The Klein Hollandia - Fighting with a belly full of marble

The following text was published in the Cultural Heritage Agency's (RCE) publication Tijdschrift in August 2023. It describes the research into the shipwreck Klein Hollandia, a joint effort between the RCE, Historic England en Nautical Archaeology Society. This project has been ongoing since 2019.

It once was a mighty man-of-war, the Klein Hollandia. But when it was suddenly attacked by the English after a long service, it sank to the bottom of the Channel. Almost 350 years passed before the wreck was discovered. Asides from many cannons, maritime archaeologists also found blocks and plates of marble. What were these doing in a warship?

With explanatory quotes from Martijn Manders.

September 2022, the port of Eastbourne.

The diving vessel Dive 125 can just fit in with the pleasure craft in the lock between the port and the North Sea. Because of the tides, there is always a difference in the water level. Since the crew has to wait anyway, everyone is called on deck. Mark Beattie-Edwards, director of the Nautical Archaeology Society (NAS), tells what can be expected on the wreck to be visited. The remains have been designated a protected site by the British government. Yet the archaeologists of the British governmental body Historic England and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) are allowed to perform research on it over the coming years, just like the volunteers of NAS.

Bronze cannons and marble from Italy tell the story of this wreck. And of the naval battles between England and the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. For 350 years this wreck has lain off the coast of South England at 32 meters of depth, protected under the sand. Thanks to the intensive collaboration between Historic England, NAS and the RCE, its identity has been uncovered. The wreck near Eastbourne in the county of East Sussex turned out to be the remains of the Dutch man-of-war Klein Hollandia from 1654. This sank after a surprise attack by the English in 1672, which formed the direct cause for the Third Anglo-Dutch War.


Today the discoverers of the wreck are also present: the owner of the diving vessel Dave Ronnan, Tom Stockman and Graham Owen. The opening of the lock gates increases the excitement. After arrival on the location, the divers wait for a little while to allow the currents in the water to die down a bit more. Stockman and Owen prepare themselves to visit this wreck again after many previous dives. Both are technical divers and work with breathing gas and so-called rebreathers, specialised diving equipment. This is necessary to be able to stay at 32 meters for prolonged amounts of time. What makes it even more special is that Graham is as good as blind. He flawlessly knows where all the parts of his equipment are and he feels his way under water. Both divers have absolute trust in one another.

Mark Beattie Edwards and yours truly also jump overboard together. Slowly everyone disappears into the depths. The vision is good here considering we are in the sea, about three to five meters. Then the seabed appears, with an anchor that is almost standing upright. Behind that, a row of frames is just protruding from the sand. It is unbelievable that such a large part of the construction has remained intact. Immediately a double layer of outer oak planking is visible, but also two layers of pine planks on top of that. Is this because it was a slightly older warship? Or was this double pine layer a standard protection in times of war?

A cannon at the bottom of the sea, with the tip of the head of a congor eel coming out of its barrel
Image: ©Nautical Archaeology Society / James Clark
A congor eel lurks inside a bronze gun found at the wreck site

Big blocks of stone

A bit further there is a big pile of stone blocks, Carrara marble from Italy. On the other side there are bronze cannons. Eight of them! ‘Cornelis Ouderigge me fecit’ can be read on the cannon, and it also boasts the weapon of the Rotterdam Admiralty. On top of that, there are also iron cannons. There must be much more. And there is much more research to be done, but not now. The dive is already over. At this depth, the archaeologists can only remain for a short amount of time. Unfortunately, since this tastes like more. Because what kind of ship was the Klein Hollandia? How was it built? And was it completely worn down after many years of use or not?

The admiralty vessel the Klein Hollandia was built in 1653 and 1654 in the shipyard of Jacobs Jansz Wittert in Rotterdam. The commission came from the States General (the government of the Netherlands). More warships were needed due to the outbreak of the first Anglo-Dutch war that broke out between the British Commonwealth and the Dutch Republic in 1652. After the Peace of Münster in 1648, the Dutch had taken over England’s traditional trade with Spain and Portugal. This did not sit well with the English. The call to take over the Dutch position by force grew increasingly louder. And thus war ensued. The Klein Hollandia was part of a group of thirty new men-of-war that were built at a high pace because of this war. Together with four other ships being built, the vessel resorted under the Admiralty of the Maze from Rotterdam. The ship was about 38 meters long and 9,5 meters wide, and was delivered carrying 54 cannon. Yet by then the peace had just been signed.

Heavily armed

The Klein Hollandia did fight in all the major naval battles of the second Anglo-Dutch war that was waged on the North Sea between 1665 and 1667. Again, England tried to take over the position of a dominant trade nation. As a heavily armed vessel, the Klein Hollandia in later years was employed to accompany trade fleets. In this capacity, it formed part of a group of five warships that escorted the Smyrna fleet. This fleet consisted of 65 richly loaded merchant ships that were sailing back to the Netherlands from Smyrna, present-day İzmir in Turkey. These ships needed to be escorted, because pirates were active on the route along the North African coast.

