Last modified:
1 Mar 2003

The Avondster: the ship & her wrecking

The wrecking

Areca palm and nuts
Areca palm & nuts

The Avondster was wrecked on 2 July 1659. The ship had been anchored near the Black Fort. During the night, although the weather was fine, the vessel slipped her anchor and hit the shore northeast of the anchorage. The ship broke in two, and was soon submerged in the soft sand. An eye-witness account, found in the Dutch records of Colombo, tells how a sailor on deck discovered the vessel drifting and tried to wake the skipper. However, the skipper was slow in making his appearance, and by the time he ordered the warp anchor to be thrown out, it was already too late.

After the disaster, the skipper and the first mate were arrested, convicted, and ordered to pay for the losses.

The Avondster had been loading areca nuts for India. After the ship was lost, there were no other vessels of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) available to transport the rest of the cargo, which was still on shore. VOC officials decided that the burghers (free citizens) should be allowed to buy the cargo, but only on condition that it was sold for a fixed price; presumably they had existing contracts to meet with the Indian buyers. In April 1999 we found areca nuts on the wreck.

The ship's history

When she sank, the Avondster was in the service of the Dutch East India Company, but she was originally an English ship. Exact age is unknown; she was first recorded as the John and Thomas, and bought by the English East India Company in 1641. She was then renamed the Blessing, and despatched to Java. Reflecting the general fortunes of the East India Company, she made two relatively straightforward out-and-back voyages (to Bantam in 1642-43, and to Surat and Bantam in 1644-45), and was then deployed increasingly in the regional trade, making only one more voyage to England in 1650. Asian deployment can be explained by weak markets and intensifying trade competition, but the Avondster may have been ageing already. In 1645-6, the English East India Company spent six months undecided whether to proceed with repairs, and then determined that her life could be economically extended for a further seven or eight years. In the event she survived for another thirteen years, and her eventual loss was described by VOC officials as that of an 'old yacht'.

In 1652 the First Anglo-Dutch War broke out, and although this conflict was ostensibly about local trade issues in Europe, it gave the VOC an excuse to attack its major competitor. It took a year for news of the war to reach parts of Asia, and meanwhile Cromwell had refused a request fom the English East India Company to send warships to Persia. The VOC promptly captured five English ships: the Duyf near Batavia and the ships Roebuck, Leonoret, Supply and Blessing in the waters around Persia - where the Dutch lay in wait from February 1653 for unsuspecting English ships arriving from India. After a month the Supply arrived from Surat and the Blessing from Coromandel. The English factors at Gombroon(1) were looking out for these ships, but could not warn them, and a battle ensued. The skipper of the Supply surrended, but not until he had managed to bring his cargo safely to shore, and negotiate terms: all officers and crew were to be housed comfortably and suffer no physical harm. At Gombroon the VOC allowed the officers to disembark with all their personal possessions and trade goods. The Blessing however defended itself vigorously, according to Dutch accounts as well as the master's. Most of the sailors were kept as prisoners; however it was thought inhumane to keep them below deck in the hot Persian climate, and a captured Portuguese ship was used as a prison, anchored in the open sea with eight guards. Many of the prisoners escaped, and the others were sent to Batavia, along with the captured ships. Of the four ships captured in Persia, the Blessing had the richest cargo with a value of 173 thousand guilders, equivalent in modern terms to US$8-9m. The name Avondster first appears in a letter from Batavia reporting the prizes to the VOC's directors; the new name means 'Evening Star', and may refer to her age, as ships were often given names appropriate to their function or qualities. (The Duyfken, or 'Little Dove', was a yacht used for communication and survey.)

The ship in this print has been careened - turned on her side - for repairs or cleaning. The Avondster today lies at a similar angle on the seabed. She carried a starboard bow anchor in the same position.

The Avondster was then sent to the Netherlands, and stayed for a few months in 1654; there was probably some refitting and modification at this stage. (The galley of Dutch bricks which we have found on the wreck site is evidence of refitting; we have also found 'hanging knees' - bracing timbers for the decks - which show the ship's English origin, as they were not used by Dutch shipbuilders. In the English records she is listed as a ship of 250 or 260 tons, with a crew of about 65 for major voyages.)(2)

In 1655 the Avondster returned to Batavia. On a voyage the following year to Japan, she carried two large globes and an expert to explain geographical data to the emperor; the departing VOC country head returned on her to Batavia. There are no records at this stage suggesting that the ship was unseaworthy; she was carrying valuable cargo and important people. In 1657 she departed for the Netherlands, but returned to Batavia due to severe leaking. The cargo for Europe was transferred to another ship, and the Avondster never sailed to Europe again. It was normal practice for ageing ships to be transferred to regional routes once they were no longer fit for the long and arduous trip to Europe, and the VOC's directors discussed the condition and allocation of individual ships every year. The Avondster was soon reassigned to escort duties at Craowan (bay of Batavia) and then to command a blockade of Bantam.

She was then despatched to southern India, where Commissar Rijckloff van Goens was campaigning against the Portuguese. In a letter from Van Goens to the Governor-General and the Council for India in Batavia, he expressed his disappointment about her condition:

'Honourable, valiant, wise, prudent, and very generous Sirs,
We seize the first opportunity to inform you that after a perilous voyage we only reached Goa on 19th November [1657]. We were disappointed in finding things very different from what we were led to expect. Instead of the vessels we had hoped to find ready to join our intended expedition to Diu, we were obliged to exchange our strong war-yacht Vlielandt for the unseaworthy Avondster.'

