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The wreck of the Vrouw Maria and types of eighteenth-century Dutch sailing ships in written sources

This article was published in the journal of the Society for Medieval Archaeology in Finland SKAS 4/2000
By Matias Laitinen, National Board of Antiquities / the Maritime Museum of Finland

1. Introduction

The Vrouw Maria is a smallish, two-masted sailing ship which sank in October 1771 in the Nagu (Nauvo) archipelago on a voyage from Amsterdam to St. Petersburg. Countless similar types of humble sailing boats busily plied the Baltic Sea to meet the trading needs of the growing city at the mouth of the River Neva. The Pro Vrouw Maria association located the wreck in the waters of Trunsjö in Nauvo in June 1999. Archival sources concerning the Vrouw Maria have also been preserved in Finland and in the Netherlands. However, one must always remember to take a critical approach to source materials and particularly to terms used in seafaring.

There are clearly discernible factors concerning the wreck in Trunsjö in Nauvo that give rise to questions regarding the construction of the vessel's hull and its rig. Several observations of the wreck namely conflict with the picture created from some of the written sources. However, nothing has appeared from the wreck which would give rise to concern that the wreck is not the Vrouw Maria which sank in 1771. However, in my view, it is essential to compare the actual data observable at the wreck with the sources and to question the comprehensiveness and the interpretation of the written sources in many respects.

In this article I examine two archival sources. The records of the Magistrate of Turku from 1771 contain references to the shipwreck of the snow the Vrouw Maria in Nauvo. These records include the sea protest made by the captain of the vessel Reynould Lourens with extracts from the ship's logbook, and lists of the salvaged cargo (Tietopalveluosasto, A I a 9, 16.10 and 26.10 1771). The second source is the sale notice from 1766 found before the wreck was located by Christian Ahlström and Mikael Martikainen with the assistance of a researcher at the Amsterdam City Archives, which announces the sale of a koff-type sailing vessel named the Vrouw Maria (GAA, Scheepsverkopingen door makelaars, arch. 5071). Here I compare the information in these sources with the observations of the wreck made in research carried out by the Maritime Museum of Finland in 2000. Central to the comparison is whether the information on the snow or the koff better matches the data from the wreck.

2. The ship's sails and rig

Several well-preserved parts of the rig have been observed at the wreck and nearby. Both the lower masts are still standing. Illustration 1 shows Kalle Salonen's outline drawing of the wreck on the basis of the research carried out in 2000 (Illustration 1.). I have marked the parts of the rig observed on the wreck which have been identified so far and on the basis of which it is possible to determine the rig type in the illustration depicting a snow-rigged vessel (Illustration 2). The drawing of a snow rig is taken from Marquardt's research into eighteenth century rigs and rigging (Marquardt 1992:116). From the parts of the rig it is possible to determine that the vessel had masts in three sections and a bowsprit in two sections. This data matches a snow-rigged vessel. However, structures have not yet been identified on the wreck which would be associated with the light structures of a snow mast behind the mainmast.

The sea protest made in Turku in 1771 lists the following sails as having been salvaged from the vessel: "1. nytt märs segel, 1. dito Snau Segel, 1 gammal fock, 1. topp segel, en ny klyfvare, 1 d(ito) för brams segel, 1. Dito gammalt, 2 ledsegel, 2. stagsegel". I have rasterised the most essential sails in this list to the same Marquardt drawing (Illustration 2.). In addition, information about the sails gained from descriptions of manoeuvres in the logbook referred to in the sea protest has been marked on the drawing, such as, for example "... två ref i märsseglena...". (two reefs in the topsails...) (Tietopalveluosasto, A I a 9, 16.10.1771.)

