Miniature sixteenth century Dutch naval cannon

The bronze cannon depicted here is a not a model but a real miniature gun, capable of firing a small shot, or cannon ball. It is the sort of artifact that was very popular two hundred years ago and may have sat on a grandee’s or other important person’s desk to emphasise their status and power. These little guns are still popular with collectors, but quite rare and hard to find these days.

The barrel of this gun is 39cm long and stands 18cm tall in its carriage. The barrel is of gun-metal or bronze and the carriage is of oak. It has been mounted on a gun-deck setting with all the correct ropework for running out the gun and restraining it on recoil. The model gunner is shown holding a rope ram-rod and with priming powder flasks on his shoulder strap. He represents a Dutch naval gunner of about 1690.

The cannon as it would have looked on the gun-deck of a 17th-century Dutch warship. 

This little gun has special significance for me because as a young Royal Navy diver I was involved in the recovery of an identical but full-sized gun from English Grand Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovel’s sunken flagship, the Association, lost after striking the Gilstone Reef, southwest of the Isles of Scilly in October 1707. The Association was known to have been carrying a number of captured enemy guns, and the one that was recovered by the dive team from the Royal Navy Air Station Culdrose in 1966 was taken from a Spanish ship, but considered to be of Dutch origin.

The gun was beautifully cast, with two dolphins as lifting trunnions. Even after two and a half centuries under the sea it was a work of art in its own right. But there was one interesting thing about that gun that intrigued us divers and has stuck in my memory to this very day. On the top of the ornate muzzle was a large gouge mark, as if someone had taken a huge round file and filed a piece of the muzzle away. It was so big and precise that we realised it could not have been done by human hand. It appeared — to our modern, technical eyes — to have been done by some sort of metal-working machine, even though we knew that was impossible.

Gradually we came to the realisation that the gouge had been caused by an English cannon ball. It had been so accurate that it would have entered the enemy ship’s open gun port, struck the muzzle of the gun, causing the gouge, then would have fragmented, throwing shrapnel all through the gun deck, undoubtedly killing all the gunners manning that gun. This was quite a sobering thought for us modern-day, peacetime sailors. After that we treated that gun with the greatest respect, bordering on reverence.

As it transpired, although the gun had been recovered from a sunken Royal Navy vessel by Royal Navy divers, the navy soon discovered that they didn’t actually own it. The Admiralty had sold the salvage rights of the ship some years before to an ex-navy diver called Roland Morris, and he had claimed our gun back. Reluctantly, the navy returned  it to Roland, who intended to display it in his sailing-ship themed restaurant, The Admiral Benbow, in Penzance, Cornwall. No doubt it can still be seen there today.

The only other full-sized Dutch bronze cannon I have had any connection with was recovered from the wreck of the Dutch East India company ship Batavia (lost on the Abrolhos Archipelago, Western Australia, in 1629). The cannon was recovered in 1963 by an expedition led by Australian diver-journalist Hugh Edwards and veteran Australian diver Max Crammer.

Whenever divers start thinking about putting to sea to try to find a long-lost ship, they need to spend a great deal of time researching the ship and the area it was lost in, and any details or reports left by survivors. They also need to talk to local fishermen who know and understand the sea bottom on the wreck site. Because of Hugh Edwards’ journalistic skills and connections, he was able to obtain the assistance of Dutch-speaking scholar Henrietta Drake-Brockman, who correctly placed the wreck site north of the Abrolhos, against popular but mistaken belief that the ship was further south (where another, unknown, Dutch ship lay wrecked).

Bronze cannon recovered from the wreck of the Batavia. Photo by Max Crammer, Geraldton, Australia. 

That cannon now resides in the Perth maritime museum. The full horrific story of mutiny, rape, murder and terrible retribution of the Batavia saga can be read in Hugh Edwards’ book, Island of Angry Ghosts, or in my second book, Perilous Seas. The terrible tragedy of the loss of the Association, along with six of the twelve ships that made up the Grand Admiral’s fleet, which ran onto the Gilstone Reef, Isles of Scilly, can be read in my first book, Dangerous Waters.


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