By Leigh Bishop.
A mysterious shipwreck off the coast of Africa intrigued an international team to investigate further. Mounting an expedition based on a remote jungle island was an adventure of a lifetime, and what followed was a masterpiece of detective work, uncovering one of the most intriguing shipwreck stories of all time.
With the midday sun high in the sky, light levels and visibility in such a shallow depth could not have been better. Kiersten Mottl was close by my side as we worked our way through the wreckage spread across the rocky reef. A hint of gold had caught her eye and raised excitement. According to records of lost ships along the African coastline, this wreck could possibly be one to have been carrying gold. A clear and obvious buzzing in her earphones from the underwater metal detector had picked up a promising lead beneath the seabed. As she dug in the sand, the bright sunrays sparkled on a beautiful gold ring. Would our mystery wreck reveal its name? Was it carrying a cargo more exciting than we could ever imagine?
Sierra Leone is not a destination that crops up too often on the radar of dive destinations. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, home of serious health issues, not to mention world epidemic outbreaks, such as Ebola. This was a true expedition like I had never experienced before. A chance to base myself on a remote jungle island, with a group of international divers exploring a shipwreck, possibly 300 years old. At 10m the wreck was shallow, and close to shore. Could it have be a heavily armed slave ship that found her demise in a bad storm? This part of Africa (particularly Sierra Leone) was a well-known slave trading location.
Our task here was to search amongst the rocks of the reef for signs of porcelain or cargo. Better still, anything that would give us a clue as to the wreck’s name and the mystery of why it ended its life here on the reef at the western tip of Banana Islands.
Towards the south-western end of the wreck, fragments of porcelain had been found, perhaps a stern cargo area, located in a lower hold. Dives would last approximately an hour with no decompression; visibility was good and working as a team made each task easier. The first two weeks of the expedition were spent documenting a full analysis of the site.
Kiersten, along with Mark ‘Sharky’ Alexander, worked with me to set up an archaeological grid system to systematically photograph each section with a view to making a larger photomosaic of the entire site. We had recorded 29 cannons and five anchors, indicating this was no small ship.
So how exactly did this African adventure begin? The previous year I took a call from a good friend, Polish diver Peter Wytykowski. Peter was making a second expedition and had asked me to join him. “It’s not deep,” he said, “but logistically it will be quite challenging.” Peter knew a Greek diver by the name of Greg Delichristos, who had stumbled on the wreck whilst travelling across Africa.
Arriving in the capital city of Freetown, several days were spent navigating our way through bustling streets in search of the supplies that would be needed. There was little if anything on the island and everything would have to be taken with us. We intended to build our own airlift to excavate the seabed below the reef, so we would need compressors not only to fill cylinders daily, but also to drive the lift.
Solving problems and repairing equipment in a developing nation would become the norm. If we had not brought it with us we had to build or make it. Being based on a jungle island meant living in a very close relationship with the surrounding fauna. The only barrier at night from the unpleasant touch of a spider or a scorpion was a mosquito net over my bed. On one occasion a deadly two metre-long cobra snake was smoked out of my bamboo hut with the help of local villagers!
Diving continued on the wreck site for almost three weeks. Hundreds of images were taken and all the cannons were fully documented.
Markings discovered on the cannons indicated they were Swedish guns made by a company who were supplier of cannons for the Dutch market. Fixtures on our wreck were common to finds on other Dutch East Indian wrecks discovered around the world.
Though our fieldwork in Sierra Leone laid a good foundation to work from, but with no solid evidence as to the wreck’s exact name, we knew it was now a case of some serious research. Wood samples chemically analysed by experts proved a fire at some point, whilst ceramic specialists dated the porcelain to the second quarter of the Eighteenth Century.
I then came into contact with a researcher named Arthur Scheijde, from the Netherlands. Arthur had access to the Dutch National Royal Library at The Hague and through some ingenious research and numerous pages of documents, put us on the path to the wreck’s true identity. A ship named Diemermeer previously ruled out, became a lead suspect.