The Amsterdam City Archives contain a sale notice from 1766 which announces the auction of a koff-type sailing vessel named the Vrouw Maria. The master of the vessel is Reynould Lourens. The vessel was built in 1748 and in 1761 the hull of the vessel was rebuilt with double oak planking and a new mainmast and rig. (GAA, Scheepsverkopingen door makelaars, arch. 5071.) However, there are differences between the basic measurements stated in the document and the measurements taken by divers at the wreck. Similarly, the sails listed in the inventory in the sale notice for the vessel do not correspond to the sails which the ship's master Lourens says in his sea protest were salvaged from the vessel.

In illustration 3 I have drawn the sails listed in the inventory in the sale document and roughly outlined the rig that they would have formed (Illustration 3.) The inventory lists the following sails: "2 Zylen, 4 Zyls Bonets waar van een Zyl en 2 Bonets van Rusdoek. 2 Stagfokken waar van een Rusdoek, 2 Topzylen, 1 Befaan. 1 Bramzyl, 1 Jager, 1 Groote Kluyver, 1 Middel Kluyver. 2 Dito Klynder, 1 Storm-Kluyver, 2 Jolzylen, 1 dito Fok, 1 Schuylzyltje". In interpreting the names I have been assisted by articles by a Dutch researcher containing information on rigs in equivalent inventory lists (Holk 1991). If we compare the rig type outlined with contemporary pictures (Illustration 4.), we can observe that it corresponds fairly well to several more familiar drawings known to depict the rig of koff vessels (Groenewegen 1789).

The masts of the wreck are located further forward than is generally the case in drawings or contemporary pictures depicting koff vessels (see e.g. Groenewegen 1789; Menzel 1997; Nederlandsch Historisch Scheepvaart Museum 1937). The position of the masts is also well suited to a snow or brig-rigged ship, although as yet no clear observations have been made of the fittings for an actual snow mast on the wreck. Examples of the position of the masts on a snow-rigged vessel are found in 18th-century drawings by af Chapmann and Groenewegen (af Chapman 1786: picture LXII; Groenewegen 1789). The difference is clearly visible even by eye (Illustration 5.). The positions of the masts on the wreck in relation to the total length of the hull were measured in summer 2000 (Laitinen 2001).

3. The measurements and structure of the hull

In summer 2000 the length of the wreck in Trunsjö in Nauvo from the outer edge of the stern to the outer edge of the stem was measured as 26.3 metres (Laitinen 2001). The measurements of the koff Vrouw Maria in the auction notice are as follows: "Lang over Steeven 81 1/4 voet, Wyt binnen zyn Huid 20 voet 8 1/2 duim, Hol in 't Ruim op zyn Uitwatering 9 voet 5 1/2 duim. Alles Amsterdammer voeten." (GAA, Scheepsverkopingen door makelaars, arch. 5071). An Amsterdam foot was divided into 11 inches and was 28.31 cm in length. In accordance with the measurement method in use at the time, the length measurement is "over" the stem and the stern, in other words the measurement is taken between the outside edges of the stem and the stern, measured at the level of the uppermost full deck. At the time, the beam was measured at the widest part of the hull, inside the side planking, in other words from the outside of the ribs (catalogue for the Dutch Navy Model Collection 1999; Verhoeff 1982: 4, 130). On the basis of this information, the length of the koff, Vrouw Maria, would be 23.00 metres in today's measurements. Thus the difference in length between the koff and the wreck is approximately 3 metres, even taking into account possible different interpretations of measuring methods.

In summer 1999 the divers of the Pro Vrouw Maria association carried out preliminary measurements and measured the beam of the wreck (at deck level, inside the frame) at two points as being 6.3 and 6.7 metres, without particularly seeking the widest part of the hull. The beam of the koff Vrouw Maria would be 5.88 metres in today's measurements Irrespective of differences in measuring methods, the beam of the wreck is bigger than that of the vessel in the sale notice, even though the exact widest part of the wreck has not yet even been precisely located. The wreck is thus clearly larger on both measurements than the koff in the sale notice.

