In 1985 French fishermen discovered a wreck off Cape Gentil in Gabon. Cannons, pottery and, above all, a ship’s bell with an inscription left no room for doubt: this was an early seventeenth-century Dutch East Indiaman. The vessel was identified as De Mauritius, built in Amsterdam in 1602.
Battle of Cape Rachado, 1607
On its second voyage to the Indies in 1605 the Mauritius was part of a fleet of eleven ships sent to the Strait of Malacca under the command of Cornelis Matelief to attack the Portuguese and, if possible, gain control of the strait for the Netherlands. Matelief first contacted the sultan of Johore, who had hated the Portuguese since they conquered his capital, Malaca.
Malaca was surrounded and soldiers were sent ashore. The seaward side of the city was sealed off by the Dutch fleet. Retaking the city would be only a matter of time. The siege had lasted three months when, on 14 August, a Portuguese auxiliary fleet of twenty ships from Goa appeared. The Portuguese opened fire and an artillery battle ensued. The Portuguese then came closer, planning to board the Dutch ships. Given the Portuguese superiority in numbers, Matelief attempted to dodge the fleet.
The Nassau was unable to escape quickly enough and was accosted by Nossa Senhora da Conceicão. The Dutch vessel burst into flames and the crew abandoned ship. In the meantime, Matelief had come to their assistance, turning his ship the Oranje, but unfortunately he collided with another vessel, the Middelburg, during the manoeuvre. The rigging on the two ships became entangled, and they were locked together. Two Portuguese ships approached, intent on polishing off this easy target. The São Salvado rammed the Middelburg … and also became stuck. Now the Oranje approached, sailing into the São Salvado’s flank. It too became stuck. A fourth ship – the Nossa Senhora das Mercês – became involved in the skirmish, sailed into the Oranje.
At the height of the battle six vessels were involved. The Mauritius managed to pull Matelief’s flagship, the Oranje, from the melee. Unfortunately, the Oranje was still entangled with Nossa Senhora das Mercês. Matelief realised that both his ship and the Portuguese vessel were about to sink. He proposed a ceasefire to the Portuguese captain Norongha, in order to cut the ships loose and thus save them. Words of honour were exchanged and a glass of wine drunk. Then the tables turned: the Nossa Senhora das Mercês was surrounded. But Captain Matelief had just given his word, and he relinquished the prize, ordering the Portuguese vessel to be released. The Dutch fleet was forced to retreat and Malaca would remain in Portuguese hands until 1638.
The Mauritius emerged from this battle relatively unscathed. We resume its story sometime later, on its homeward voyage. On 27 December 1607 it set sail from Bantam to the Netherlands, via Patani. The crew celebrated New Year on a small island populated by what at that time were strange birds. The ship left there in January, and was never seen again. The Mauritius never reached home: it sank off the coast of Gabon on 19 May 1609.
Chinese porcelain of the Wan-Li period (1573-1619).
In 1985 a group of bronze cannons were found near the coast of Gabon. The wreck was identified as the Mauritius. Under the leadership of the French underwater archaeology institute DRASSM, the site was mapped using side scan sonar before it was actually excavated. The ship’s structure and cargo were explored in the tiniest detail, and 28 cannons (nine of them bronze) were salvaged. It was possible to reconstruct part of the cargo, including semi-finished products of zinc from Japan, pepper and Chinese porcelain.