Tree Rings Help Explain Secrets of Dutch Seafaring Dominance in the 17th Century

Dutch Shipwreck (Image credit: Patrick E. Baker, Western Australian Museum)
Dutch Shipwreck Batavia (Image credit: Patrick E. Baker, Western Australian Museum)

Many Dutch ships passed the West Australian coast while en route to Southeast Asia in the 1600s — and one particular ship on display at the Western Australia Museum has revealed through its timbers the history of the shipbuilding materials that enabled the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to flourish against major European rivals for the first time.

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 Company shipbuilding at its finest, experts revealed this week in a study led by Flinders University archaeologist and Associate Professor Wendy van Duivenvoorde with co-authors Associate Professor Aoife Daly from the University of Copenhagen and Research Associate Marta Domínguez-Delmás from the University of Amsterdam.

According to van Duivenvoorde:

“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 the Batavia’s hull timbers, 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.

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.

Domínguez Delmás explains:

“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.”

Fortunately, the Batavia’s remains were raised in the 1970s and are on display at the Western Australian Shipwrecks Museum in Fremantle.

Dutch shipwreck cross-section
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 credit: Patrick E. Baker, Western Australian Museum).

This allowed archaeologists and dendrochronologists to undertake the sampling and analysis of the hull timbers.

Aoife Daly says:

“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.”

(Featured image credit: Patrick E. Baker, Western Australian Museum)