One of the tasks of the research in summer 2000 was to establish the structure of the wreck's stern and to document the research using video footage. The structures of the wreck's transom have partly disappeared but from those remaining it can preliminarily be determined that the vessel had an eighteenth-century curved transom, inside which the missing rudder was hinged to the sternpost. This type of transom is shown in drawings of the hull of snow-rigged vessels (see e.g. af Chapman 1768; Groenewegen 1789). The missing rudder and the damage to the stern match the information on the shipwreck of the snow the Vrouw Maria in the waters of Nauvo. According to the sea protest made by captain Lourens, the ship lost its rudder and part of the stern when it ran aground (Tietopalveluosasto, A I a 9, 16.10.1771). The stern of a koff vessel is rounded, however, and did not have a proper transom (see e.g. Groenewegen 1789; Kehusmaa 1998; Menzel 1997; Nederlandsch Historisch Scheepvaart Museum 1937). The structure of the stern does not thus match the information now available about the hulls of koff vessels, although it must be borne in mind that the vast majority of drawings etc., date from the 17th century. Nor have deckhouse structures been observed on the wreck, as appear in almost all drawings of koffs.

After the wreck was found, reference was often made to the anchor swinging from the port side of the railing and attempts were made to identify its equivalent from the inventory list of 1766 (see e.g. Ahlström, 1999: 38; 2000: 11). The anchor on the port side of the vessel has its wooden stock intact and one of the arms of the iron shank is missing a fluke. The inventory lists the equipment of the Vrouw Maria as including several anchors, one of which is: "1 Werp-Anker is de stok Gebroken". This means a kedge anchor whose stock was broken. The other anchor mentioned in the inventory is: "1 Dreg is de eene Hand af". The Dutch word dreg means however, a stockless grapnel with four flukes (Maarleveld oral information 2000; Stjerncreutz 1862:85). Thus the relevant anchor observed on the wreck and the anchors in the inventory do not in my view have enough in common that they could be used to identify the wreck.

4. Wreck research and written sources

From all the above material, in my view it is possible to present the following summary: The wreck lying in the waters of Trunsjö in Nauvo is the same snow, the Vrouw Maria which under the command of captain Reynould Lourens was travelling from Amsterdam to St. Petersburg in October 1771 and which sank as a result of running aground. No factors have been observed regarding the wreck and its cargo which would conflict with the information provided by the written archive sources arising as a result of the shipwreck. However, the sale notice of 1766 regarding the auction of the koff Vrouw Maria do not refer to the wreck in question. The koff Vrouw Maria then under the command of Reynould Lourens and part-owned by Tamme Beth IJsbrandsz was smaller and a different type of vessel in terms of its rig and its hull. This koff was sold in Amsterdam on 18 August 1766 to Coenraad Vissering for 2,400 guilders. A receipt for this sale is in the papers of notary Abraham Coijmans (GAA, Notariele Archieven, inv. 12043, file 483, 12 and 17.9.1766). Between 1766 and 1771 therefore a new, larger, snow-rigged Vrouw Maria came into the ownership of Ijsbrandsz and under the command of Lourens, which then sank in the waters of Nauvo. It is essential to take a critical approach to scattered sources even if the names of the vessel, the owner and the master do match. Preliminary surveys of the structures and parts of the hull and rig of the wreck in summer 2000 shed additional light on many of these questions which I had considered in my presentation in the spring before the field research took place (see Laitinen 2000). The research carried out in 2000 did determine why the observations made regarding the structures of the wreck when the wreck was located did not correspond with general information about koffs.

