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Shipwreck reveals secrets of 17th -century Dutch seafaring domination

Many Dutch ships passed the West Australian coast while en route to Southeast Asia in the 1600s. Now one of those ships, the national heritage-listed shipwreck Batavia, is revealing through its preserved timbers the history of the shipbuilding materials that enabled Dutch East India Company (VOC) to flourish against major European rivals for the first time.

Built in Amsterdam between 1626-1628 and wrecked on its maiden voyage in June 1629 on Morning Reef off Beacon Island (Houtman Abrolhos Archipelago), Batavia epitomizes Dutch East India (VOC) shipbuilding at its finest in the Golden Age.

Experts now have revealed in the study, “Batavia shipwreck timbers reveal a key to Dutch success in 17th-century world trade,” led by Flinders University archaeologist Associate Professor Wendy van Duivenvoorde with co-authors Associate Professor and ERC grantee Aoife Daly at the University of Copenhagen and Marta Domínguez-Delmás, Research Associate and VENI Fellow at the University of Amsterdam.

The 1629 Batavia ship remains on display at the Western Australian Shipwrecks Museum in Fremantle. Photo courtesy of Patrick E. Baker, Western Australian Museum.

“The use of wind-powered sawmills became commonplace in the Dutch republic towards the mid-17th century, allowing the Dutch to produce unprecedented numbers of ocean-going ships for long-distance voyaging and interregional trade in Asia, but how did they organize the supply of such an intensive shipbuilding activity? The Dutch Republic and its hinterland certainly lacked domestic resources,” said van Duivenvoorde.

In-depth sampling of Batavia’s hull timbers for dendrochronological research, published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, offers a piece of the puzzle of early Dutch 17th century shipbuilding and global seafaring that was still missing.

According to the study’s authors, dendrochronological analysis of shipwreck timbers provides direct evidence of ancient craftsmanship and woodworking techniques, timber procurement areas, and trade connections in specific historical periods, bridging the gap between the historical and archaeological records.

Aoife Daly extracting a tree-ring sample from the Batavia ship’s hull planking. Photo courtesy of W. van Duivenvoorde.

As part of the team’s study, a total of 137 samples were collected from 101 timbers conserved by treatment with polyethylene glycol and analyzed by dendrochronology between 2007 and 2017. Twelve samples came from cross-sections of timber elements that were stored in boxes after being conserved, but all of the remaining samples were obtained from timbers from the ship that is on display. They were collected with either a 5-millimeter-diameter, manually driven Haglöf increment borer or with a 16-millimeter-diameter, dry-wood borer driven by a power drill.

In the 17th century, the VOC grew to become the first multinational trading enterprise, prompting the rise of the stock market and modern capitalism. During this century, a total of 706 ships were built on the VOC shipyards in the Dutch Republic and 75 of these were shipwrecked and 23 captured by enemy forces or pirates.

However, little is understood about the timber materials that enabled the Dutch to build their ocean-going vessels and dominate international trade against competitors in France, Portugal, and continental Europe.

“Oak was the preferred material for shipbuilding in northern and western Europe, and maritime nations struggled to ensure sufficient supplies to meet their needs and sustain their ever-growing fleets. Our results demonstrate that the VOC successfully coped with timber shortages in the early 17th century through diversification of timber sources,” explained Domínguez Delmás.

Fortunately, the ship’s remains were raised in the 1970s and are on display at the Western Australian Shipwrecks Museum in Fremantle.

This allowed archaeologists and dendrochronologists from Flinders University, the University of Amsterdam, and the University of Copenhagen to undertake the sampling and analysis of the hull timbers.

“The preference for specific timber products from selected regions demonstrates that the choice of timber was far from arbitrary. Our results illustrate the variety of timber sources supplying the VOC Amsterdam shipyard in the 1620s and demonstrate the builders’ careful timber selection and skilled craftsmanship,” said Daly.

These timber sources (mainly Baltic region, Lübeck hinterland in northern Germany, and Lower Saxony in northwest Germany), as well as regions for specific timber products (hull planks from the Baltic and Lübeck, framing elements from Lower Saxony), and skillful woodworking craftmanship (sapwood was removed from all timber elements) enabled the Dutch to overcome the shortages.

Cross-section of oak hull plank from 1629 Batavia ship showing its tree-rings. This sample was extracted from a loose hull plank in 2007 before the research team came up with a much less destructive method of sampling. Photo courtesy of Patrick E. Baker, Western Australian Museum).

“Our results contribute to the collective knowledge about north European timber trade and illustrate the geographical extent of areas supplying timber for shipbuilding in the Dutch Republic in the 17th century,” added van Duivenvoorde.

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