Sunrise over Lerwick Harbour. Photo courtesy of Scott Goudie.
Picture the scene, a still morning, quiet and milky. Perhaps a few terns making themselves known in the harbour and the sound of pans clattering from cramped kitchens as the residents rise to start another day. This was Lerwick on the morning that the first Dutch East Indiamen would sail into our history books with a bang.
During the 17th century, The Netherlands was one of the most powerful trading nations in the world. With trading colonies in the Far East (Indonesia), the Dutch East India Company brought goods from the Netherlands to the settlers, which were bartered in exchange for precious commodities such as spices and silks. To prevent conflict of interest between various traders and private interests, there was from 1602 until 1799, the establishment of the United Netherlands Chartered East India Company (the VOC). The company held a monopoly on all Dutch trade and navigation east of the Cape of Good Hope and they furthered trading interests in the Indian Ocean, becoming one of the most powerful trading companies in the world.
Incredibly, Shetland played a central role in the lives and fate of many of the ships bound to and from the East, laden with great cargoes to trade in emerging overseas markets. But, the shores of Shetland were often surrounded with fleets of East Indiamen and accompanying Dutch warships. Ships frequently chose the “achter om” (north about) route around Shetland, avoiding the perils of the English Channel. Often running into bad weather, a total of twenty-seven East India ships were lost around our waters.
This northern route was chosen for several reasons. Firstly, the Dutch East Indiamen were heavy, unwieldy craft which needed a lot of sea room for manoeuvring, quite simply, the North Sea offered more space for sailing compared to the narrow confines of the English Channel.
Secondly, and more importantly, the ships were avoiding conflict. During the mid-seventeenth century, Spain and the Netherlands were locked in hostilities which later became known as the Eighty Year War. The Eighty Year War came to an end in 1648, but during the years of conflict, the English Channel was a dangerous route to navigate, and crews risked losing their boats and valuable cargoes. Spain had virtual control of all the western coasts of Europe and Dunkirk was an especially strong Spanish stronghold; this made the Channel an unsafe route for Dutch commerce.
It was customary for a strong contingent of Dutch Warships to rendezvous with returning East Indie ships and escort them safely back to Texel. These were known as the ‘retour vloots’ (return fleets). It was during one of these rendezvous’ that the first Dutch Indiamen made their presence known in Lerwick.
The first Dutch East Indie ships to be lost in Shetland waters were De Jonas, De Reiger and De Haan. Sailing in convoy, along with the Dutch warship, De Enkhuizen they were attacked by Dunkirker (Spanish) frigates on 15th June 1640 while at anchor in Bressay Sound (better known today as Lerwick Harbour). Known as Bresont by the Dutch, this anchorage is noted in Dutch cartographer, Jan Jansson’s, 1620s chart of Shetland. The ships, blissfully unaware of the approaching danger, were waiting to join up with the ‘retour vloot’ (returning fleet) to be escorted home when they were surprised on that particular early summer morning.
Jan Janssons 1620s chart of Shetland. Chart is available to view in Shetland Archives.
The Dutch East Indiamen and their accompanying warship caught unaware, were hopelessly outnumbered and out-gunned by the determined Spaniards. Following the Bressay Sound attack, the Dunkirkers headed westward in search of the another eleven returning East Indiamen which were laden with goods. Fortunately for the Dutch, the Dunkirkers never found them and these vessels returned safely to Texel several months later.
De Reiger, under the command of Captain Magnus Marousz, was sunk somewhere in Lerwick Harbour. Her exact location is unknown, although she was found, by chance, during the First World War by a man who dived into the harbour to retrieve a piece of beef which had fallen into the sea while the boat took on stores. He recovered the meat, reporting cannons and parts of an ‘ancient ship’ when he resurfaced; however, he never gave the exact find location and, to date, the remains of De Reiger remain undiscovered.
De Jonas, under the command of Captain Seger, escaped her captors and got away out the north entrance to Bressay Sound and was run ashore at Brunthammersland, Tingwall. The crew ran her aground, set fire to the vessel and blew her up to prevent enemy hands seizing both ship and crew. All the crewmen made it safely to shore.
Cannon from De Haan outside the Shetland Hotel, Lerwick.
De Haan, under the command of Captain Cornelius Jacobsz-Me, beached just north of where Victoria Pier now stands. During dredging operations in 1922 at the north-east corner of Alexandra Wharf, remains of the ship were uncovered, including four guns and a 60 foot of keel. Collections within the Shetland Museum & Archives contain timbers and cannonballs from the ship. One of the cannons stands proud outside the Shetland Hotel, and another was gifted to Prins Henrik Museum in Rotterdam.
Victoria Pier, Lerwick. Photo courtesy of Alexa Fitzgibbon.
De Enkhuizen eventually succumbed to the frigates, reports stated that she only surrendered ‘when she was shattered beyond repair, her scuppers streaming blood, and very few men left on their feet’.
News of the Bressay Sound disaster was brought to Holland by a ship of the West India Company who touched in at Shetland, probably Bressay Sound, where she found ‘one hundred men on the shore of Hitland’ who were taken on board and safely transported back to Amsterdam.
The Scottish Parliament recognised the destructive nature of the Dunkirkers and several acts were passed during the 17th century. In June 1600 James VI passed an ‘Act regulating traffic with foreign ships’. The Act recognised ‘abuses committed upon the coasts or in the seaports of his realm by foreigners and strangers bringing in prizes taken either by piracy or under the pretence of lawful wars…as of late some Dunkirkers have done’. The Act stated that none of the King’s subjects are permitted to trade with any such vessel in his Highnesses waters. Later, King Charles II was petitioned (July 1630) by the Burghs to take action against ‘the decay of their trade and shipping occasioned by the Dunkirkers… and the number of ships taken by them’, the King was asked to consider the ‘deplorable estate of the country’ and ensure that his ‘subjects may be protected in their safe and peaceable trading’.
This event marked the beginning of a trend of Dutch East India influence and involvement within the isles which would last until 1786 when the last ship, the Concordia was lost, and the Dutch East India Company ceased trading in 1799.
I couldn’t help but wonder what the residents of Lerwick thought, on that quiet June morning, as they were noisily awoken to the din of cannons and gunfire as these foreign ships engaged in a bloody battle within the restricted confines of Bressay Sound? There must have been a certain sense of nervousness and trepidation as Shetland entered this new phase of contact with the Dutch traders of the East Indie Company which was to last for over a century.
Until next time,
“Visitors want to have the best experience; they want to see Shetland through the eyes of a local. They want to taste the salt on their faces, smell the sea and bear witness to the wind in their hair. They want to drink in the sights, the smells and the sounds of an island community. They want to be shown the places they would otherwise not discover. They want to piece together the fascinating jigsaw and truly discover Shetland; this is the trip they have dreamed of.”
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