The Great Basses Wreck

By: Peter Throckmorton

Originally Published in 1964

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When I arrived in Ceylon, a great deal of preliminary research had been done by Arthur Clarke and Mike Wilson on the problem of identifying the Great Basses shipwreck. With the help of Major R. Raven-Harte, an expert on the history of Ceylon, they had established that the Dutch East India Company had used Surat rupees like the ones found on the wreck and subsequently identified by Commander PEterson as standard coinage in Southeast Asia. Major Raven-Harte searched the government records which had survived from that period, and turned up some fascinating references, one of which indicated that the Overnessa fluyt owned by the Dutch East India Company, had been wrecked on the Basses reef in 1704 on her way from Batavia.

He also found a transcript of the minutes of the Governing Council of Ceylon of 11 February, 1704. At the meeting it was discussed “whether or not to hold up the Yachtlet De Pool any longer…Since, to the surprise of the Governor and council, there had been not the least news from Surat since the precious November.” The implication was that the annual pay ship for the Dutch garrison of Ceylon, carrying silver from the Surat mint, had been lost in 1703 or ’04.

Yet if the silver had belonged to the East India Company, one would expect it to have been marked with the VOC mark. These coins were not so marked. Another disquieting factor was commander Peterson’s identification of the two small cannon or swivel guns found in 1961. These, he felt, were almost certainly of Eastern manufacture.

The purpose of our small expedition was to identify the ship. If she proved to be European, there was a good chance that we might find records describing what had been on board when the ship sank. My previous experience with shipwrecks had led me to believe that even smashed wrecks on rocky bottoms should have bits of the hull which might make it possible to determine where the ship had been built, and that, lacking concrete evidence from the wood, there would certainly be glass and pottery which might identify the wreck.

We were given permission to set up our camp at the base of the Imperial Lighthouse Service at Kirinda, ten miles from the wreck, through the kindness of Mr. F.E. Rees, MBE, Superintendent of the Service in Ceylon. There we were greatly assisted by the lighthouse superintendent, Tuan M’hamed Buhar Hamin, and the lighthouse crew, who allowed us to camp in their boatshed and use other facilities of the base.

Our crew consisted of Michael Wilson, Arthur Clarke, Rodney Jonklaas, their Singalese assistants, and myself. We had a 25-foot motor launch especially prepared by Wilson for the expedition, and the usual diving equipment. Two rubber dinghies were particularly useful for working over the wreck site.

Although this was the calmest season of the year, big seas still broke on the reef just outside the wreck area. At first we tried to approach from the sheltered side, swimming nearly a hundred yards through a gap in the reef. This was impractical, and so we then anchored the launch several hundred yards outside the reef with a good length of chain, and dived from the rubber dinghies which could be safely handled even at the beginning of the break.

The first taks was to make a rough survey of the site. This was difficulty because breaking seas set up such strong currents that an unwary diver, unless tied to the bottom, could be swept thirty or forty feet in either direction. Even in the thirty feet of water at the deepest end of the wreck area it was difficult to remain in one place. An accurate triangulation of the kind carried out on the Methone wrecks (Expedition, Winter 1963) was impossible. The only workable method was to measure the conspicuous objects in the wreck area, measure the distances between them, and make overlay photographs to consolidate the measurements.

Little was visible through the heavy growth of coral which had formed over the remains of the wreck, which lay in a channel between 15 and 20 feet wide, formed by two ridges of coral rock running east and west. Four anchors, standard equipment on the forecastle of a ship of the period, were lying together at the east end of the gulley. They were 13 feet long by slightly under 13 feet across the flukes, and lay 120 feet from the bronze gun at the west end of the gulley where the silver had been found. Among the anchors were four iron cannons, much overgrown. Between the anchors and the bronze cannon were two groups of iron cannon. One group was of three cannons and the second, 15 feet east of the bronze gun, contained 14 cannons. Slightly to the north of the large group, lay a larger gun. The short guns were difficult to measure, as they were very heavily overgrown, but they were all between eight and eight and a half feet long. The large gun measured over ten feet. It is unfortunate that we could not raise and clean one of the guns, as this would have given a good idea of the provenance of this ship.

