Underwater Treasure in Tobago

This week, Wild Tobago looks at the contemporary quest for ancient treasure in Rockley Bay, where 20 seventeenth century ships went to the bottom  in the 1677 battle between the French and Dutch. This feature was first published in the Tobago Newsday on Thursday 12th January 2017    
Fort King George: a park built upon the remains of the British fort that overlooks Rockley Bay and the Scarborough Harbour, photo courtesy Pat Ganase

In the 300 years after Columbus came in 1498, Tobago changed hands over 30 times among European nations. These do not account for the skirmishes with Amerindian tribes that had fought over the beautiful isle for centuries before; or the rout of any remaining natives by the superior ships and weaponry of the Europeans. In 1814, the island was ceded to the British, and in 1889 made a ward of Trinidad. While these are the ties that bind, it is clear to many Tobagonians, Trinidadians and visitors from the world over, that the islands are different, with characteristics and challenges that may be complementary but distinct. Tobago 1677, the film, is the layered story – a contemporary quest about an ancient event -of one such encounter.

When Rick Haupt and Sylvia Krueger came to Tobago in 2004, at the invitation of Kevin Kenny, to look for shipwrecks, they were charmed by both islands: Trinidad with its intense rainforest environment and even more intense cultural commingling; but it was Tobago with its relaxed lifestyle whose oceanic wonders fascinated them. The principals and crew of Oceans Discovery have been exploring underwater environments since the 1990s, recording their discoveries for education, conservation and entertainment. (See the website oceansdiscovery.com)

During six years in Trinidad and Tobago, they brought together a team of historians and archaeologists with agencies such as the Ministry of National Security, the Tobago House of Assembly, the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard, oil and gas exploration companies, to the singular vision of exposing a small era of history from the seventeenth century. Specifically, they focused on the battle which sent 20 ships to the bottom in Scarborough Harbour; and which they speculate are still there today. Tobago 1677 was completed with investments from international companies. It is hoped that it may provide impetus and inspiration for others to explore Tobago, its marine environment, its unique place in Caribbean history, and also its potential as a location in the film industry. 

The story is told principally by an officer in the Dutch army and one of the few survivors of the 1677 Ash Wednesday encounter, Captain van Donegan.

Up to that time, there had been various attempts by Spaniards, Courlanders, French, British and Dutch to settle the island. The rise and fall of nations in Europe, across the Atlantic, would determine the fate of this island in the south Caribbean. In 1674, the island was given back to the Dutch by the peace accord of Westminster. In February 1677, the Dutch were rebuilding the fort overlooking Rudklyp baai (now Rockley bay location of the Scarborough harbor) under the command of Vice Admiral Binckes. But the French were hot on their heels in the on-going war between France (under Louis XIV) and Holland (under William of Orange).

In the previous 15 years, in the reign of Louis XIV, the French fleet had been entirely renewed. Fifteen ships under Count d’Estrees, Marshal of France, had set out across the Atlantic in 1673. On February 21, 1677, the fleet comprising 14 vessels and a force of 4000 men sailed into a bay (likely Hillsborough) some four or five kilometres east of Rudklyp. It would be too risky to sail into Rudklyp where the Dutch fleet was anchored, and under the surveillance of the star-shaped Dutch fort.

The French commander of the land forces planned to take an army overland to the fort. Preparing for a battle on land, the Dutch sent their women, children, elderly and infirm to a boat in the bay for safety. The Sphera Mundi offered safety in cramped quarters away from where the battle was expected.

As the Dutch prepared to engage the French on land, the French sailed into the bay, engaging the Dutch fleet at close quarters. The sea battle was fierce and fatal. Ships were engulfed in fire: the Sphera Mundi in flames, women and children falling into the water their hair and clothing alight, screaming. By the end of the battle, both sides had suffered terrible losses. Captain van Donegan was taken prisoner by the French. The Dutch fleet was reduced to three ships. The French sailed to Grenada. Some 20 vessels had been sunk to the bottom of Rudklyp baai. Here they remain, covered by the silt and sands turned over daily by the ferries between Trinidad and Tobago.

This ended the Dutch attempts to take Tobago. It was the first time the French were successful in the Caribbean. In August 1678, Tobago was ceded to the French by the first of the Treaties of Nijmegen (immortalized in the equestrian statue of Louis XIV in the Place des Victoires in Paris).

Tobago 1677 is a docudrama that has been made available on-line, and may be accessed by anyone interested in a small piece of history – in the war of European nations, and contemporary efforts to discover artifacts from that era – of Tobago. It also provided impetus for proposals by Oceans Discovery to benefit the people of Tobago.

If you go to the website, http://oceansdiscovery.com/page26/, you can read their proposal for a museum of the ocean uniquely suited to Tobago. Such a state-of-the-art educational and entertainment facility, designed by international architects and engineers, would revolutionise the tourism industry, making exploration, conservation and education about Tobago’s marine environment the source of a new economy. Is it not time to reach for a new vision of Tobago, to be the most beautiful that she can be, not just to all who love her, but all who live here.


Watch the film  Tobago 1677 here:





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