Yet after having crossed the Mediterranean unscathed, the convoy was attacked on 23 March 23 1672 near the Island of Wight in the Channel. This surprise attack was conducted by an English fleet led by Admiral Robert Holmes. During the heavy fighting that ensued, the Klein Hollandia was severely damaged. For the ship was already old, undermanned and less well armed then when it was built, with 44 cannon. Asides from fifty other crewmen, its commander Jan van Nes was killed in the fight. The ship was boarded and taken by the English. When they wanted to tow it to the coast as a prize, the Klein Hollandia sank with both English and Dutch sailors on board.

A diver is measuring the length of a marble tile.
Image: Martin Davies
Diver recording marble tile.


The reason that the ship was undermanned and less well armed then before? Because of the amount of marble and other items that were found in 2019, the researchers suspect that the Klein Hollandia had a pretty large amount of merchandise on board. Not to unburden the merchant ships, but because the captain himself also traded. In 1670 the States General issued regulations aimed at the admiralties, restricting private trade by captains. From written, and now also archaeological sources, it is clear that this was not always obeyed.

So in the hold of the Klein Hollandia there were a large amount of blocks and slates of marble, probably intended for luxury homes. Their combined weight was enormous. This probably had to be compensated by removing other things from the ship. This is why the written sources tell us that the Klein Hollandia was delivered with 54 cannon after being built, but that it only had 44 left when she sailed to protect the Smyrna fleet. This did not only save about 30.000 kilos, but per cannon six men were needed, so a total of sixty men less were needed on board. The possibly illegitimate trade of captain Jan van Nes may have cost him dearly.

Grave danger

The attack by Holmes was the direct cause for the start of the third Anglo-Dutch war. The young Dutch Republic was in grave danger. It was attacked by land by the French King Louis XIV and the bishop of Münster. At sea, the Republic was threatened by the allied fleets of France and Britain. With this, our country was completely surrounded. This is what the Dutch called the Disaster Year, a dramatic end to a century of prosperity - certainly not for everyone, but for many people here. After the Dutch had struck a treaty with Spain, the attackers backed off.

After having been at the bottom of the sea for almost 350 years, the Klein Hollandia was discovered. While conducting research in 2015, the UK Hydrographic Office found an anomaly on the seabed. This was only confirmed in 2019 by David Ronnan, a dive operator working from Eastbourne. Together with Tom Stockman and Graham Owen he found a shipwreck at the site of the anomaly. After having reported his find to Historic England, he and Mark Beattie-Edwards of the Nautical Archaeology Society became the so-called licencees of the wreck. This means that they have gotten approval of Historic England to research it – for the wreck and its direct surroundings are protected by law against human disturbances. Since 2019, employees and volunteers of the NAS made 282 dives to the remains, building an extensive image of what lies on the seabed here. The suspicion arose that it concerned a Dutch vessel.

Two people looking at a drawing ships in the Battle of Smyrna Convoy.
Researcher Becky Austin examining Battle of Smyrna Convoy (Illustration done by Nautical Archaeology Society)


Subsequently, the team of Dutch and British maritime archaeologists have worked on identifying the ship. This was done in the first place by gathering evidence during diving expeditions on the wreck with professional divers and volunteers. And secondly by archive research and dendrochronological research into the tree rings in wood samples. All clues from the analysis of the finds and from the research in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands pointed to a Dutch origin. By subsequent research into two tiles from the cargo, amongst other things, looking into the mineral composition and the isotopes of the stone, an increasingly better image of the shipwreck was obtained. For instance, it turned out to concern Carrara marble from the Apuan Alps. This is where the best Italian marble comes from.

In 2021, divers from the NAS established new damage to the wreck. This led to a joint decision of Historic England and the RCE to support further research. Asides from this, these two organisations co-operate to forensically mark the objects on the seabed. This is a new form of technology that makes fixed and loose objects from a wreck traceable at all times. It is a large step forward in protecting vulnerable archaeological sites under water. This technique is now also applied on the Klein Hollandia.


The United Kingdom and the Netherlands have been closely co-operating for years to conserve their shared maritime heritage. Both countries underwrite the importance of this co-operation. They want to continue this by exchanging knowledge, conducting research together and to establish conditions together for the conservation of maritime heritage. Historic England and the RCE have worked on the Rooswijk together. This was a ship of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) that was lost on the Goodwin Sands.

This year the archaeologists will be performing more dives on the wreck of the Klein Hollandia to conduct further research. In doing this, they want to find out more on the double layers of planking of the ship, for instance. But there is more to be learned about the construction of ships, for not much was written down in the Netherlands on shipbuilding. So this has to be learned from archaeological sources for the main part. It will also be researched how to best preserve the wreck on the seabed, so that researchers can later study it again with new techniques at that great depth. Possibly by means of bringing it to the surface.