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Shipwreck excavations off Kent coast shed new light on voyagers’ untold stories

The ship is being excavated because it is at risk from the currents and shifting sands.

A shipwreck that has laid off the Kent coast for more than 250 years is helping shed new light on international trade on the high seas, including the lucrative and endemic smuggling that went with it.

The Dutch East India Company vessel Rooswijk sank on the treacherous Goodwin Sands in 1740, with the loss of an estimated 250 lives, just a day after leaving the Netherlands bound for what is now Jakarta in Indonesia.

She was packed with an official cargo of silver bullion and coins with which to buy spices and Oriental porcelain that were in demand in the upper echelons of Enlightenment Europe.

But an Anglo-Dutch team excavating the wooden wreck six miles off the Channel coast has discovered items that shed a light on the untold stories of those aboard, including their efforts to get rich on the quiet by buying their own illicit luxuries.

They smuggled out their own silver cargo, ranging from a handful of coins secreted on the bodies of simple deckhands to the larger-scale rogue trading carried out by the ship’s captain, Daniel Ronzieres.

Project leader Martijn Manders, from the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands, which is working with Historic England on the excavation, told the Press Association: “There was a shortage of silver and that shortage of silver was in the place where they could buy precious materials to sell in Europe again.

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Pewter spoons found during the excavation works (Lauren Hurley/PA)

“Suddenly these few coins of silver were worth almost twice as much because they had transported them to the Indies. So it was quite lucrative.

“Everyone would smuggle silver; it was the simple sailor who smuggled coins in his belt, in his shoe, to the East Indies.

“But it was also the captain as well, who even had an office in Amsterdam and people were coming to the office and handing over money for him to bring to the Indies so they could earn more money from those silver coins.”

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Musket balls found during the excavation works on the Rooswijk (Lauren Hurley/PA)

The ship, which lies on and under the seabed 26 metres down, is being excavated because it is at risk from the currents and shifting sands.

An excavation in 2005 recovered lots of silver and more coinage has been found this time, along with irregularly shaped “pieces of eight” – weights of silver hacked off an ingot.

They have also found items including as-yet unopened chests, leather shoes, glass bottles and pewter jugs.

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Conservation team members Elisabeth Kuiber and Eric Nordgren with finds including a spoon (Lauren Hurley/PA)

They are being desalinated, a process like that carried out on the Tudor warship Mary Rose, at a facility by the harbour in Ramsgate, Kent, which will be opened to the public for the first time on Saturday August 19.

Rooswijk was owned by what is known in Dutch as the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), which had a state monopoly on spice importation from the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia.

It lost some 250 ships over the years it was in operation, of which just a third have been located.

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