The story of this project starts in the year 1667. At that time, Holland commanded one of the biggest trading and shipping empires in the World. One of their colonies at that time was the East Indies, and they were at war with England.
Every year the Dutch did send a fleet of ships to collect the valuables from the colonies. In 1667 the fleet of five ships believed to be carrying some of the most valuable cargo ever (amongst other things, pearls and uncut diamonds, gold and silver, copper, cloth and silk, wine and spirits) set sails from India. One of the ships in the convoy was Het Wapen van Amsterdam.
Het Wapen van Amsterdam was built in 1653-1654, and was one of the biggest ships in the Dutch fleet with a crew of more than 200 and the passenger count is believed to have been between 80-100.
On its way home in September 1667, the convoy got caught in a fierce storm and was blown off course in the raging Atlantic Ocean. One of the ships smashed to pieces on the coast of the Faroe Islands but Het Wapen van Amsterdam drifted to Iceland and ran aground in Skeiðarársandur estuary off the south coast of Iceland on September 19th 1667 and her remains have been submerged there in the sand ever since.
Most of the passengers and crew survived the wreck only to perish on the vast sands in appalling weather conditions during the next 24 hours or until the wreck and the survivors were spotted from the scattered farms resting at the foot of the great glacier, Vatnajökull.
Much has been written and talked about concerning the ship’s precious cargo, but far less about the fact that it was very likely the worst maritime disaster in Iceland’s history in terms of loss of life. It’s said that at least 190 drowned, with 50 to 60 managing to survive and tell the tale of what happened and what cargo was on board.
Many of those who managed to make it ashore died of exposure as they desperately tried to cross the freezing wet sands and glacial rivers.
The crew hastily took with them what they could carry, which included a large quantity of silk. The story goes that many locals for years to come slept in bedlinen of the finest silk. The silk was bartered in return for horses the Dutch survivors needed to get to Reykjavik where they could board a ship to take them back to Holland.
The ship´s wreck was abandoned and with time sank deeper and deeper into the sand.
Around 1960 some Icelandic entrepreneurs began searching for the lost wreck. Suddenly the place was a hive of activity. They brought in all sorts of equipment. For example to traverse the sands and glacial rivers they had an amphibian named the Sea Dragon.
The search and exploratory digging went on for years. Finally in 1983 the salvage team was convinced they had located the wreck. The Dutch government sent over observers to the site as they still laid claim to the ship and its cargo.
One could feel the suspense in September 1983 as the team dug ever deeper down to the wreck. But what eventually came to light was not the Het Wapen van Amsterdam but the wreck of the German trawler Freidrich Albert that had run aground in 1903. The sense of disappointment was overwhelming and the project was abandoned. So somewhere out on the sands a Dutch merchant vessel and its gold is still waiting to be found.
The search and exploratory digging went on for years.
Finally in 1983 the salvage team was convinced they had located the wreck. The Dutch government sent over observers to the site as they still laid claim to
the ship and its cargo. One could feel the suspense in September 1983 as the team dug ever deeper down to the wreck. But what eventually came to light was not the Het Wapen van Amsterdam but the wreck of the German trawler Freidrich Albert that had run aground in 1903. The sense of disappointment was overwhelming and the project was abandoned. So somewhere out on the sands a Dutch merchant vessel and its gold is still waiting to be found.
The Search and Recovery
On September 27th 1960, Bergur Larusson got permission from the Prime Minister of Iceland to search for the ship and exploit everything (except antiques) that would be found in the wreck against a payment of 12% of the value to the government. At this time Bergur had already made agreements with the landowners for 10% of possible profit.
Bergur and his team did search for the ship on and off the first 10 years but without luck.
Bergur then teamed up with another entrepreneur Kristinn Gudbrandsson and the search began again in 1970.
Kristinn was at that time one of the leading experts in rescuing and recovering vessels in Iceland, and even today, many years after his death he is still a legendary character for his achievements in this field.
On July 28th 1982 the team announced that they had located the ship under the sand.
A business plan from December 9th 1982 estimated the cost of the recovery operation to be ISK 50 million (present value $1.8 million).
In 1983 the government guaranteed a loan for the whole amount by a special law passed by the Icelandic Parliament.
To make a long story short, the ship they thought was Het Wapen van Amsterdam was in fact a German trawler that stranded in the area in 1903.
The government ended up paying the creditors a few years later after a bankruptcy claim had been made on the company that was responsible for the search “Gullskip Ltd.”
In 2013 the work started again by Gisli Gislason, an Icelandic entrepreneur, but until then no one had been actively searching for Het Wapen van Amsterdam since the failure in September 1983.
Gisli started by gathering all necessary documents that were available about the ship, search and the recovery mission and then started the application process nearly two years ago and the negotiations with the Icelandic Government.
An interesting fact reviled itself in the gathering of the documents, which was that Bergur Larusson’s mother was in fact the sister of Gisli’s great grandmother.