Van Goens decided that the Dutch were too weak to attack the Portuguese immediately. A defeat would have left Ceylon unprotected, and he wanted first to assemble a larger fleet. He left several ships near Goa under the command of Adrian Roothaes. The guns of the Avondster and three other ships were transferred to bolster their firepower, and the fleet which stayed behind comprised 9 ships with 352 heavy guns and 1100 soldiers. The Avondster was sent to Ceylon, to inform Governor Van der Meijden about plans to attack the north coast, but could not reach her destination due to unfavourable weather; all of the ships had similar problems, and there is no indication at this stage that the Avondster was sailing worse than the others. The Avondster waited off Cape Comorin for the arrival of Van Goens and further instructions. Eventually a small fleet under the command of Van Goens reached Colombo in early 1658.

The battle at Mannar, 1658.
The battle at Mannar. Portuguese soldiers, and their frigates, centre, are fighting Dutch ships, right. The Avondster was among the Dutch ships. (Baldaeus' Beschryving, Amsterdam 1672.)

The Avondster transported soldiers from Colombo and Negombo to Tuticorin on the Coromandel coast, which Van Goens captured. She then carried soldiers and joined the attack on the island of Mannar. In a fierce battle, all Portugese frigates were captured or destroyed.(3) Many of the Portuguese soldiers defending the beach were killed by cannon from the Dutch ships before encountering a landing party commanded by Adriaen Hem, the Avondster's skipper.(4) By the summer Van Goens had captured all the most important settlements on the northwest coast of Ceylon. By late 1658 his biggest problem was the large number of Portuguese prisoners. Several hundred were transported on the Avondster from Jaffnapatnam, and from Tegenapatnam in southern India, to Bengal - along with money and valuable cargo from Pulicat, so the ship was evidently still considered seaworthy. The Avondster returned to Ceylon with a cargo including cloth, rice, oil and butter, opium and gunpowder. There was now a food shortage in Ceylon, due to the disruption of agriculture and the number of foreign troops. In early 1659 the Avondster was sent to Ballasore on the Malabar coast to fetch another cargo of rice, carrying four elephants as a present for the local rulers - who deemed them inferior and rejected the offering. Gathering the rice went slowly, and the Avondster headed back towards Colombo only in the last week of April, uncomfortably close to the weather deadline.

The Avondster was then to be one of nine ships carrying areca nuts to the Coromandel coast. Areca nuts were deemed by Van Goens to be the second most important commercial product of Ceylon (with cinnamon most important, and elephants third). The Dutch had decreed that areca nuts should be carried only in Dutch ships, and were enforcing their monopoly by blocking the harbours of Raja Sinha of Kandy; troops had been despatched to Kalpitya, and ships to blockade Trincomalee. The last nuts of the harvest were slow to arrive; the Avondster had been ordered to await them, and sank while waiting.

  1. Gombroon, the English name, was Gamron to the Dutch, and is Bandar Abbas, in Iran (see map). Contemporary spellings of ship and place names vary considerably. According to John Keay, the Persian trade niche was "largely thanks to hostilities between the Moghul Empire and the Shah. Their fluctuating campaigns to secure the Afghan city of Kandahar interrupted the overland trade and obliged Moghul shipping to avoid Persian ports. The Dutch and the English exploited this situation, becoming deeply involved in the freighting of Persian goods on behalf of Indian merchants. It was the busiest arm of the 'country trade' and one greatly facilitated by the customs exemption granted to the English by Shah Abbas" [for assistance in evicting the Portuguese from Hormuz in 1622]. "At Mocha and Basra no such privileges pertained, but there too English ships continued their sporadic calls. Again they carried mainly freighted cargoes although a notable exception was a small consignment of 'coho seedes' bought at Mocha in 1658 and forwarded to London. The capital's first coffee house had just opened." [The Honourable Company, Harper Collins UK, 1991.]
  2. In Nov 1646 the Blessing was instructed to sail from England with a crew of 60; this was thought insufficient, and increased by 4.
  3. 'Our men encountered considerable resistance when landing. The lieutenant (then sergeant) Hendrik van Wel was the first to land, and fought valiantly with his men and the others who followed close behind. The Portuguese who tried to bring relief to their comrades were met by the cannons from our ships, laden with bullets and shrapnel; many fell, noses into the sand, and had a short funeral. It was our good fortune that the Portuguese general, Anthonio Amiral de Menezes, was shot in the throat and killed. Antonio Mendes d' Arangie, a valiant 'hopman', was severely wounded, as were others; we lost a flagbearer, and before landing (when the boat of the yacht Naarden was taken by the Portuguese) the good lieutenant N. Blok. The Portuguese frigates passing before our fleet were severely hit, and had many dead and wounded; eventually all their frigates were captured. Magnificent work was done by Major Jan van der Laan, even though just before the landing, under my own eyes, he had fallen rather severely in our ship, and although he was a rather heavily built person he confronted the enemy in his normal manner, with a hero's courage, and caused them to flee.' [translated from Philippus Baldaeus' Naauwkeurige beschrijvinge van Malabar en Choromandel, der zelver aangrenzende Rijken en het machtig eyland Ceylon, Amsterdam, 1672.]
  4. 'Adriaen Hem, skipper of the Avondster, was commander of the sailors in the rear-guard. By the time this last group landed, the Portuguese had fled from their trenches on the beach.' [translated from ARA (Dutch National Archives) VOC 1.04.02 - 1227 : fol 225-338.]

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