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18th century wreck gives up its secrets

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 31, 2012

  • Howard Jones, top, with a cannonball and above, preparing to lift one of the vessel's cannons. Above left, a 56lb VOC ballast block Pictures: Neil Hope

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A team of amateur treasure-hunters believe they have found the missing link between the remains of a Dutch merchant vessel wrecked off the south coast of England in 1721, and a rare Samurai sword forged over three centuries ago in Japan.

Setting sail from her native Holland, the 1,000-tonne "Aagtekerke" came to grief only weeks into her maiden voyage after running aground near the steep cliffs off Bovisand in the waters of Plymouth Sound. Far from receiving assistance from the native Plymothians, the 250-strong crew – employed by the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie or Dutch East India Company – soon found themselves under attack from a population intent on plundering the vessel.

The story behind the sinking, the vessel's eventual rediscovery, her subsequent identification and links to Japan are now revealed in a new book, Blind Faith, by commercial diver and project leader Howard Jones.

Mr Jones and his colleagues stumbled across the final resting place of the vessel in shallow water close to shore off Bovisand in early 2010. Over a two-and-a-half-year period the divers spent many hours exploring the site, hoping to uncover any of the rumoured gold and silver manifest that may have remained buried beneath the shifting sands.

Although the valuable cargo failed to materialise, many historical artifacts such cannonballs, musket balls, gold coin weights, buckles and a trio of lead aprons used to protect the cannon from the ingress of seawater, were found.

But Mr Jones, 50, also claims to have made an unlikely but significant marine archeological find – a 56lb VOC ballast block. Thought to be the only such example in existence, this unimpressive-looking block of iron ore – used to fine tune a vessel's stability when under sail – may now provide an answer to the mysterious origins of the highly-valued Namban Tetsu Samurai swords of the period.

"Traditionally Samurai swords were forged from Japanese iron ore only," said Mr Jones. "But around the early 17th century the inscription Namban Tetsu – translated as 'foreign steel' – appeared on some rare examples of the genre."

With no trade agreements existing between Japan and the rest of the world at this time, only the Dutch had enjoyed any prolonged period of contact with the Empire and it was something of a mystery where this "foreign steel" had been sourced as Dutch ore itself was of lesser quality in comparison to its Japanese counterpart.

Using such a material to forge with would make little sense, but Mr Jones believes that there is a simple answer to account for any confusion regarding the origins of the Namban Tetsu – which can fetch in excess of £50,000 at auction.

"As the Dutch began to trade with the Japanese it's quite probable that these ballast blocks somehow found their way to the sword-makers who recognised the material as being as good as, if not better than, their own ore deposits and led to the creation of the Namban Tetsu swords that are so sought after by collectors to this day."

Having recently informed both the Receiver of Wrecks and English Heritage of his discoveries, Mr Jones is confident that his findings will soon be independently corroborated and a three centuries-old riddle will be finally reach its conclusion.

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  • SHIPSProject  |  November 09 2012, 9:44AM

    Unfortunately this is just an act of vandalism and the piece about it is full of errors and half-truths. The wreck site being looted by Jones has actually been known about since 1972, he was led to the site by documents written by previous teams of divers and the records show that the silver being carried by the ship was recovered when she was wrecked. The supposed ballast block is just a grocer's 56lb weight frequently used by divers for marking dive sites, in fact VOC ships used lead ballast not iron. Objects that were really from the Aagtekerke have been recovered in the past, including lead ballast blocks, but not from the area where Jones was working. By removing things from the seabed Jones has damaged a shipwreck site that is part of Plymouth's cultural heritage and any information we could have about it is now lost.

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