Divers have rediscovered a 17th century shipwreck off Gunwalloe Church Cove in Cornwall, at exactly the spot where the shipwreck scene was filmed in 2014 for the TV series Poldark. First seen by a local diver in 1971 and designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973, the wreck of the Schiedam had been buried for many years under the shifting sands of the cove. The site is now managed by Historic England and dived by a keen local team. The two divers who rediscovered the site this year, novelist and archaeologist David Gibbins and Mark Milburn, of Atlantic Scuba in Penryn, describe the moment:
“We’d searched the cove many times for the Schiedam, but only seen sand. Then the breakthrough came one day after a storm. Snorkelling north over the cove, we saw not just one cannon, but three. It was incredibly exciting. One of the guns was among the longest we’d ever seen on a wreck, standing proud of the seabed on a rocky ledge with the muzzle poking out, almost as if it were on a gun carriage. Exploring the reefs around the guns, we saw other amazing artefacts – concreted musket barrels, cannon balls, lead musket and pistol shot, and even an iron hand-grenade, the wooden plug for the fuse still intact. We knew that most of what we were seeing was cargo carried from the English colony at Tangier, making the wreck a fascinating window into a forgotten corner of history.”
Historic England has management responsibilities for the site but the involvement of divers ensures that the site is monitored. The approach to the historic wreck sites championed by Historic England is that they are a shared resource for all to access and enjoy. Historic England’s Maritime Archaeologist Alison James said: “We are delighted to work with divers like Mark and David to help ensure that England’s protected wreck sites are enjoyed and protected for years to come. They are helping to ensure that the story of the site is not lost and is known to a wider audience.”
The Schiedam has one of the richest backstories of any wreck ever discovered in British waters. At the time of her loss in April 1684 she was part of a fleet carrying ordnance, tools, horses and people back from Tangier, the port in present-day Morocco that had been acquired by the English King Charles II as a dowry with his Portuguese wife, but had been abandoned by the English in the face of Moorish threat. The Schiedam herself was originally Dutch, a merchantman sailing from Holland, but had been captured by Barbary pirates off Spain in 1683 and her crew enslaved.
Soon afterwards she was captured again, this time by a Royal Navy ship commanded by a daring young captain named Cloudesley Shovell – later as an admiral to be lost with his fleet in 1707 in the Scilly Isles through a navigational error, the trigger for the race to find a better way of establishing longitude – who brought his prize to Tangier. As if that were not enough, none other than the diarist Samuel Pepys enters the picture, as he was an Admiralty official sent to Tangier to help oversee the evacuation. Much of his correspondence relating to the wreck of the Schiedam still survives.
The big gun that the divers saw on the wreck was a demi-culverin, one of a number recorded among the ordnance at Tangier but the only one from the colony known to survive. The hand-grenade is particularly fascinating as one of the earliest known examples to be found archaeologically, and because their use is well-documented at Tangier. Invented in the 16th century, ‘hand-granadoes’ had only been a standard armament for English regiments for a few years by the time of the Tangier colony. Nevertheless, they were among the first list of equipment requested for the colony in 1662 and played a pivotal role in the defence against the Moors. When one of the outlying forts was captured by the Moors after savage fighting in 1680 they seized a large store of hand grenades and other armaments, swinging the siege in the Moors’ favour and helped to precipitate the English decision to abandon the colony a few years later.
The wreck dates a century before the setting of Poldark, but the similarities are striking. “You would have seen local people lining the shore just as the film crew were that day in 2014, and flotsam coming ashore at exactly the same place,” Gibbins said. A letter written soon after the wrecking to Lord Dartmouth, Admiral of the Fleet, suggests that the locals availed themselves of what they could but were far from the murderous Cornish wreckers of legend: “All the guns and mortar pieces may be saved, but palisades, muskets, rigging, are mostly embezzled, though the justices and gentlemen of the country are extremely civil and save what they could; and the country very kind to the poor people.”
Investigations of the Schiedam are carried out under the aegis of Historic England, which administers the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 and issues discretionary licenses for divers to visit protected wreck sites off England. Further exploration of the Schiedam is planned for next year.