From our fieldwork in Sierra Leone we concluded the cannons were manufactured for the VOC chamber of Amsterdam. Diemermeer was also from Amsterdam. Then, in a hidden document, we found this: “The Dutch ship Diemermeer, returning from Ceylon without a Cape call, was becalmed off the Guinea coast in 1747, losing all but nine of her crew. Her hempen cable eventually parted and she ran on shore where she was pillaged and burnt by villagers. There were only two survivors.”
Chemically-analysed timber from the wreck site proved there had been a fire onboard. Diemermeer was fast becoming a strong candidate for our mystery shipwreck. We then discovered a newspaper clipping from July 1748 that mentioned the fire in more detail, as well as the Banana Islands!
Our mystery shipwreck was the Diemermeer built in 1736 for the Dutch East India Company in Amsterdam. She served as a trade ship between the Dutch East India colonial territories and the Netherlands 1737–1747.
Diemermeer was homebound from Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, having travelled for seven long months. In August of 1747, the remaining crew had landed near the Banana Islands with only around ten men left. All were sick including the captain. Anchor was dropped close to shore and rescue shots fired for three days straight. No one came to the rescue. In a desperate attempt, they cut the anchor rope, leaving the ship to drift towards shore, and all but two men went into the jungle to seek help. Archive documents then state that “several hundred negroes” appeared from the jungle, rushed to the ship, plundered everything they could carry off and then set fire to her.
In the Dutch province of Zeeland the Eenhoorn (unicorn), captained by Klaes Pietersz, had returned from the coast of Guinea in 1748 with news. On December 25 1747, along the African coastline, the Eenhoorn had met with another Dutch ship named the Blessed Sugarcane whose captain went by the name of Jonas Rust. Rust knew of Diemermeer’s fate and Pietersz carried this news back to the Netherlands, arriving in July the following year. From archival material it appears that the Blessed Sugarcane was in the vicinity when the Diemermeer arrived at Banana Islands. As the islanders plundered and set fire to the ship, Rust had saved the two men who remained aboard to guard their ship.
The saved men had not known the fate of the remaining crew, assuming they had been murdered in the jungle. Although Diemermeer was not a slave trader, the indigenous people would not have known this, and they most certainly would not have welcomed the crewmembers onto their island.
Experts identified the porcelain from the wreck as Batavia-style, Kang shi dynasty vintage. From this evidence, research continued at the National Archives in Sri Lanka and a document dated May 1 1746 specified consignments of indigenous medicines of Ceylon were sent to Batavia (today Jakarta) by various ships including the Diemermeer, confirming its presence in Batavia.
Not only had we identified our shipwreck and her demise, we had now begun to piece together Diemermeer‘s work around the Indian Ocean. What we discovered next was quite extraordinary. In the National Library of Australia we discovered the original navigational map Diemermeer had used on her final voyage around the world! These maps are very rare, hand drawn and usually destroyed when new maps were made. Only about a dozen are known to exist. VOC maps with a ship’s passage drawn on them are even rarer, and that’s exactly what we had.
On it we could just make out a course plotted either by the navigator or Captain. By digitally enhancing the markings we revealed, quite literally, the last voyage of our ship. Their passage makes way around the Cape of Good Hope, into the Indian Ocean following the south-west Indian ridge and directly across to Amsterdam Island. From there, they made passage north to Ceylon then westbound to Java. Her final passage took them via Cocos Islands all the way back across the Indian Ocean stopping in South Africa before heading northbound towards Sierra Leone.
We can only assume this map was left in South Africa and a new one was taken onboard for the remainder of the voyage. Why the entire crew but ten perished remains a mystery. Was it scurvy or did they succumb to an ill-fated death from indigenous African tribes elsewhere?
The divers were: Peter Wytykowski, Mark ‘Sharky’ Alexander, Robert Gluchowski, Kiersten Mottl and Leigh Bishop.