Galle lighthouse, ramparts and cockerel, by Muthu.
Last modified:
1 Jan 2002

The wrecking of the Geinwens (1775)

The return-ship Geinwens was preparing for the homeward journey to the Netherlands; she loaded cinnamon and cloth in Galle. On 23rd October 1775, the ship set off for Cochin to load pepper, but struck a submerged reef on the way out of Galle harbour. Within hours the ship had been refloated but was leaking badly. On 29th October VOC officials decided to beach her.

'The water had risen to nine feet [in the hold], and was still rising more and more;  pumping and bailing with buckets was inadequate to prevent it.'

The officials became very worried about the ship's condition when they noticed that parts of the sheeting and planking were floating to the surface, and the swell in the harbour caused further damage. It was when parts of the false keel (slijtkiel) and a sizeable piece of the keel itself (2.5 feet long, 10 inches wide, and 6 inches thick) appeared at the surface that the harbourmaster* of Galle, the skipper of the Geinwens, and the shipwright, reached the conclusion that the ship was irreparable and had to be given up:

'... therefore, after removal of the rigging and everything else that is still of value, the rest of the ship should be stripped with care so that as much as possible of the timber may be reused.

It was decided to use the damaged hull as an emergency jetty. To sink the wreck, the hull was filled with stone ballast. In the margin of the official's report, there is one clue as to the place of sinking:

'... to fill the ship with stone ballast to be used in times of distress, to be able to moor or careen ships or other vessels, the place that is most suitable for this purpose is the spot where at normal times there is 13 to 14 feet of water.'

This can be interpreted in two ways. It could mean that the sunken hull was used as a mooring facility, and could be used for repairs when other facilities were occupied; or it could mean that the ship was sunk in a strategic place, where ships which had broken from their anchors could make an emergency stop before running aground or onto the rocks.

Is Site G the Geinwens?

There is a wooden wreck site under the cliffs on the eastern side of the harbour, in about the right depth. The site has a large number of ballast stones, but we have found relatively little else, suggesting that the wreck was comprehensively salvaged, which is consistent with a deliberate scuttling. This may be the Geinwens - but there is strong counter-evidence. Finds have been sparse, but those interested in the clues may read on: Site G: Dutch or French?

* The equipagemeester, translated here as harbourmaster, was responsible for all matters related to shipping, including repairs, loading and unloading of cargo, and the arrival and departure of ships. The shipwright was described as scheepsbouwkundige.

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