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The eternal mystery of lost gold

Wijke Ruiter

It was the blackest imaginable night for the 270 persons on board  the HMS Lutine. The ship ran aground and within a few hours it was smashed to pieces by the huge breakers. Terrified people surrounded by whirling masses of water. No hiding place on a sinking ship. They all drowned; except for one man.
On the ninth of October 1799 this English frigate was wrecked at the shallow, extremely unreliable Dutch coast, between the islands of Vlieland and Terschelling.
No doubt the trickiest coast off Holland - in the north of the country -; strewn with islands, shoals, mud flats, channels and large sandbanks reaching out for miles from the beaches. It’s the Waddenzee region. Between the islands deep outlets, created by the strong tidal currents.

When tide’s high there are only two levels of water:  the sky above and the sea below.
But when tide recedes the sandbanks appear with heavy currents meandering between. A strange but lovely landscape unfolds: sunbathing seals at the banks and thousands of fishing birds strolling around.

This beauty has a seamy side; the heavy forces of tide and wind have free play in this region. Suddenly totally strange and unexpected waves can occur; no place for a pleasure trip in stormy weather.
In former years sailor’s life at the Waddenzee was hard and difficult and many couldn’t cope with it. Thousands of ships – and with them just as many crew - are lost here; so many that the inhabitants of the islands could make a living out of that for centuries.

 The wreckage of the Lutine was just another one in the long line of victims. The newspapers confirmed this accident by writing that a strong gale caused the destruction of HMS Lutine.
Captain Portlock, commander of the English squadron at Vlieland wrote the Admiralty in London:
”Sir, It is with extreme pain that I have to state to you the melancholy fate of his majesty’s Ship Lutine, which ship ran onto the outer banks of the Fly Island Passage on the night of the 9th. Instant heavy gale of wind from the NNW and I am much afraid the crew except one man, which was save from the wreck, have perished…This man when taken up was almost exhausted. He is of present tolerably recovered, and relates that the Lutine left Yarmouth Roads on the Morning of the 9th instant, bound to Texel, and she had on board Considerable quantity of Money…..”

Hey, time out now: what’s on earth the business of an English squadron at Vlieland? Had Britain occupied Holland? In Dutch history Britain is often described as the “brother country”, even the English Wars in the 17th century are called “the brother wars”. What kind of brother is this? Lets dive into history.

France, Holland and Britain in the 1790’s
February 1st 1793: The French invaded Holland. And declared war on Britain. At Toulon harbour the French Royalists handed several of their war vessels over to the Brits. One of these ships was the Lutine (French word for Teaser).
Also Holland suffers the teasing of the Britons: the British fleet blocks Amsterdam harbour. That’s an economical disaster, for Amsterdam was – since the beginning of the 17th century - the European Trade Centre. Holland’s lifeline was cut off; the country’s prosperity depended on this city and its harbour was vital.
The English (Hanoverian) King must have known that; but he moved the European market to Hamburg. And Cuxhaven became the most important harbour for it. 
No surprise that those two cities were Hanoverian; and Hanover was a principality in the North of the nowadays Germany.   

The complex conflict of Europe also had its reaction in Holland; when the French marched in the Patriots, who embraced the ideas of the French Revolution, gloriously regaled them. 
At the other side were the Royalists, a minority; they were silenced and the Prince of Orange, Stadtholder William V fled to England.
Holland changes her name as the “Bataafse Republic”; kept her autonomy, but only on paper. She became a federal state of France.
But the French asked very much of their allies, actually too much. The warfare of the French brought enormous taxes for the Dutch people - hunger and poverty for the little man -; and the enthusiasm for the Revolutionary Principles faded and disappeared like snow of a dyke in summer.