Assuming that the area of the bronze cannon and silver coins is that of the stern of the ship, we can assume the ship to have been something over 100 feet long. This corresponds fairly closely to the specifications laid down in 1697 by the Central Board of the Dutch East India Company for a standart third-rate Indiaman of 130′ x 33’6 1/2″ (Amsterdam feet), to be armed with 26 guns. There are several 17th century illustrations of fluyts, which were round-sterned, flat-bottomed, and relatively narrow.

In The Ship, B. Landstrom has reproduced a contemporary drawing of a fluytship. She has 22 guns, 16 of them on the main deck, the others on a higher half deck aft. It is tempting to propose that our wreck was a ship of this type, and that the large heap of cannons came from the after end of the ship, where cannon were concentrated. There is, however, a possibility that these guns were ballast, as the largest cannon balls found were eight-pounders, four inches in diameter, and the length of ten feet of the large gun seems long for an eight-pounder, though the shorter guns can well have been six- or eight-pounders.

Once a rough sketch plan had been made, we had a fair idea of what had happened to the ship. Running at night or perhaps in bad weather towards the land, she would have been close to the breakers before her lookouts saw anything  Perhaps there was time for an attempt to come about, and she missed stays, to go broadside onto the reef. The breakers lifted her over the first line of reef, to lodge in the valley between reefs. The pounding surf must have smashed the wooden hull to pieces in a very short time. The heavy cannon and anchors fell through the disintegrating decks to lodge in the ravine, which was just large enough to contain the sunken ship. The upper works washed onto the inner reef, where the small swivel guns were found, and bits of wreckage probably washed right over the reef. The material from the after cabin and from the gun room and lazarette under the cabin, landed in the area of the bronze cannon and the masses of coins. Much of this material was held in place by the bags of silver.

There can have been few survivors, since life is not possible on that savage reef which lies ten miles from the nearest land and is continually swept by great seas. If, however, she was the Overness, someone survived to provide the information about her sinking which is in the report of the Governor’s Council.

We then began to work in the area around the bronze cannon. The bottom was a solid mass of concreted material held together by sand, coralline growth, and diffused corrosion products of iron, making a mass hard as cement. It was full of ballast stones, silver coins, bits of splintered planks of several sizes, some probably ship’s planking and others perhaps boxes which held the sacks. The area was full of the remains of iron ship fittings, cannon balls, iron nails, and pistol and musket barrels. The cast iron cannon balls had retained their shape, although greatly oxidized, sometimes so much so that they were feather light. There were grenades with their wooden stoppers still in place, although the iron was fragile as pottery.

The ship had been iron fastened with two centimeter square and four centimeter (diameter) round forged iron nails. These had corroded into  a black mush contained by a surrounding mould of sea growth. The corroding iron had stained the whole mass black, and it smelled strongly of pitch and gunpowder when raised. The general effect was very similar to that of the Cape Gelidonya wreck which, although nearly three thousand years older, lay on the same sort of bottom. The technique of jacking up lumps of concreted material proved as effective as it had at Cape Gelidonya. When we had removed a good deal of the overburden of concreted material from the cannon, we jacked it free, then raised it with the help of a plastic balloon. On shore we found its wooden tampon was still in place. The gun measured 4’7″ long, and was marked 2 3  23 8 on its breech.

Freeing the cannon loosened other material, and we broke out hundreds of pounds of lumps. These contained a fair sampling of material from what must have been the after end of the ship: a pair of matched flintlock pistols with brass thimbles, the stocks in good condition and the barrels badly corroded; the forearm of a musket; a pewter decanter stopper; bits of broken blue and white china and other sherds; a bronze pestle; one gold-washed brass earring with green glass pendants; a bit of a green glass bottle; a piece of bone too small to be identified; the brass butt-plate of a musket, pistol and musket balls; and a silver-plated copper salver. Mixed in with the mass, like straw in bricks, were pieces of the coconut fiber bags in which the silver had been carried, probably a thousand coins to the bag, and fragments of bamboo mats. Every lump was full of silver coins, always rupees and half rupees of Aurangzeb, which had scattered through the wreck when their bags rotted. It was remarkable how much material had remained in approximate archaeological context after the wreck broke up, despite the site’s exposed position directly under monsoon waves for the better part of every year.

After two weeks we left the site, having raised a good sampling of material in order to identify the wreck, together with several hundred pounds of silver. We concluded that the intrinsic value of the silver, though there might be a great deal of it on the wreck site, would not justify the cost of excavating it. The wreck is, however, of considerable historical interest and ought to be further explored.

