THE next time you are on the Tobago ferry as it slips in to dock at the Scarborough port, consider this amazing story that will blow your mind.
Beneath the waters of the harbour is a muddy seabed in which is buried the timber of ships that serves as the graveyard to hundreds of men, women and children who died there more than 300 years before.
To imagine it would mean to erase almost everything you see today, and replace it with sights and sounds of a Tobago dating back to the time of pirates, forts, and European maritime wars waged with cannonballs shot from wooden sail ships, when the decimation of the first people was under way, and the evil of enslavement was already being practised.
The historians record that, in 1676, on the orders of King Louis XIV (1638-1715) of France, Vice Admiral Compte D’Estrees was dispatched to the West Indies with a fleet of 14 warships to destroy all Dutch holdings and their fleet. The countries were then at war.
The French arrived off Tobago (then named New Walcheren) in February 1677 to launch a land and sea assault against the island, which was met by a defence led by Admiral Jacob Binckes, commander of the Dutch fleet.
On the morning of March 3 (Ash Wednesday), the French entered Rockley Bay to find 13 Dutch ships ready to do battle. It is recorded that in the ensuing conflagration, more than 2,000 would die, including 300 women, children and slaves who were aboard supply ships anchored behind the battle line. Many ships from both sides would burn to the waterline and sink into the bay, in what would become one of the bloodiest-ever sea battles.
More than 300 years later and that history is now being uncovered less than 25 metres underwater along the path taken by the Tobago ferry, where as many as 20 shipwrecks are located. In 2012, a team of research scientists, in collaboration with the Tobago House of Assembly (THA), began work on a project to identify and preserve some of this buried history.
The THA is also constructing a conservation building in which the artefacts being plucked from the sea will be preserved before display. The project is being led by Dr Kroum Batchvarov, assistant professor of Maritime Archaeology at the University of Connecticut in the United States, whose team provided an update on how the project was progressing.
On April 11, 2012, the executive council of the THA gave approval to Batchvarov and the Rockley Bay Research Project (RBRP) to conduct an archaeological investigation of the shipwrecks in Scarborough Harbour, one of the most important archaeological projects to be launched in the Caribbean in decades (In the 1990s, three cannons from the wreck site were raised, and are on display on a concrete pedestal near the ferry terminal. A fourth cannon was raised during a project in 2000).
The aim of the Rockley Bay Research Project is to scientifically recover, evaluate, catalogue and complete conservation of 17th-century cultural artefacts related to the 1677 Franco-Dutch naval battle which took place in what is now Rockley Bay.
Batchvarov reports that, in 2012, his team successfully completed the first field season, which included 12 researchers and students as well as local and international volunteers. Last season, the team began investigations of a number of targets thought to be related to the battle of 1677 which were recently the subject of a documentary film produced by Oceans Discovery in partnership with the THA and Ministry of Tourism.
The documentary, Tobago 1677, premiered at the Magdelena Resort, Tobago, last December.
Batchvarov’s goal for this upcoming season will be to continue exploring targets for analysis. Once the researchers have identified what is believed to be the remains of the Dutch line of battle, the team will begin the process of recording ship hull structures. In accordance with the UNESCO convention on underwater heritage, the RBRP will not raise or salvage any wrecks, which in any event is prohibitively expensive (costing tens of millions of US dollars over decades to properly raise and conserve shipwrecks above water).
The team will, however, seek to raise and begin the conservation process for some of the more endangered diagnostic artefacts that are being exposed and damaged by the ferry prop wash.
These artefacts, once properly conserved, can be displayed in a museum for the benefit of all Tobagonians.
None of the artefacts discovered will be sold or unilaterally removed from the island. Everything that is uncovered will remain the property of Trinidad and Tobago.
Dr Batchvarov also advised that in order to undertake the extremely important but expensive process of conservation, the RBRP is applying for a prestigious US Department of State cultural preservation fund grant to help the project acquire the conservation equipment needed to outfit the laboratory. The RBRP is working closely with the US Embassy in Trinidad to submit this proposal.
Tobago’s RBRP was the recipient of the coveted international 2013 Institute of Nautical Archaeology’s Claude Duthuit Archaeology Grant, which is given to the project that “best captures the innovative, bold and dedicated spirit of the founders of nautical archaeology discipline”.
In the long term, a full-time conservation specialist will be needed to ensure these precious artefacts are correctly monitored and preserved.
It is the hope, said Batchvarov, that in the next two years a local person would be trained to take over this role.
The RBRP is working closely with the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) to identify prospective local students for training in fields such as archaeology and conservation. Combined with the conservation structure that the THA is constructing, Batchvarov states that training locals in these scientific fields is the critical first step in setting T&T on a course to become the regional centre of excellence for nautical archaeology in the Caribbean.
Batchvarov said he is often asked if there is treasure such as gold and gems down on the ocean floor. However, the wrecks related to the battle of 1677 were all warships which were heading into a major naval battle so it’s a fair bet that none of the sailors brought any of their treasure or valuables on board, he said.
What he does hope to find is the remains of this historic battle—cannon, anchors as well as the mundane but important artefacts which academics love to study like plates and cups and, if the team is really lucky, large sections of intact hull structure.
For all of the treasure hunters out there, unless they are looking for knowledge about 17th-century ship construction methodologies, Batchvarov advises they will have to look elsewhere to find gold and jewels. This particular harbour does not contain an “X” which marks the spot.
NOTE: Readers who are interested in this period of Tobago’s history can read Cornelius Goslinga’s account of the battle in his book The Dutch in the Caribbean and on the Wild Coast, or can visit www.oceansdiscovery.com, or the website of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, where photos for this article were obtained.