicle to peace and liberty, found a grave on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, about 250 miles west of Gibraltar.