Maritime Art

Dutch ships in a breeze c.1650

By D.W. (Monogram)

The artist of this charming oil painting is unknown. The only clue to the painter’s identity is a log in the foreground, drifting in the sea, with the initials ‘DW’ painted in clear letters. The style of the painting is also no help to the artist’s identity; the artist appears to have been neither highly productive nor widely known. Nonetheless the painting, which is very small – just 305mm high – marks an interesting moment in Dutch marine painting when there was a noticeable change in style from the older generation, epitomised by Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom and the newer, younger generation, epitomised by Jan Porcellis, his pupil, and this image is very much in line with that newer generation.

In the foreground a colourful crew in a single masted vessel struggle with the mainsail in choppy conditions. The darkening clouds in the sky suggest the weather is taking a turn for the worse. In the centre and to the right are two powerful ships. The ship in the centre is anchored and has struck her topmasts while the ship in the foreground is sailing under reefed courses, the yards not fully raised. The port side gunports remain open however, a risky business in weather such as this. In the background to the right can be seen the dunes of he Dutch coast and a square tower, characteristic of this area in this period.

The Society has published a number of articles on the maritime history of this period.

Seamen’s Employment in the Netherlands c1600 – c1800 examines the employment of seamen of different ranks engaged in merchant shipping, whaling, fishing, East India shipping and the navy from 1600-1800 sailing from the Netherlands to destinations around the world, including the Baltic and the Indian Ocean. The changes in numbers of men recruited from different regions within the Netherlands and foreign recruits into each employment category are given over the time period under consideration with possible reasons for these changes.

A particularly interesting article that gives an example of how English and Dutch seapower clashed in this period can be read in The Ronas Voe Incident, 1674. The last organized sea operation of the Third Anglo-Dutch War was an expedition by the British navy to capture a Dutch East Indiaman lying in a Shetland harbour disabled by storm damage and grounding. This little-known action was conceived, planned and carried out entirely after King Charles II had publicly accepted a treaty with the Netherlands to end the war. The event is remembered in Shetland and even commemorated with a monument of sorts, but what actually happened has never been very clear. This article reconstructs the sequence of events, with gaps yet remaining, based on rather scattered and incomplete evidence. Aside from the narrative, the article offers an example of British prize condemnation procedures in the 1670s, the disposition of prize goods and rewards to captains and crews of victorious ships. It offers an example of the lading of outward-bound Dutch East Indiamen of the period. This particular East Indiaman is also helpful in resolving a controversy over the design of such ships in the mid-seventeenth century. Finally, the article raises questions about a potential archaeological site near the arm of the sea in which the action took place.

Those interested in the inherent dangers of seafaring as clearly depicted in this painting would enjoy The Wreck of the Dutch East India Company Ship Haarlem in Table Bay, 1647, and the Establishment of the ‘Tavern of the Seas’. On Sunday 25 March 1647, shortly after five o’clock in the afternoon, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) ship Nieuw Haarlem or Haarlem was wrecked in Table Bay, off the coast of South Africa. The events that followed had far-reaching consequences for the history of South Africa. Fifty-eight of the crew were repatriated by accompanying ships soon after the incident, but 62 men were left behind to try and salvage as much of the cargo as possible. They found refuge in a makeshift camp, where they lived for about one year. During their stay, the men from Haarlem came into contact with indigenous people. Although initially marked by apprehension and reservation, these contacts improved after some time. This led to regular bartering, visits to each other’s abodes, basic exchange of language and appreciation of each other’s cultures. Upon returning to the Netherlands, the men reported favourably of their experiences. As a result, VOC management decided to establish a much-needed stopover for their ships. This station, known as the ‘Tavern of the Seas’, later developed into the city of Cape Town. The wrecking of Haarlem can thus be regarded as the catalyst that created one of the roots of current multiracial and multicultural South African society.

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