To stop the French expansionism in Europe Britain decided to invade Holland. They would restore the monarchy and put William V back at the throne; at least that’s what the people expected. In August 1799 a huge invasion took place: 30.000 British and Russian troops landed in Holland. The British North Sea-fleet, under Vice Admiral Mitchell, entered the Zuiderzee – the Dutch inner sea – and took control over the Dutch war fleet.
But the English took more: they took eleven of the most valuable Dutch warships to Southampton and they took a big deal of the Dutch colonies, for about 100 years now a thorn in British side.
Britannia ruled the waves  - for they had the biggest fleet now; Admiral Nelson destroyed the French fleet in the Battle of the Nile and blocked the Spanish fleet at Cadiz - and Britannia ruled Holland
In all the actions of transport of the British troops and the search for the Dutch war fleet the Lutine played a crucial part. She guided ships through the dangerous waters of the Waddenzee and the Zuiderzee. She scoured the region searching hostile vessels; bringing messages to other British ships.
Eventually the Lutine’s hands must have known the area like the back of their hand.
Important to know as the Lutine seemed to be a victim of sailing through “unknown” waters.

Vlieland and Terschelling.

At the end of the 18th century life on the Waddenislands was quite isolated. People found out about the British invasion when a Royalist islander came back from prison. A few weeks later an English squadron appeared, taking possession of the islands.
Well, at first the community was pleased with the change of power. The French yoke had been very heavy. But soon they made an unexpected discovery: The English were no gentlemen, not at all.
In September and October the islanders were used to laying in fresh food supplies, for they could be totally isolated during the winter. In these months there always was lively ship traffic between the islands and the mainland.
But the English forbid all forms of communication - except for letters and messages the English themselves could bring -; blocked the harbours and took away the buoys at the Waddenzee.
And, what was worse, they seized all the food there was; the islanders simply had to provide for the English troops, their so-called liberators.
No gentlemen, and not very clever either; you can’t say they made themselves very popular and beloved. And there was a long long winter to come.

”Send the cutter, prevent the Dutch from robbing her”.

On the night of the 9th October the Lutine wrecked in the IJzergat; between the islands Vlieland and Terschelling. The islanders reacted quite untouched. No messages about it from the inhabitants to the mainland, no letters to the government.
There’s more: the islanders were very experienced and specialized rescuers. For centuries ships were lost before their eyes. They had set up an advanced rescue-system.
The English commander at the Islands should have known that. But his first order after the shipwreck was: “Send a cutter; prevent the Dutch from robbing her”. 
He didn’t trust the people; but he did understand that these hungry and stripped islanders didn’t care much for their liberators.
This order must have cut very very deep in the souls of the downright rescuers.

The Lutine’s final mission

In springtime 1799 the Britons and Russians made preparations for the Dutch invasion, which finally took place in August. All the time the Lutine was active at the North Sea and the Waddenzee; actually the north-coast of Holland was her domain.
The weather gods were not highly pleased with this invasion, for the North Sea was continuously harassed by storms and downpours of rain that took away the, for that days so important, visibility.
Time after time the landing had to be put off; and time after time the Lutine played a leading part.

After the invasion, August 1799, the Lutine was found at the Zuiderzee, the Dutch inner sea, participating in the squadron that took over the Dutch fleet.
The Lutine convoyed the eleven Dutch warships that were brought to Southampton.
She finally came back at Great Yarmouth, her homeport.

Because of the bad weather during the summer the British trade with the continent was at a standstill.The only possible harbour reachable for the Britons was Cuxhaven, due to their own blocking policy.  The regular packet boats hadn’t arrived for a long time and passengers, mail and supplies were stacked high at Great Yarmouth.
This had enormous economical consequences. Both the British and the Hanoverian traders were deprived off profits and the Exchange in Hanover and London had to close down several times. 
Many Hamburg trade houses were threatened with bankruptcy.
The Bank of Britain decided to support the Hamburg trade by bringing in loads of money.

Pleasure trip

So this was the next mission of the Lutine: her cargo was gold; her final goal was Cuxhaven.
It was a pleasure trip for the crew; piece of cake. The Lutine was a ship of war but took passengers aboard; which was quite unusual.
Once aboard the party made themselves comfortable. The spirits were in their very best; presumably the Captain and his officers enjoyed the pleasant company of beautiful women.  Who could blame them in the hard service of His Majesty’s Navy?
Surprised fishermen from Great Yarmouth reported that they had seen The Lutine that night; a ship of war, full lighted with an animated party in the captains cabin; absolutely unacceptable in times of war even against all the rules of war.

