A treasure hunter has discovered the remnants of a sword from a 335-year-old Dutch shipwreck off the coast of Cornwall. Robert Felce found the remains of the sword encased in thick concretion on the beach at Dollar Cove in Gunwalloe. Gunwalloe got its name from local legends of a Portuguese treasure ship sinking there in 1526 and a ship full of silver dollars sinking there 250 years later, but the rumored abundance of coin has never been found, nor has any other trace of the two fabled vessels.
Felce has found shipwreck artifacts at Dollar Cove before: three 17th century hand grenades. No treasure in the monetary sense of the word, but interesting from an archaeological perspective. Like the grenades, his latest find also looked like a rock from the outside, the result of centuries of built-up sand, stone, shell and assorted marine debris hardening around the object. He found it in a gulley at low tide. It was broken in three pieces and looked very little like anybody’s idea of a sword.
“Because the shape of the concretion was rounded it looks like it has rolled into the site and then broken up on the protruding bedrock with the action of the waves. This may have been a relatively short time before being luckily spotted in a sandy gulley.
“As you would expect with such an item, likely to be from the Schiedam shipwreck in 1684, age and the action of the sea has taken its toll. Most of the blade is either corroded or missing.
“However there is enough of the original iron blade to indicate the shape of the blade in cross sectional profile near to the hilt. The width of the blade is approximately five centimetres, or two inches.
“The whole length of the blade could have been perhaps more than 60 centimetres or two feet long and would probably have been kept in good condition by its original owner who could have been either a sailor, a soldier or even a North African pirate.
“Looking at the void in the concretion and remaining ferrous corrosion, it looks indeed like the profile and length of a piece of forged blade, likely a sword or sabre as opposed to a knife, dagger or bayonet-type blade.
Originally a Dutch merchant vessel, the Schiedam became the rope in a maritime tug of war. First it was captured by Barbary pirates off the coast of Gibraltar in August of 1683. Then the Royal Navy captured it from the pirates and repurposed it as a transport vessel for the English colony at Tangiers. It was a bad time to get assigned to British Tangiers. Moroccan forces had been assaulting the city non-stop for three years and the cost of constantly having to send reinforcements and rebuild or strengthen defenses was increasingly prohibitive to the strapped King Charles II.
In 1683, Charles gave up on the colony. He gave secret orders to evacuate the city and destroy it on the way out the gate. Tangier’s civilian population was only 700 people; the garrison had almost 3,000 men. From October 1683 until February 1684, Admiral Lord Dartmouth (assisted by administrator and famed diarist Samuel Pepys) systematically razed the city, its defenses, ports and harbor wall. The last of the English forces evacuated on February 5th, 1684. Moroccan forces took control of the demolished city on February 7th.
The Schiedam, loaded with heavy armaments, civilians and soldiers, was part of the Tangiers evacuation fleet. It was caught in a gale off the coast of Cornwall in April of 1684 and sank. Some of its larger armaments were salvaged at the time. It was soon forgotten — an armed transport ship doesn’t make for good gossip like a treasure ship does — until shifting sands briefly exposed the wreck on the seabed. The sands quickly covered it back up.
The brief exposure, documented by diver Anthony Randall, was enough to get it designated a protected wreck after the passage of the Protection of Wrecks Act in 1973. As such, it cannot be interfered with. Artifacts do wash up on the beach from time to time, which is where Robert Felce finds them. The sword has been registered, as required by law, with the Receiver of Wrecks (which is as excellent a title as it is a job).