The story of the tragic voyage of the Dutch cargo ship ‘The Amsterdam’ and its subsequent shipwreck on Bulverhythe Beach in 1749.
It was the pride of the VOC1 and named ‘Amsterdam’, in honour of the great city in which it was built, the home of Rembrandt and Vermeer also known as the ‘Venice of the North’. It was one of the mighty East Indiamen2, and would be sailing to the Dutch East Indies, bearing 28 chests of silver to trade for the finest silks and porcelain.
It was fitted with 54 cannons to protect it from the robbers and plunderers on the high seas and thought to withstand the harshest of weathers. Completed in the year 1748, it was bound for Batavia3, the centre of a great Dutch Trading Empire, one of the greatest powers the world had seen.
The Amsterdam was an imposing sight with carved figurines at at the stern painted in bright colours and a gilded lion figurehead at the bow, a symbol of Dutch power. But little did anyone know what fate would befall it, when it set sail from Texel4 on that fateful January day in 1749.
Captain Willem Klump embraced his wife and children and bid farewell at ‘The Place of Tears’5 , imagining that he wouldn’t see them again for at least two years. And as he sailed away, he waved a further adieu to the dykes and the windmills he knew so well, he was bound for a more exotic shore.
This was Klump’s second trip to Batavia and already he regarded himself as a veteran. He had impressed his masters at the VOC, who were giving him the command of this prestigious ship. It is up to history to judge whether their confidence was misplaced.
When the Amsterdam set sail, there were 203 crew members, 130 soldiers and 5 passengers. The ordinary crew members were from the lowest classes, mainly illiterate people living in cruel and inhumane conditions in the slums of Amsterdam. Signing on for a passage was often a last resort and the crew were routinely treated savagely by the officers; the large group of soldiers on board were not needed for defence only, but also to keep control of the crew.
Adrian Welgevaren was probably the youngest person on the ship, not yet 16 years of age and was one of three cabin boys. Unlike many of the crew, he came from a wealthy family and was Captain Klump’s cabin boy, under his personal protection. Poor Adrian, the Captain’s protection was worth nothing, as we shall come to hear.
The voyage was doomed from the start, the ship made two abortive attempts to set sail, and was forced to turn back both times due to atrocious weather. Eventually, on the 7th January, the weather had eased sufficiently to allow the Amsterdam to begin its fateful journey.
But the seeds of destruction were already being sown in the lower quarters, as men were laid low by a mystery illness. Before the ship set sail, one of the crew had been carried almost lifeless on board, and within a few hours was dead. In a matter of days, scores of men were sick and dying, with the illness spreading like wildfire, exacerbated by the insanitary conditions.6
By the middle of January , the Amsterdam was in the vicinity of Rye, fighting mountainous seas, in one of the worst storms in living memory. Not only were men dying from the fever that was raging through the ship, others were being washed overboard or dying from cold or exhaustion. It must have seemed like hell on earth.
There was no break in the storm and by the 23rd of January, the Amsterdam was struggling towards Pevensey Bay, when calamity struck and the rudder was torn off making the most terrible sound. The ship was at the mercy of the waves and out of control, drifting towards Bexhill.
At this point Klump, dropped Anchor in shallow water to ride out the storm. But fate was not looking kindly on Klump that day. A small group of men from Hastings rowed out to the Amsterdam and offered assistance, but Klump declined and decided to try and make his way to Portsmouth for repairs once the storm had abated.
This fateful decision may have been the catalyst for what happened next, as something in the crew finally snapped. With 50 of their number already dead and almost as many too ill to care, the rest of the crew took matters into their own hands and made the decision to mutiny. To give them courage, the men broke into the stores and started to consume large quantities of gin and wine.
It appeared that shots were fired and somehow, the cabin boy, poor Adrian Welgevaren was killed, ironically on his 16th birthday. His bones were discovered during excavations in 1969 and now reside in Hastings Shipwreck Museum7
They then forced the Captain to guide the ship towards the nearest shore, probably using a temporary rudder, and there at Bulverhythe beach, on a stormy Sunday afternoon on 25th January of 1749, the Amsterdam finally ground to a halt lying helplessly on the soft sand like a beached whale.
Meanwhile, back in Hastings, the townsfolk were in St. Clement’s Church for evensong, when they heard a cannon firing a distress call. In the congregation was the Customs Officer for Eastbourne, Thomas Smith, who was brother-in -law to one of Hastings most famous residents John Collier8. Smith, together with the Mayor of Hastings, William Thorpe hurriedly made their way towards Bulverhythe, not knowing what they would find, only to be greeted by the sound of drunken singing from the crew.
Somehow, in the general mayhem, a notorious Hastings smuggler, Anthony Watson managed to make off with one of the chests of silver, some of which eventually was recovered, but Watson and his share of the booty were never seen again. It was at this point that William Thorpe sent troops down to the shore to guard the ship, however there was a last twist in this tale, when a local man was shot, trying to board the ship; this was the Amsterdam’s last victim of this doomed ship.
From the very first moment that the ship was grounded on the beach it started sinking into the sand of Bulverhythe; once the job of rescuing the silver bullion had been completed, it soon became impossible to rescue much more from the ship. Within a few weeks the ship had almost disappeared, only to reappear every low tide in the form that we see it today.
