Divers recover Cornish wreck's treasures after three-year wait for break in weather

Dalya Alberge
Schiedam diver on wreck cannons 
Schiedam diver on wreck cannons

Treasures buried on a Cornish shipwreck for more than three centuries have finally been retrieved after divers had to wait three years for a good enough weather forecast.

Three gigantic 16th-century merchants’ weights have been recovered from the final resting-place of the Schiedam, a 17th-century Dutch merchantman captured by Barbary pirates, seized by the English and requisitioned by the Royal Navy - only to be wrecked in 1684.

So treacherous are the waters and storms off the west coast of the Lizard Peninsula that the Schiedam was among countless vessels from the age of sail that met their end there.

The 400-ton vessel was run ashore by a gale in April 1684 near Gunwalloe off the west coast of the Lizard Peninsula, where the famous shipwreck scene for the TV series Poldark was to be filmed some 330 years later.

The site is largely hidden beneath shifting sands, with prevailing westerlies making it impossible to dive. But suddenly last September, part of a cargo carried on that fateful final voyage became exposed and the sea was calm.

It enabled David Gibbins, a British maritime archaeologist, to recover weights that bear the Portuguese royal coat of arms and which are thought to have been cast in bronze as early as 1500.

He told The Telegraph that they are “among the most remarkable finds to be made on a wreck of this period anywhere”. Each weight is a half-hundredweight - 56 pounds today.

David Gibbins Schiedam wreck cannon
David Gibbins Schiedam wreck cannon

Octagonal in shape, they are 33 cm high and bear the shield with helmet and dragon crest of King Manuel I of Portugal, who ruled between 1495 and 1521.

The coat and its symbols of armillary spheres became associated with Portuguese maritime domination in the Age of Discovery.

The Schiedam had been transporting the weights, along with cannon, equipment, horses and people from the then English colony of Tangier in North Africa, at the time of its abandonment in 1684 in the face of a Moorish attack.

Dr Gibbins said: “They are among the oldest known weights of this type to survive. They must have been used throughout the Portuguese occupation of Tangier and then again during the 23 years of the English occupation, which is a remarkable episode in history.”

Discovered in 1971 by Anthony Randall, the Schiedam is among 54 wrecks in English waters protected under the 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act, administered by Historic England. Dr Gibbins’s diving colleague Mark Milburn first spotted the weights on the seabed.

Three 25.4 kg bronze weights from the wreck of the Schiedam with the Portuguese Royal coat of arms visible on the side - David Gibbins
Three 25.4 kg bronze weights from the wreck of the Schiedam with the Portuguese Royal coat of arms visible on the side - David Gibbins

The two men, licensed by the heritage body to investigate the wreck, received permission in 2017 to recover them as they were under threat from surrounding boulders and rocks, shunted to and fro by the tide and the wind.

But they had to wait almost three years until the diving conditions were right.

Dr Gibbins said: “This particular stretch of coast is a dangerous place to come close to, often with the prevailing westerlies and southwesterlies. If you failed to clear the end of the Lizard, which is the southernmost point, then you were often doomed. In the age of sail, all it would take would be a blustery wind. There are so many wrecks along this coast, almost a carpet of them over several kilometres.”

The weights were partly encased in ferrous concretion caused by the corrosion of iron objects that had surrounded them.

As many Portuguese weights and standards were lost in the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the survival of these examples is all the more significant.

They would have weighed all kinds of merchandise, either in the old harbour area of Tangier or one of the buildings depicted in etchings by the artist Wenceslaus Hollar, who visited in the late 1660s.

When the Schiedam was wrecked, no lives were lost, but the horses drowned.

The captain was found sobbing as he had not rescued them in time. The research is published today online at www.davidgibbins.com

Hefin Meara, maritime archaeologist at Historic England, described the weights’ recovery as “really exciting”. The weights will undergo conservation before being displayed in a museum.