Illuminating the Rooswijk


A concept that perhaps we take for granted in modern times is that we are able to easily light our surroundings. In an era where we can illuminate a room with the flick of a switch, it is easy to become distanced from the notion that in pre-electrical times the world was much darker than the world today! In this short blog, we will therefore discuss some of the objects connected with the provision and maintenance of lighting aboard the Rooswijk.

Written by Alex Bliss on behalf of the #Rooswijk1740 project.

Dark interiors

The interior of a ship is by nature a dark place, especially on the lower decks and cargo holds where gratings generally do not allow natural light to penetrate. Therefore, it was necessary on any vessel to have a means of safely illuminating one’s surroundings.  As a large wooden object caulked with tar and often containing highly explosive ordnance or cargo, having any sort of fire on a ship could be extremely risky. This risk is perhaps illustrated best by the Royal Navy’s warship London, which sank in the Thames Estuary in 1665 due to her powder magazine being accidentally ignited.


Thus far, three different kinds of artefact have been recovered from the Rooswijk that relate to lighting. The first (and perhaps most obvious) is candle-holders, of which we have a current total of eight examples.

All of these artefacts follow the same general form: an open top or socket to accommodate the candle itself, a thinner main body and an integral screw thread at their base to allow them to be mounted or attached to parts of the ship - or a separate base.

Candle holders Rooswijk
Image: ©#Rooswijkproject 1740 / Candle-holders
Candle holders found on the Rooswijk (RK17:00753)

Although above we have discussed primarily the theme of these objects being utilised on board,  based on the information that we have retrieved from the seabed during our research it is unfortunately not possible to identify whether the candle holders were in fact part of the cargo as opposed to being in use at the time of the sinking.  Detailed laboratory-based analysis of wear patterns or residue traces will hopefully give us some more clues in the future.  As of writing, we have no evidence currently pertaining to portable candlesticks with finger loops or candelabra on the Rooswijk – the former were present on the Hollandia (built 1742, sunk off the Scilly Isles in 1743). However– this does not necessarily mean none were present on the Rooswijk.

Candle Snuffers

A second artefact type (related to the first one), are the so-called ‘candle snuffers’. From the name alone, one might suppose that these rather peculiar looking scissor-like implements are intended to extinguish candles. However, from an etymological point of view the word ‘snuff’ originally means ‘to remove the expired section of a candle wick as the candle itself burns down’. Therefore, these artefacts effectively are wick trimmers – it obviously being important to temporarily retain the hot, expired section of wick within the box-like end section to minimise fire risk. Trimming candle wicks on a fairly regular basis had the benefit of reducing smokiness (an important aspect within the confines of a somewhat cramped inner deck!) and increasing the overall brightness of the flame.

Candle Snuffers Rooswijk
Image: ©#Rooswijkproject 1740
Candle Snuffer found on the Rooswijk (RK17:01263)

Brass oil lamp

The third artefact type is a brass oil lamp that would have been hung up on the ceiling. A gimbal structure made sure the oil lamp kept straight even when the ship was pitching on waves, thus ensuring that spillage of flammable substances was avoided!

Brass Oil Lamp - Rooswijk
Image: ©#Rooswijkproject 1740
Brass Oil Lamp found on the Rooswijk (RK17:00039)

These finds literally ‘set light’ to our knowledge on how people lived aboard the Rooswijk during its last voyage to the East Indies. However, it is also important to know that the knowledge we gain with every object on board of this ship will also help us with our broader understanding of VOC ships. Through documentary evidence and excavation of other Dutch East Indiamen such as Hollandia it has become clear that items such as candle holders and wick trimmers formed part of a sort of standard package that was placed aboard all VOC ships by the company itself from about 1730 onwards. Known as the ‘Lyste’ or ‘Equipagie’, it included tools, weapons, cutlery, crockery and even navigation instruments. By analysing the finds from the Rooswijk, we can assess how comprehensive this policy was and infer if it was observed uniformly across all VOC vessels. Basically, we can look at the differences between practice and theory in its implementation.

We hope you have enjoyed this third blog in our series discussing the finds from the Rooswijk. In our next piece, we will examine some of the glass artefacts recovered from the wreck site.

About the Rooswijk Project:

The Rooswijk was a Dutch East India Company vessel which sank on the treacherous Goodwin Sands, off Kent, in January 1740. The ship was outward-bound for Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) with trade goods. The site is now protected by the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 and all access is controlled by a licensing system administered by Historic England on behalf of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The ship’s remains lie at a depth of some 25 metres and are owned by the Dutch Government. The UK government is responsible for managing shipwrecks in British waters, therefore both countries work closely together to manage and protect the wreck site.  The Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands, RCE, (on behalf of the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture) and Historic England (on behalf of the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) are responsible for the joint management of the Rooswijk.

An archaeological survey of the site in 2016, undertaken by RCE and Historic England, showed that the wreck site was at high risk. As a result, a two-year excavation project began in 2017. Wrecks such as the Rooswijk are part of the shared cultural maritime heritage across Europe and it’s important that cultural heritage agencies are able to work together to ensure that sites like this are protected, researched, understood and appreciated by all. The project involves an international team led by RCE in partnership with Historic England. MSDS Marine are the UK Project Managers for the project.