According to local accounts at the time, the people of Hastings had shown friendship and compassion for the rescued survivors, putting them up in their houses and caring for the sick. However, it is a strange fact that there is no evidence of any of dead crew being buried locally in any of the churchyards; where these men ended up is a mystery unlikely to ever be solved.
And so the Amsterdam lay almost forgotten, except by local people, for over 200 years. It was not until 1969 that a contractor, putting in a sewer nearby, started digging in the middle of the boat and finding all manner of antiquities. As local treasure hunters descended on the scene, chaos ensued and eventually the archeologists stepped in. Peter Marsden, a renowned Marine Archeologist, was put in charge of the operation and they carried out a detailed archaeological survey during that year and a further survey in 1984. As a result of Marsden’s efforts, the Amsterdam is now protected by Historic England, due to its international importance.
Peter Marsden went to on to found the Hastings Shipwreck Museum and some of the treasures found from the Amsterdam can be viewed in the museum.
Several years ago, a small group of people were gathered together on an early spring morning at Bulverhythe beach. We knew it was going to be a special morning, it was a low spring tide, and we were waiting for our guide from Hastings Shipwreck museum, who was going to take us on a tour of the extraordinary hidden world of Bulverhythe beach. At that time, I knew very little of the history of Bulverhythe, but this was soon to change.
As we followed our guide, we tentatively made our way across the sand. Many people are unaware that there are pockets of unstable sand at Bulverhythe at very low spring tides, where the underlying clay slurry can make its way to the surface and care needs to be taken to avoid any treacherous areas.
During the fascinating hour that we spent on the sands, we learnt about the large area of Cretaceous Rocks, that lay to the west of the wreck. These can be dated to approximately 135 million year ago, back in the mists of time, when Hastings basked in a tropical climate and was situated at the equator. A taste of things to come.
We then moved to an area just east of the wreck, which at first looks like a group of strange rocks, but when you bend down to touch these objects, you find they have a soft spongy quality and on closer inspection you realise you are looking at a forest of old tree trunks. This is the remains of an ancient forest and wooded valley that once ran along Bulverhythe beach over 4000 years ago, when water levels were 6 metres lower than today at the beginning of the Bronze Age.
Finally, we moved on to the main event and reached the Amsterdam just in time, before the tide turned. When you first see it you feel slightly disappointed and have a feeling, ‘is this all there is’, but when you use your imagination and realise that these small protrusions, sticking out of the sand, are hiding a wonderful secret beneath your feet, you understand that you are looking at something truly fascinating and historic. The ship lies 8 metres down in the sand and still contains a large part of the cargo and personal possessions, seemingly, forever lost.
This article would not have been possible without reference, firstly to the Guide Booklet written by Peter Marsden and published by The Shipwreck and Heritage Centre, Hastings, but mainly to the definitive book ‘The Wreck of the Amsterdam’ also written by Peter Marsden, but now sadly out of print. This book tells you everything you ever wanted or needed to know about the tragic journey of the Amsterdam and its aftermath.
And what of the future for the Amsterdam? The ship and its contents are protected by the British, but are owned by the Dutch Government, and there have been various campaigns to excavate, raise and transport the ship back to its home in Amsterdam, where it could be conserved and exhibited, similar to our own ‘Mary Rose’ in Portsmouth. It has alas all come to nothing, mainly due to the vast cost involved and it may never rise from its watery grave.
The ship lies buried deep, probably forever, in the alluvial clay of this ancient river valley bed, where our ancestors hunted for food along its wooded banks. In time, the Amsterdam will decay and fade into legend, a distant folk memory for our descendants in the far future, if the human race survives that long.
1 – VOC is an abbreviation for Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company), the Dutch equivalent of the British East India Company. In the 17th and 18th century, these two great imperial powers competed with each other in colonising the known world by the use of trade and force.
2 – The ‘East Indiaman’ was a class of ship built to operate under charter or licence to any of the East India Companies of the major European trading powers of the 17th through the 19th centuries. They carried passengers and as much cargo as possible for trading purposes. They were always armed to protect themselves against pirates.
3 – Batavia was the capital of the Dutch East Indies, corresponding to modern day Jakarta in Indonesia.
4 – Texel is a small island at the North Sea mouth of the Zuyder Zee, where all the ships of the VOC were towed to commence their maiden voyage.
5 – ‘Place of Tears’ was the name given to quay on the Amsterdam waterfront, where families typically waved goodbye to their loved ones.
6 – Mystery illness – There were rumours in Hastings that the crew had been suffering from ‘Black’ or ‘Yellow fever’, but we will probably never know. In light of the insanitary conditions that the crew were forced to endure before they sailed, it could have been any one of a number of diseases including cholera and typhoid.
7 – Adrian’s bones – When some of Adrian Welgevaren’s bones were discovered in the gun room in the 1969 and 1984 excavation, there were discussions as to a fitting burial for Adrian. A contingent was sent over to Leerdam, his home town, to find a final resting place, but unfortunately no existing relatives could be found and the original family graveyard was now under a shopping centre. In the end the bones were brought back to Hastings where they now reside in the Hastings Shipwreck Museum.
8 – John Collier, a lawyer by trade, was one the pioneers of modern Hastings and at the time of the Wreck of the Amsterdam was its most prominent citizen. Unfortunately, he was not in Hastings on that day in January 1749 due to an illness and was recovering in Bath. However, a large amount of what we know about that fateful day can be gleaned from the vast amount of correspondence written to Collier from Thomas Smith and others, giving a blow by blow account of the tragedy.