Secrets of 17th-Century Dutch Seafaring Domination Revealed

The 1629 Batavia ship.

The 1629 Batavia ship remains on display at the Western Australian Shipwrecks Museum in Fremantle. (Image: Patrick E. Baker, Western Australian Museum)

Many Dutch ships passed the West Australian coast while en route to Southeast Asia in the 1600s. The national heritage listed shipwreck Batavia has revealed through its timbers the history of the shipbuilding materials that enabled Dutch seafaring domination through the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to flourish against major European rivals for the first time.

Aoife Daly extracting a tree ring sample from the Batavia ship's hull planking in strake 14.
Aoife Daly extracting a tree ring sample from the Batavia ship’s hull planking in strake 14. (Image: W. van Duivenvoorde)

Built in Amsterdam in 1626-1628 and wrecked on its maiden voyage in June 1629 on Morning Reef off Beacon Island (Houtman Abrolhos Archipelago), the Batavia epitomizes Dutch East India (VOC) shipbuilding at its finest in a Golden Age, experts reveal in a study led by Flinders University archaeologist Associate Professor Wendy van Duivenvoorde with co-authors, Associate Professor and ERC grantee Aoife Daly at the University of Copenhagen and Marta Domínguez-Delmás, Research Associate and VENI Fellow at the University of Amsterdam. Wendy van Duivenvoorde said:

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“The use of wind-powered sawmills became common place in the Dutch republic towards the mid-17th century, allowing the Dutch to produce unprecedented numbers of ocean-going ships for long-distance voyaging and interregional trade in Asia, but how did they organise the supply of such an intensive shipbuilding activity? The Dutch Republic and its hinterland certainly lacked domestic resources.”

In-depth sampling of Batavia’s hull timbers for dendrochronological research, published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, offers a piece of the puzzle of early Dutch 17th-century shipbuilding and global seafaring that was still missing. In the 17th century, the VOC grew to become the first multinational trading enterprise, prompting the rise of the stock market and modern capitalism.

Aoife Daly extracting a dendrochronology or tree-ring sample from the Batavia ship's transom planking.
Aoife Daly extracting a dendrochronology or tree-ring sample from the Batavia ship’s transom planking with a 16 mm diameter dry wood borer driven by a power drill. (Image: Wendy van Duivenvoorde)

Dutch seafaring domination was due in part to the oak ships they built

During this century, a total of 706 ships were built in the VOC shipyards in the Dutch Republic and 75 of these were shipwrecked and 23 captured by enemy forces or pirates. However, little is understood about the timber materials that enabled the Dutch to build their ocean-going vessels and dominate international trade against competitors in France, Portugal, and continental Europe. Marta Domínguez Delmás explained:

“Oak was the preferred material for shipbuilding in northern and western Europe, and maritime nations struggled to ensure sufficient supplies to meet their needs and sustain their ever-growing fleets. Our results demonstrate that the VOC successfully coped with timber shortages in the early 17th century through diversification of timber sources.”

Cross-section of oak hull plank from 1629 Batavia ship showing its tree rings.
Cross-section of oak hull plank from 1629 Batavia ship showing its tree rings. This sample was extracted from a loose hull plank in 2007 before the research team came up with a much less destructive method of sampling. (Image: Patrick E. Baker, Western Australian Museum)

Fortunately, the Batavia ship remains were raised in the 1970s and are on display at the Western Australian Shipwrecks Museum in Fremantle. This allowed archaeologists and dendrochronologists from Flinders University, the University of Amsterdam, and the University of Copenhagen to undertake the sampling and analysis of the hull timbers. Aoife Daly said:

“The preference for specific timber products from selected regions demonstrates that the choice of timber was far from arbitrary. Our results illustrate the variety of timber sources supplying the VOC Amsterdam shipyard in the 1620s and demonstrate the builders’ careful timber selection and skilled craftsmanship.”

Dutch seafaring domination can be explained in part by the wood used in their ships.
Marta Domínguez-Delmás and Aoife Daly working to extract tree ring samples from the Batavia ship’s transom beams. (Image: Wendy van Duivenvoorde via Western Australian Shipwrecks Museum in Fremantle)

Wendy van Duivenvoorde concluded:

“Our results contribute to the collective knowledge about north European timber trade and illustrate the geographical extent of areas supplying timber for shipbuilding in the Dutch Republic in the 17th century.”

Provided by: Flinders University [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.] 

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