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Ancient Trade Routes

On board the submersible, the pilot and Franck Goddio study the naval architecture of the remains of the Royal Captain. The parts are numbered, using labels made from a special type of foam, weighted down with small lead weights that are resistant to the water pressure.
The bell of the Royal Captain in a depth of 460 metres right at the reef's slope. The inscription The York at first caused irritation. But the archives were able to clarify that the York's shipowner had reused the bell on the Royal Captain.
A submersible brings the 80 kilo bell of the Royal Captain to the surface from a depth of 460 meters.
One of the anchors of the Royal Captain was found in a depth of 55 metres.
The two submersibles Jules and Jim during their descent to the site of the Royal Captain wreck.

Royal Captain

The Story

In the 16th century, the Spaniards developed a thriving trade network with Chinese, Japanese and Malay merchants. The result was the establishment of the world’s first world trade route, linking Europe, Asia and the Americas (Manila-Acapulco galleon trade). Unlike the Spaniards, the British at that time did not have the full economic potential of such a trading arrangement in East Asia and had failed to establish a timely trading position of their own in that part of the world. Consequently, they were forced to establish their facilities in Canton, which was ruled by the Chinese.

In the first half of the 18th century, Alexander Dalrymple, an employee of the famous British Honourable East India Company (HEIC) travelled throughout Asia, with the main objective of facilitating trade. In 1760, he made a proposal to the governing body of the HEIC in London, to found a free port in the territory of the Spice Islands on the island of Balambangan, as he had befriended the main Sultan, who resided on the island of Jolo. On the way to Jolo, the lead ship, The Griffin, hit a rock and sank. The crew was saved by the other ships, which then succeeded with the plan and founded the free port.

The British free port became successful, serving as a bridge between China and England. After approximately ten years, the HEIC trading post in Balambangan decided to invest the bulk of their traded goods in the purchase of huge amounts of porcelain, spices, silk, tea and other goods in Canton and planned to ship part of it to Balambangan and the rest to London. The HEIC ship The Royal Captain, a vessel weighing 780 tons, was used in 1773 to transport the goods from Canton to Balambangan. On the way to Balambangan, The Royal Captain hit a shoal and was lost. The captain and most of the crew were able to rescue some of the Company’s treasures and eventually made it to Balambangan. The economic loss, however, was great and it endangered the economic development of the trading post. Finally, the HEIC had to close the post after having been attacked by pirates.


One of the anchors of the Royal Captain lies on the slope of the reef beside pieces of pig-iron used as ballast, evidence of the crew's desperate struggle to lighten the ship and release it from the rocks.
Franck Goddio and the pilot operate the arms of the submersible during a study of the Royal Captain's remains. The left arm first rinses the sand from the objects and then switches from pressure to suction to carefully place the excavated artefacts in a basket.
A white porcelain ewer from the cargo of the Royal Captain.
From the support vessel of the expedition, the Ocean Voyager, the submersible Jules is lowered into the sea.
A mesh grid is placed over the Royal Captain wreck in order to specifiy the original site of an artefact.

The Discovery

After an early survey in 1985, which confirmed the general presence of the wreck, another reconnaissance survey was performed with an ROV (Remote Operated Vehicle) in 1995 during which the wreck was finally discovered. In 1999, a deepwater archaeological excavation was undertaken by Franck Goddio on the remains of the Royal Captain using extremely advanced high-tech equipment. Franck Goddio, in cooperation with the National Museum of the Philippines, worked in depths of between 350 and 850 metres using two Deep Rovers submarines, which carried a crew of two. The rovers were equipped with multifunctional articulate robotic arms with a pincer and a small water jet on one side and a suction cup on the other that made it possible to delicately pick up objects. The aim of the excavation was not the recovery of the artefacts but to study a portion of the wreck. Only five per cent of the Royal Captain was excavated, with 1,847 artefacts brought to the surface, which included the ship’s bell, porcelain, statuettes, vases, and cups. The remaining 95 per cent of the vessel has not been touched. Together with the National Museum of the Philippines, it was decided that this site will be used in the future as a test site for new technology in deep water archaeology.

Further information can be obtained from the website of IEASM (Insitut Européen d'Archéologie Sous-Marine).

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