As a maritime archaeologist and a novelist I’m fascinated by the shipwrecks of the Lizard Peninsula, a place where I’ve dived extensively over the past couple of years. The number of wrecks known makes this one of the richest areas of seabed archaeologically off England, and has led me to establish a research programme - in collaboration with Mark Milburn, of Atlantic Scuba in Penryn – to locate, monitor and investigate wrecks of historic significance in these waters, under the aegis of Historic England.
The church headland at Gunwalloe from Jangye-ryn (David Gibbins)
The sheer elusiveness of many of these wrecks, some revealed tantalisingly for only a few days in the shifting sands, others shrouded in rumour and misinformation, is also fuel to my fictional imagination. For every dive that reveals something new and definitive, there are many more where I stare across the sandy seabed and wonder what else might lie buried out there –perhaps a Phoenician or a Roman wreck, evidence of the earliest seafaring in Mount’s Bay, or one of the many wrecks of more recent centuries attested in the records that have yet to be discovered.
I was thinking of this relationship between reality and imagination while watching the next series of Poldark being filmed at Gunwalloe Church Cove a few weeks ago. Many people visiting the cove will have heard of the legendary ‘Dollar Wreck’, a ship carrying a huge treasure in Spanish silver that supposedly went down off the headland in the late 18th century. The Dollar Wreck is the most elusive of all Cornish wrecks, probably more fiction than fact, and the story of the numerous attempts to discover it over the years would stretch credulity even in a novel. If you walk to the end of the headland beyond the church you can see the rock-cut path and workings from several extraordinary schemes in the mid-19th century to get at the wreck, one of them to mine beneath the seabed and come up under the supposed site – interesting archaeology in itself, and evidence either of folly on a grand scale or of an elaborate confidence trick to dupe investors, or both!
David Gibbins examining probable musket barrel concretions at the Schiedam site (Mark Milburn)
What fewer people know is the story of a much better documented wreck that took place in 1684 in Jangye-ryn cove off the north side of the headland, a wreck on far firmer ground as it has been discovered and investigated archaeologically. In this case, real history closely foreshadows fiction: at the same place in the cove where the shipwreck scene was filmed for the first series Poldark in 2014 you would have seen flotsam and chaos that night more than three hundred years before, and where the film crew lined the shore you would have seen local onlookers. A letter written soon after the wrecking to Lord Dartmouth, Admiral of the Fleet at the time, suggests that the locals availed themselves of what they could, ‘embezzling’, but were far from the murderous Cornish wreckers of legend: ‘All the guns and mortar pieces may be saved, but palisades, muskets, rigging &c., 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.’
The ship was the Schiedam, and Lord Dartmouth’s interest in her was that she was part of his fleet carrying ordnance, tools, horses and people back from Tangier, the port in present-day Morocco acquired by Charles II as a dowry but abandoned as an English colony in 1684 in the face of Moorish threat. The Schiedam was originally a Dutch merchantman that had been captured by Barbary pirates a few months before, her crew enslaved, but then was captured again by a daring young Royal Navy captain, Cloudesley Shovell – later as an admiral to be lost with his fleet in the Scilly Isles due to a navigational error, a catastrophe that precipitated the race to find a better way of establishing longitude. Captain Shovell had brought the Schiedam to Tangier, and she was entered into the fleet as a transport vessel. As if that history were not rich enough, no less a person than Samuel Pepys enters the picture – he was one of Dartmouth’s staff at Tangier, and much of his correspondence relating to the wreck of the Schiedam survives in the National Archives. The ship thus gives a unique insight into an extraordinary and largely forgotten episode in British history, at a time when the direction of British imperial expansion lay in the balance and the decision to abandon the North African colony saw greater focus on the ‘Enterprise of the Indies’ that was to dominate the next two centuries.
Mark Milburn at the Schiedam site in front of a cannon (David Gibbins)
The wreck was discovered in 1971 by local diver Anthony Randall as he was snorkelling across the cove. Once its significance was established it was designated under the 1973 Protection of Wrecks Act, and it remains so to this day. Early excavations, which produced several hundred artefacts, showed that a good part of the ship’s cargo had been left unsalvaged – including more than a dozen great guns, many of them clearly cargo rather than ship’s armaments. The problem for archaeological work at this exposed, shallow site is that diving is limited to the days when the weather allows it, and the site is often covered by sand for years at a time. Nevertheless, Mark and I – both licensed to dive on the site by Historic England - decided that with artefacts in situ and parts of the wreck remaining unexcavated, we should monitor the sand cover and be poised to carry out a photo and video survey whenever the site is revealed.
The breakthrough came on a calm day in June this year when I went for a snorkel across Jangye-ryn, just as Anthony Randall had done all those years before. I was thrilled to see not just one gun exposed on the wreck, but three. One of them was the biggest gun I’d ever seen underwater, a three-and-a-half metre monster that must once have faced the Moors from the walls of Tangier. You can see a video I took of those guns here, only a few minutes after I first saw them. I called Mark and a few days later when the sea was calm again we kitted up in the National Trust carpark and did a two-hour dive on the site, exploring the exposed reefs and photographing and filming. Even more was visible than before, including areas of iron concretion preserving the shape of musket barrels – evidence that the ‘embezzlers’ did not manage to salvage all of the muskets from the wreck. You can see Mark’s photo of me in front of one of the concretions here. Since that dive the weather and sand have intervened, but it’s incredibly exciting to think that we now know where the wreck lies and the kind of revelations that could await us when we’re able to continue our investigations.
For a detailed account of historical evidence for the Schiedam and early investigations at the site, see Kevin Camidge’s report on the wreck for Historic England:
For my novels and archaeological projects, see my website www.davidgibbins.com and Facebook page www.facebook.com/DavidGibbinsAuthor
Published: Oct 2016
Author: David Gibbins, October 2016
Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FOwLdVBxrE