Policy on ownership of Dutch ships
Traces of the Netherlands’ rich maritime history can be found all over the world. They include wrecks of the many ships that belonged to the Dutch East India Company (VOC), the West India Company (WIC) and the various Admiralties. The Dutch State regards these shipwrecks as its property. Around 1800 the State took over the assets of the bankrupt Dutch East India Company and, as its legal successor, it also ‘inherited’ the company’s shipwrecks. Although ownership of the West India Company shipwrecks is less clear, it can be assumed that they too are the property of the Dutch state. There are estimated to be several hundred such shipwrecks, but the location of only around 100 ships is currently known.
Besides rights, ownership also entails certain responsibilities. A Shipwrecks Committee was therefore established in 2002, in which representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science and the Council for National Government Properties (RVOB) jointly determine what should happen to historic Dutch shipwrecks. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs participates because the wrecks often lie in foreign waters. The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science is interested in the cultural heritage aspects of the wrecks, and the RVOB is involved because they are the property of the State.
Management prevents future loss of heritage
Apart from occasionally claiming ownership and awarding salvage contracts, the Netherlands takes little action concerning this property. This is a great shame. The wrecks of the Dutch East India Company, West India Company and Admiralty ships are a link to moments in Dutch history that appeal to the imagination: the Batavia disaster, Piet Hein’s capture of the silver fleet, Michiel de Ruyter’s victory over the English and so on. Without management, there is a risk that these wrecks will be lost (through processes like natural degradation and treasure hunting), without us ever finding out anything about them. This would rob the nation of a unique heritage. The wrecks are also important to researchers who are keen to study archaeological wrecks to discover how ships were built in the 17th century, as Dutch shipbuilders rarely used drawings at that time.
The protection of and research into Dutch heritage that lies outside our own territorial waters always happens in consultation with the country where the site is located. This often means that negotiations have to take place, either bilaterally between two countries, or on a wider scale. In the latter case, the result is often a major international treaty, such as the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. The Netherlands has yet to sign this convention, incidentally.
Management of Dutch-owned Shipwrecks sub-programme
In 2012, the RCE was given the responsibility and funding for action on Dutch-owned shipwrecks. In response, it drew up an implementation programme, with the aim of organising projects to gather new knowledge of our maritime heritage overseas. We also want to raise as much awareness as possible of the importance of this heritage, and share what we know about it. We focus mainly on persuading heritage organisations in other countries to help protect and manage Dutch wrecks in their waters. Several projects have been launched since 2012, in Cuba, Brazil, Suriname, Australia and other countries.
Shared Cultural Heritage Programme
The Dutch-owned Shipwrecks Sub-programme is directly related to the Shared Cultural Heritage Programme, but it is more wide-ranging. The shared cultural heritage encompasses museum collections, built and archaeological heritage, cultural landscapes and archives. It also includes non-material things like stories and customs. Shared Cultural Heritage policy shares similar objectives in terms of knowledge transfer and capacity-building. However, it is limited to a number of priority countries: Australia, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Russian Federation, Sri Lanka, South Africa and the United States.
Guidelines on shipwrecks
Shipwrecks are a unique part of the shared cultural heritage. Guidelines on shipwrecks have been set out in the ‘Interdepartmental policy framework on historic Dutch shipwrecks and shipwreck sites in foreign waters’ (1999).
Shared Cultural Heritage Policy Framework
The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs pursue a policy geared to the sustainable conservation of the heritage. The objectives of this policy have been set out in the ‘Shared Cultural Heritage Policy Framework’.