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Naval battle in Lerwick harbour

Published: 1st July 2020

Relics of naval battle in Lerwick harbour

Guns and part of sunk vessel found

Shetland Times February 25th 1922

During the past week, while diving operations were being carried out at the north-east corner of Alexander Wharf a ‘rare find’ was made.  For some time past, what seemed to be the timbers of an old wreck, has been observed close to the north end of Alexander Wharf, and latterly the Harbour Trust decided, in the interests of shipping using the works, to have it removed.  The services of Mr John Robertson, diver, were engaged, and while he was employed exploring the wreck; he came on what looked like old cannons.  These were brought to the surface and, although coated over with barnacles and marine growth, were found to be what, in a bygone age, must have been regarded as heavy guns.  The vessel, part of which is still embedded in the sand, had been built of oak, which is still in a wonderful state of preservation.

The following abridged account of the battle, almost 300 years ago, will be of interest:-

On 15th June 1640, a Dutch warship and three armed vessels of the Dutch East India Company were lying in Lerwick harbour, where they were surprised by ten armed ships of Dunkirk (Spanish).  A fierce engagement ensued in which two of the Indiamen were sunk, and one warship, attacked by the three of the Dunkirk vessels, was so completely crippled that the Captain was compelled to surrender.  The third Indiaman escaped through the north entrance, but, being pursued by the two Spanish frigates, her captain ran the vessel ashore at Nesting and burned her to avoid falling into the hands of the enemy.  In the course of the action one of the Indiamen was forced ashore on the west side of Bressay Sound, and the wreckage now found is probably the remains of that vessel and her armament, which has reposed at the bottom of Lerwick harbour for almost 300 years.

The following account by Mr R Stuart Bruce, which appeared in the ‘Old Lore Miscellany’, will be of much interest to our readers:-

It was recently my good fortune, during correspondence with Heer Th. H. F. Van Riemidijk, the keepers of the State Archives of Holland, to obtain particulars regarding the fight mentioned by me in ‘Miscellany’ Vol. 1, p. 124, as having taken place in Bressay Sound, between the Dutch and the Dunkirkers.  The facts, which may be relied on, are as follows: - On 15th June 1640, De Hann, Captain Magnus Marcusz, De Reiger, Captain Cornelius Jacobez-Mey, De Jonas, Captain Seger, ships of the Dutch East India Company, and a warship of the Admiralty of West Friesland and the North, commanded by Captain Cornelis Albertaz ’t Hoen, were lying in Bressay Sound, awaiting the return of the East India Fleet,  when they were surprised by the ten armed ships of Dunkirk.  An engagement ensued, when, after severe fighting, one of the Dutch Indiamen, probably, De Hann, was sunk on the west or Lerwick side of the Sound, and the Jonas fled some eight or ten miles to the north, where, being closely pursed by two Dunkirk frigates, Captain Seger ran his vessel ashore and caused her to be burned to prevent her from falling into enemy’s hands.  Her crew escaped to the land.

The Reiger tried to get away ‘between the rocks and the shore’ but was overtaken by the Dunkirkers, who burned her when they found no booty on board.  The fourth ship (not named by the Admiralty of West Friesland) was splendidly handled by Captain ‘t Hoen, and his ship and the Haan ‘sustained the fight best’ until the ship of Captain ‘t Hoen was attacked by three Dunkirk vessels, which poured upon her such a merciless fire that before long she became utterly crippled, so much so, that in order to save the lives of those of his crew still alive, the Captain was compelled to surrender.  He, together with his crew, were taken prisoner, and carried off by the Dunkirkers.  Heer van Riemidijk informs me that it is not possible to trace what became of the Haan, but the Rev Hugh Leigh says (see ‘Miscellany’ Vol. 1, p. 124) that two ships were sunk, which I think we may take to be the Haan and the Reiger.

On 24th June, 1640, the States General of Holland received the news that one of the Dutch men-of-war, three vessels of the East India Company, and a galliot, which had sailed from the Texel on 4th June, to cruise off Shetland, and await there the ‘ East Indian return-ships’ had been attacked in Bressay Sound by ten Dunkirk (Spanish) vessels, and were ‘partly conquered or destroyed’ ( Vide Registrer of Resolutions of States General concerning East Indian affairs).

In a letter from the Board of Admiralty at Amsterdam, to the States General, dated 18th September, 1640, it appears that one of the vessels belonged to the Admiralty of Amsterdam, and at the request of the directors of the East India Company, was given up for the above-mentioned object. No particulars of this ship are given.

It would be of interest to know if these guns are loaded, for strange old tales are told of guns being recovered after being in the sea for many years, and being discharged.  Such incidents occurred, for instance, when the old cannon was recovered at Cullivoe, and again when a gentleman put a gun recovered from Lerwick harbour to the fire to help to get rid of the rust, when the charge went off and the ball travelled across the harbour.