Ancient, News

Mysterious Wreck off English Coast Identified as Historic Dutch Warship

  • An unknown wreck was finally identified as the Dutch warship –  Klein Hollandia.
  • The warship participated in all major battles of the Anglo-Dutch war (1665-1667).  
  • Sailing from the Mediterranean into the English Channel in 1672, Klein Hollandia lost a sea battle when it came up against a British squadron. 
  • On its last voyage, Klein Hollandia carried precious Italian marble tiles en route to the Netherlands. 

Finding Klein Hollandia

David Ronnan, an Eastbourne dive operator, discovered a mysterious wreck off the coast of Sussex in 2019. Following the discovery, Ronnan reported it to Historic England. Unsurprisingly, it did not take long for the relevant authorities to jump into action. 

The mysterious wreck – lying 32 metres under the surface – became the centre of attention.

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Specialists from Historic England, Cultural Heritage Agency Netherlands (RCE), and the Nautical Archaeology Society collaborated on the identification process. On 5 July 2019, it earned the highest level of protection under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973.

Over the last year, professional and volunteer divers have gathered sufficient evidence to solve the mystery. Reportedly, the ship carried Italian marble tiles and pottery when it sank in 1672. These tiles were destined to be used in high-status homes in the Netherlands had the ship docked safely. 

The cannons were unique to the Klein Hollandia which helped identify the wreck. (Photo Cathy de Lara)

Historic England archaeological conservators collected the tiles before the investigation began. According to the team, the tiles came from Apuan Alps quarries near Carrara in Italy.

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Later, divers and researchers embarked on a four-year journey of identifying the ‘Unknown Wreck off Eastbourne.’ Beattie-Edwards, Chief Executive of the Nautical Archaeology Society, commented:

“After four years of investigation and research, we can confidently identify the vessel.”

The ‘Unknown Wreck off Eastbourne’ – Not Anymore!

The team carried out archival as well as tree ring analysis to positively identify the wreck. Experts identified at least 31 cannons, with one dating all the way back to 1670. In January 2023, the team finally revealed its identity.

A diver with a Bellarmine jug from the Klein Hollandia shipwreck. Photograph: Historic England

Lord Parkinson, Heritage Minister of the United Kingdom, said: “Klein Hollandia offers a glimpse back into the 17th century. Giving us a chance to learn more about the maritime history of this period. And, to uncover treasures which have been underwater for hundreds of years.”

The Heritage Minister added, “‘Thanks to the partnership between the UK and the Netherlands. We have solved the mysteries linked to this wreck. And to protect it for future generations to continue to research.”

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said, “We’re delighted that Historic England’s scientists played a crucial part in solving the mystery.”

Dutch Ship Klein Hollandia
The Dutch Ship, Klein Hollandia, in full sail, from a contemporary sketch. (by Willem van de Velde the elder)

The Chief Executive added, “‘Uncovering the story of the warship Klein Hollandia opens up a fascinating chapter in the maritime history of the UK and the Netherlands.”

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Beattie-Edwards, Chief Executive of the Nautical Archaeology Society, said, “From our first dive on the wreck back in April 2019 we have been fascinated by the range of seabed materials. The impressive amount of wooden hull structure, the ship’s cannons, the cut marble tiles, and the pottery finds point towards this being a Dutch ship from the late 17th century from Italy.”

The Rich History of Klein Hollandia

Klein Hollandia – built in 1656 – served the Admiralty of Rotterdam till its last breath. From 1659 to 1660, Laurens Heemskerk commanded the warship in multiple naval operations. The ship also remained widely active during the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667).

By 1672, the once-glorious Hollandia had grown old and weary. It was sent out to escort the Smyrna fleet in the squadron of Admiral de Haese. Near the Isle of Wight, the Dutch squadron was attacked by a flotilla of English ships (12-15 ships) under the command of Admiral Holmes. A fierce battle ensued that resulted in the loss of Klein Hollandia. 

On 12 March, English sailors successfully boarded and conquered the severely damaged Hollandia. However, the Dutch warship soon sank with friend and foes alike. Jan Van Nes, the ship’s commander, was killed in action. 

The battle took place only two weeks before the Third Anglo-Dutch War began. Rightfully, some historians consider this as the catalyst that led to the war that lasted from March 1672 to February 1674.