The matters addressed in this article are of course only details in wreck research and do not as such definitively resolve the entire question. However, the effect of written sources on wider maritime archaeological research is a matter on which there should be rather more discussion. In many cases, some, usually scattered, written sources or pictures are used when researching historic wrecks. However, their importance in researching details of ship construction, for example, is often exaggerated compared with information available from the wreck itself. Particularly in research into the construction and use of trading ships and peasant vessels ship drawings, contemporary pictures and written sources constitute only a small element of the "truth". Even after the location of the Vrouw Maria it was often stated in public that it was not worth studying the wreck itself because there was sufficient written and pictorial material about "koffs". The importance of raising valuable objects took precedence over researching the whole picture. In my view, the archaeological material available to be studied on wrecks should absolutely be seen as important material in its own right which should be the object of thorough and critical study. Archaeological research on wrecks should not be subordinated to misleading written sources, although this may easily happen if underwater research is considered to be too difficult or unnecessary. The Dutch researcher Maarleveld has also described past Northern European underwater research and protection of ancient monuments as follows: "The Northern European tradition, featuring; a historic approach, where the documentary sources dominate what to look for in the archaeological record; an approach in which to search for a particular wreck is seen as more meaningful than the survey of other, as yet unidentified sites; a legislative approach based on rights as opposed to responsibility; a sliding scale of commercially and/or academically interested parties; emphasis on display rather than on research." (Maarleveld 1998: 138). In my view this is lamentably often still a common position in maritime archaeological research also in Finland. Historical sources provide excellent assistance in archaeological research but a critical approach must be taken towards these too and they should not be afforded unwarranted greater emphasis than other research materials.


Unpublished sources:

  • Gemeentearchief, Amsterdam (GAA)
    Scheepsverkopingen door makelaars 1766
    Notariele archieven 1766
  • National Board of Antiquities, archive of the Maritime Museum of Finland, Helsinki
    Kehusmaa, Aimo 1998: Kaivauskertomus. Sophia Maria hylyn tutkimukset. Northern Ostrobothnia Museum.
    Laitinen, Matias 2001: Nauvo, Trunsjö, Vrouw Maria. Hylyn kenttätutkimukset 2000. (nearing completion)
  • City of Turku archives (Tietopalveluosasto)
    Records of the Magistrate of Turku 1771 (A I a 9)
Published sources:
  • Ahlström, Christian 1999: Fru Maria på Östersjöns botten. Skärgård 3/1999.
  • Ahlström, Christian 2000: Venäjän keisarinna ja hollantilainen koffi-laiva Vrouw Maria. Nautica Fennica 2000.
  • Chapman, F. H. af 1768: Architectura Navalis Mercatoria. Stockholm.
  • Groenewegen, G. 1789: Verzameling van Vier en tachtig Stuks Hollandsche Schepen Geteekend en in Koper Gebragt. Rotterdam.
  • Holk, A. F. L. van 1991: Type en tuigage, schriftelijke bron en scheepsinventaris. Reinder Reinders (red.) Bouwtraditie en Scheepstype. Inleidingen gehouden tijdens het vierde Glavimans symposion. Groningen.
  • Laitinen, Matias 2000: Vrouw Maria -hylyn suunnitteilla olevat tutkimukset - näkymiä 1700-luvun kauppaan ja merenkulkuun Itämerellä. Uudenkaupungin merihistoriallisen yhdistyksen vuosikirja 1999-2000.
  • Maarleveld, Th. J. 1998: Archaeological heritage management in Dutch waters: exploratory studies. (ROB/NISA Scheepsarcheologie V). Lelystad.
  • Marquardt, Karl Heinz 1992: Eighteenth-century Rigs & Rigging. London.
  • Menzel, Horst 1997: Smakken, Kuffen, Galioten. Drei fast vergessenen Schiffstypen des 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts. (Schriften des Deutschen Schiffahrtsmuseum Band 47). Hamburg.
  • Nederlandsch Historisch Scheepvaart Museum 1937: Catalogus der Scheepsmodellen en Scheepsbouwkundige Teekeningen 1600-1900 in het Nederlandsch Historisch Scheepvaart Museum. Amsterdam.
  • Stjerncreutz, Albin 1862: Suomalainen Meri-sanakirja. (Näköispainos 1982, Uusikaupunki.)
  • Verhoeff, J. M. 1982: De oude Nederlandse maten en gewichten. Amsterdam.
Other sources:


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