International policy

Policy on ownership of Dutch ships

Traces of the Netherlands’ 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 VOC and, as its legal successor, it also ‘inherited’ the company’s shipwrecks. Although ownership of the WIC 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.

Shipwrecks Committee

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 Central Government Real Estate Agency 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 Central Government Real Estate Agency is involved because the wrecks are the property of the State.

Management prevents future loss of heritage

The wrecks of the VOC, WIC and Admiralty ships are a link to important moments in Dutch history: 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. We need these wrecks to learn more about our history. 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.

International collaboration

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.

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 collaborate with heritage organisations in other countries to protect and manage Dutch wrecks in their waters. See the page with international projects for more information.

International Heritage Cooperation Programme

Our activities concerning maritime heritage are directly related to the International Heritage Cooperation Programme. This programme carries out the International Cultural Policy as set out by the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Education, Culture and Science. The programme encompasses collections, built and archaeological heritage, cultural landscapes and archives. It also includes immaterial heritage like stories and customs. International Heritage Cooperation policy shares similar objectives in terms of knowledge transfer and capacity-building. However, it is limited to a number of priority countries.

Guidelines on shipwrecks

Shipwrecks are a unique part of 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, and several protocols have been created. See this page on protocols for more information.