• Dalur Júlíuson

The Gold Ship

It was a dark and stormy night when the Dutch ship Het Wapen van Amsterdam, known in Iceland as Gullskipið ('the gold ship'), ran aground in the shallows off Skeiðarársandur in southern Iceland. The Dutch vessel had been driven off course on its voyage homeward from the islands of South East Asia, and was heavy with exotic wares, its cargo made up of white and black pepper, fragrant woods, cinnamon, camphor, and silk. It had departed from the Dutch stronghold of Batavia (Jakarta) on 26th January, rounding the Cape of Good Hope on 8th June of that year. Its crew had been at sea for nearly eight months before their ship broke on Iceland's black sands on 19th September 1667.

Of the 200 souls on board - seafarers, soldiers and diverse passengers - fewer than 60 people survived (Dutch records indicate that only 14 men made it back to Amsterdam). Many of those who made it out of the night-darkened sea perished in the frost and cold - Skeiðarársandur is, as pictured above, a vast glacial outwash plain - while a few others escaped in boats, and found welcoming hearths at Eyrarbakki, Seltjarnarnes, and Kjalarnes. There the Dutch wintered, while farmers in the east squabbled over the sweet-smelling riches that disgorged from this strange visitor to their shores.

The total value of the ship's cargo, according to the invoice made up in Batavia, was a sensational 367,680 guilders (in 1639, Rembrandt had bought a house in Amsterdam’s fashionable Jodenbreestraat for a princely 13,000). The Icelandic Fitjaannáll reports that people considered its value to exceed that of any other cargo that had come to Iceland since the island was settled ('almæltu allir, að aldrei hefði þvílíkt skip með svo dýrmæta áhöfn við Ísland komið, síðan það var fyrst byggt'). The Danish authorities declared the ship's cargo vogrek, which obliged the eastern magistrates to transport the goods to Bessastaðir, not before, however, helping themselves to a share of the riches. Many in the east, remarks the annall, had become light fingered ('haldið var, að margur yrði þa fingralangur fyrir austan').

The Icelanders' scramble for these washed-up riches is poetically described by the Icelandic priest Stefán Ólafsson (c. 1619–1688). He describes how Icelanders plundered the ship of its silks - called, quite eddicly, the worms' fair weavings ('orma fagur vefurinn') - and secreted away fragrant lumps of civet in sheep skins. Their covetousness ('ágirnd') shames even the scavenging raven and fox: they flee in startlement as 'the smell of India' ('Indíanski þefurinn') spills from the beached ship.

Svo fælist hrafninn og refurinn, Því út er kominn um allan skóg Indíanski þefurinn.
The raven and the fox take fright, For through the whole forest has arrived the smell of India.

Among the sweet-smelling wares of Het Wapen van Amsterdam would have been more than 30 sea charts, necessary for sailing the waters between Europe and the Dutch East Indies. Some 30 years later, such charts were being used as coverings for the manuscript books Árni Magnússon had brought from Iceland to Denmark.

A couple of our charts mark the positions of other wrecks, whose mention may have served as warnings to other navigators sailing those waters. Here below, on a map used to cover a manuscript of Grettis saga, AM 476 4to, we see an inscription in the Bay of Bengal that reads 'Neptunus verongeluckt' (from 'verongelukken', to be wrecked, lost, or to meet with disaster), identifying the wreck of the Neptunus, lost on 3rd October 1643, and, not far from it, the Schiedam, lost on 19th October 1654 with 51 lives lost.

When they appear, wrecks are of enormous value in dating charts. But more than a scholar's terminus ante quem, they're a reminder of the extraordinary lives of maps, and those who lived and died by them. Moving from the Bay of Bengal to Iceland, sea charts are the most mobile documents in the early modern world, and their story touches on all the shores to which they travelled.

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