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Discovery of 17th-Century Shipwreck Provides Window Into Violent Past

Nov 19, 2014

The discovery off the coast of Tobago likely provides insight into the rise of naval power in the early colonial period.

There's only so much history you can learn from books. Sometimes, you just need to go underwater and travel back in time.

The year is 1677. A battle is about to erupt off the coast of Tobago, an island in the southern Caribbean. The powerful Dutch West Indies Company controls the land, which provides a crucial staging ground for military operations in the region. French forces, commanded by Jean II d'Estrées, are still smarting from previous losses to the Dutch and send a squadron of troops to take control of the island. The battle begins. 

"I think the way to describe it is, everybody dies, and everybody sinks," said Kroum Batchvarov, an archeologist and assistant professor at UConn. Earlier this year, along with a team of divers, Batchvarov found what might be the remains of a Dutch ship lost in the battle: a nearly 340-year-old vessel called the Huis de Kreuningen.

French Commander, Jean II d'Estrées, left, and Dutch commander Jacob Binckes.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

The vessel wasn't the Dutch flagship, but on March 3, 1677, it was their largest ship defending Tobago. Batchvarov said its size made it a target for the opposing forces. Ultimately, the vessel was boarded by French solders. The Kreuningen's captain responded by blowing up the ship's upper deck, which sent it and its large cannons to the floor of the ocean.

After heavy losses on both sides, including nearly 2,000 deaths, French forces withdrew from the battle (they would return to take the island months later) and that's where the ship remained until Batchvarov found it.

A map of the battle of Scarborough (also known as the Battle of Tobago).
Credit Institute of Nautical Archaeology

"Probably the first thought that passed through my mind when I found the cannon lying on the bottom was, 'I can't believe it. This must be it,'" Batchvarov said. 

Over the summer, Batchvarov's team was exploring an area meters below the surface, off the coast of the island where surviving military documents said the 1677 battle took place. In addition to the cannon, his team also also found smoking pipes dating to the late-17th century.

If verified, Batchvarov said the discovery will provide a new window into the rise of an unlikely naval power in the early colonial period. "This is the first time when nation states get the tools to project power over great distances," he said. "When the U.S. deploys a carrier off the coast of a region, that deployment is sending a very clear message: We are projecting power overseas; do you really want to get us upset?"

Batchvarov plans to return to the site in late May 2015. He'll continue to search for hull remains and work to clear uncover the cannons to learn more about their origins. 

Kroum Batchvarov and Jason Paterniti, Director of Operations, Rockley Bay Research Project, documenting Cannon #7.
Credit Dean Winter

All items recovered from the wreck will be displayed in a local museum in Tobago. Batchvarov said he hopes the recovered artifacts will provide new insights into an often-overlooked naval battle. "Archeology will help us understand what really happened," he said. "By all logical standards, the Netherlands should never have become a major naval power," he said. "They did not have the resources for this, and yet they achieved it. Understanding the technology and the thought process behind it, I think, is the key in our research."