 The passage started quietly, the night was clear and with a moderate westerly the ship sailed pleasantly across the North Sea. During the day, October 9th, the weather must have grown worse; a new low moved east as usual that summer.
By nightfall the reports from other ships described the situation as; “Strong gales, north-north west, with frequent Squalls of rain”.
But a north-north westerly wouldn’t cause the Lutine much trouble; she could sail half wind, a quite comfortable tack, north of the Wadden islands. For a modern absolute seaworthy frigate as the Lutine a tenable situation, even in this stormy circumstances.

But somehow something must have gone dramatically wrong; cause The Lutine rushed full speed (8 to 10 knots, which is reasonably fast for a ship under sail) on the outer banks of Vlieland.
Unfortunately the ship sailed a much more southerly course than was expected.
How was this? There isn’t a tight explanation. No lack of experience that’s for sure. They were in well-known waters and every sailor knows that the situation of wind, stream and waves can bring a ship more alee. Undoubted the Lutine crew also knew; but somehow they didn’t take the right precautions.
When they had known their position, the ship would have tried to sail away from the tricky Vlieland sandbanks; change tack and sailed another, far more close hauled, course.
No, the crew didn’t know and the ship crashed full speed, half wind.
This ‘piece of cake’ ended fatal, for 269 men and women (even a baby aboard); the ship and her precious cargo fell a prey to the waves..
Later the cargo was estimated at  ₤ 10.000.000 - mainly gold and silver bars – in todays  calculations.

An 18th century cover up: news for the tabloids.

Until 1997 the wreckage of the Lutine was always blamed on an unfortunate coincidence of circumstances.

But, when the Musea of Vlieland and Terschelling wanted to organize a Lutine commemoration-year at 1999, they made some unexpected discoveries. The case became more and more mysterious. 
At first the wreckage wasn’t due to the storm but to human failure.
The ship was in a perfect state of maintenance, the crew was highly experienced and a north-westerly gale must have been no problem for a frigate like the Lutine.
Well, everyone can make mistakes, so why not the captain and navigator of the Lutine?
That’s not so simple, for the British Royal Navy at that time didn’t except any human failure. Every minor mistake of a captain, and certainly one that directed to the loss of a ship, was investigated to the bottom by the Admiralty. A captain’s failure could bring a death penalty or disgraced his name forever. And, what more, for a disgraced captain’s widow there was no payment.  
But this case wasn’t sorted out; at least there are no archive records. Even the letters, written by the English commander of Vlieland were taken out. All the evidences are systematically removed.
There was one survivor. The man is heard. But that’s it. Obviously his story wasn’t acceptable for the Navy.

Its all about the money of course.
Lloyd’s insurance company insured the ships cargo. When the ship was lost by human failure, the Navy was to blame and Lloyd’s would have refused to pay out in insurance money. And what about the passengers? Among them there was a group of high-class civilians, nobility of England, France and Luxembourg. Their relatives would certainly have demanded some satisfaction if the Navy was to blame.

The never-ending gold rush.

“Send the cutter to prevent the Dutch from robbing her”. This first order gets a very different sound now.
In the years following several companies and groups have made attempts to salve the cargo. Some were very lucky, some failed sadly.
But if the estimation of ₤ 10.000.000 is true; there must be still a huge fortune at the bottom of the IJzergat.   
What’s the difficulty then? In a place like that, wind, tide and everlasting current can play freely with everything. In no time the remains of the Lutine were covered with sand. And nothing in the Waddenzee ever keeps its position. Sandbanks, even the islands themselves, are continuously on the move. So the ship was really lost, for a long long time.
Modern archaeological research has showed that, within a few hours after the ship ran aground, the rear part of the hull broke off and drifted away, with wind and currents in south-easterly direction and ended up at the more quite south side of Vlieland, alone and forgotten. A large treasure.
Needless to say that this rear part harbours the main part of the precious cargo. All those salvers searched for two-hundred years at the wrong place.
One comfort to Lloyd’s: in 1860 the Lutine Bell was found. It has a place of honour in the hall of the Lloyd’s building in London.

At this moment new excavations are under progress. Maybe some shiny bars will come out of 200 years seabed……… who knows how the wind blows?

Wijke Ruiter



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