On returning to Athens I began a correspondence with various experts in an effort to identify the wreck. Commander Mendel Peterson of the United States National Museum wrote that the brass cannon was probably English. The marks on the breech indicated hundredweights, quarter hundredweights, and individual pounds. The National Museum’s firearms expert, Mr. C.G. Goins, examined the pistol stocks and concluded that they were characteristically English or German.

Dr. N.M. Japikse, archivist at the Algemeen Rijksarchief in Holland, wrote that there had been three ships named Overness in the service of the Dutch East India Company between 1697 and 1776, and that there was no mention of the loss of any of them. We turned to the list of British East India Company ships lost between 1702 and 1719 and found that there had been 14, all about the right size, but none lost near the Basses and none with 22 guns. The sites of loss of two of these ships were unknown. One was sailing east from Bengal and could not have gone near the Basses. The other, the Glocester Frigot, 350 tons with 70 men and 30 guns, commanded by Phil Browne, sailed from Plymouth consigned to Bencoolen on 30 September, 1702, and apparently went missing. Another possibility was the Albermarle, 330 tons, 66 men, 30 guns, commanded by William Beavins. She sailed on 31 January, 1704, with a cargo worth 20,386 pounds 9 shillings, and was said to have been lost at “Balparro.”

Samples of wood from the wreck were sent to U.S.D.A. Forest Products Laboratory, where they were studied by Mr. J. Francis Kukachka. His analysis of this material suggests that the ship was fitted out in Southeast Asia, possibly even built there. The stopper from the brass cannon muzzle was teak, as were stoppers from the iron grenades, fragments of broken chests, and the musket forearm. Not surprisingly, the pistol stocks were of European walnut. A fragment that might have been part of the ship’s planking was also Asiatic wood. This makes it unlikely that our ship was a British Indiaman, for these vessels were almost always built and fitted out in England.

Mr. M.P.H. Roessingh, who has undertaken the task of searching through the hundreds of manuscript pages of the Dutch East India company’s records, suggests that the ship might be a Moorish vessel from Surat, which would explain the lack of a VOC (Dutch East India Company) mark on the coins, the oriental guns, and the evidence that the ship was fitted out in the East. Yet if the Basses wreck was a local ship, why the European matched pistols, the pewter decanter, the bottles and china? It seems also unlikely that a Surat trader of the period should have the typical armament of an Indiaman. At this writing the origin of the ship remains a mystery which will probably be solved through further research.

Another kind of research on material from the Basses wreck has been done by Mr. Richard Russell, a chemist who examined some of the lumps of coins and the black “cement” which held the larger lumps together, at the laboratory of the Geological Institute in Athens. His microscopic examination of the encrustation revealed sand particles cemented together with calcium carbonate. The sand was made of particles of quartz, rose quartz, garnet, and a few that resembled rubies, all water worn. Some of the lumps contained a few very small bits of obsidian, with concoidal fractures and razor-sharp edges. He proposes that they might have been laid down when Krakatoa exploded in 1883. This sand made up 32% by weight of the encrustation.

The black stains were from hydrated iron oxide, and the silver had been blackened by a coating of silver sulfide. He concluded that metallic iron in a wreck does not simply oxidize as it would on land, and that the wreck area was infected with sulfate reducing bacteria whose action led to the production of quantities of iron sulfide in the lumps. Mr. Russell is now at work on a large lump of material from the wreck, and his research should result in extremely useful information about chemical processes which occur in a shipwreck, particularly relevant to problems of preservation.

Some interesting conclusions can be drawn from the Basses wreck. Although it lies in a very exposed position, enough organic material survived so that analysis of it is possible, and , as at Gelidonya, many small objects survived intact. Although the ship must have been smashed to pieces immediately after sinking, some information about her construction was obtained and a full scale excavation would certainly reveal more constructional details as well as more material to identify the ship.

Whether she was Dutch, British, or Moorish, the wreck yields the kind of information seldom preserved in archives. Further work on her will throw new light on one of the most exciting periods of modern history, those years when European merchant adventurers were opening the closed gates of the East to European thought and trade.

Cite This Article

Throckmorton, Peter. "The Great Basses Wreck." Expedition Magazine 6, no. 3 (May, 1964): -. Accessed February 28, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/the-great-basses-wreck/


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