The search for the slaveship Leusden

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Project-icon.png Project
The search for the slaveship Leusden
Countries French Guiana
The Netherlands
Sites Surinam
French Guyane
Status Completed
Project duration 2013  till 2014
Contact person Jerzy Gawronski
Type of Project Research
Discipline Maritime Archaeology
Activity Research
Category Underwater heritage
Shipwrecks, Maritime Heritage, Suriname, Slave Trade, WIC

Slave ship Leusden Project

The aim of this project is the localisation of the wreck of the Dutch slave ship Leusden (1738). The project will be developed as a joint effort of the authorities and scientific and cultural institutions of Surinam, the Netherlands, French Guyane and France.

The estuary of the Maroni river where the Leusden sunk in 1738. Map by Eldert Kraaij, produced by Johannes van Keulen, Amsterdam 1777

The Leusden (1738)

The Leusden is a slave ship of the Dutch West Indian Company (WIC) which perished on its journey from Elmina (Ghana) to Paramaribo (Surinam) on January 1, 1738. The vessel hit a sandbank and sunk in the mouth of the Maroni river with 680 African slaves on board. 664 of them died because they were kept imprisoned in the hold while the ship went down. The loss of the Leusden is therefore an incomparable tragedy in the maritime history of trans-Atlantic slave trade. The exact wrecking site is unknown and could be located in the sand bank area on either side of the river mouth, in both the Surinam and French Guyane maritime zone.

Culture historical meaning of the Leusden

The wreck of the Leusden is a typical example of multinational world heritage. Because of its journey’s destination Paramaribo the ship is closely connected with the national history of Surinam. Slave ships are direct sources of information on the European trans-Atlantic slave trade for South America and the Caribbean region in the 17th-19th century. Precise archaeological data on these ships are scarcely available. The only other known wreck site is that of the Danish slave ship Fredensborg (1768) which has been excavated in 1998. The search for the wreck site will be part of a knowledge programme for a broad international public of scientists and interested in the slave trade in the 17th-19th century.

Leusden Place of knowledge / place of memory

The archaeological remains of the Leusden can yield varied data on the construction and equipment of the ship, the daily reality of the slave transport and the material culture and physical backgrounds of the African slaves. The archaeological data add an unique dimension to the history of the world slave trade. The wreck of the Leusden is a source of knowledge, but also a place of memory, a site with a spiritual value related to the loss of 664 African captives.

Example of the interior of a slaveship, based on a drawing of the slaveship Brooks, 1781

Project information


The project for an archaeological survey of the Leusden is a consequence of the historical research of the wrecking of the ship in 1738 which was executed in 2006-2011 by dr. L. Balai as a PhD thesis at the University of Amsterdam. In the phase of survey preparation expertise on maritime archaeology is provided by prof. J. Gawronski, of the Archaeological institute of the University of Amsterdam. The preparatory project is supported by the Maritime Programme of the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency (RCE), the Dutch Centre for International Cultural Cooperation and the Royal Dutch Embassy in Paramaribo.

The present day estuary of the Maroni river with sandbanks on the Surinam and French Guyane side

Multilateral cooperation The project will be realised on the basis of a cooperation of several national partners. The parties involved include authorities of Surinam, French Guyana, France and the Netherlands, which each introduce their own expertise and responsibilities in the project. This cooperation is needed because the archaeological wreck site could be located in both Surinam and French Guyana water. The Leusden is shared world heritage which is related to the history and culture of these four countries.

Parties involved

Because of the international nature of the project the Surinam participation is mandated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Ministry of Education and People Development, directorate Culture, is responsible for the implementation of the national heritage policy and the UNESCO relation. The maritime and nautical authorisation lies with the Maritieme Autoriteit Suriname (MAS) of the Ministry of Transport, Communication and Tourism.

The archaeological authorities in French Guyane and France develop a planning and an executive programme for the communal survey based on the actual French heritage policy. The parties directly involved from the French Ministry of Culture are the French state service for maritime heritage (Départment des Recherches Archéologiques Subaquatiques et Sous-Marines, DRASSM), and the Direction des Affaires Culturels de Guyane, responsible for the archaeology policy in French Guyane.

The responsible organisation for Dutch maritime heritage policy is the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (Rijksdienst Cultureel Erfgoed, RCE). Project coordination is provided by Balai and Gawronski (University of Amsterdam).

Test Survey August 2013

In the present stage the possibilities for a combined remote sensing and diving survey in the mouth of the Maroni river are studied to localise the Leusden in May 2014. A plan to undertake a preliminary reconnaissance test survey in the summer of 2013 was formed early 2013 by Jerzy Gawronski, Leo Balai and Stephen Moore, Managing Director of Underwater Technical Services Ltd., Norwich, UK. Its goal is to gather data on the logistical and topographical conditions in the Maroni river to assess the feasibility of mobilising a full marine survey to locate the wreck of the Leusden in the future: - delimit the survey areas by cartographic and hydrographic research

- develop a GIS system

- testing of vessels

- testing survey equipment under local conditions

- execute a mag and echosounder survey in test areas

The scientific and financial management of the project was done by the Stichting Olivier van Noort, Amsterdam and UTS had the logistical supervision of the operations. The test survey was financially supported by the Dutch Centre for International Cultural Cooperation (Dutch Culture), Amsterdam, the Maritime Programme of the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (Rijksdienst Cultureel Erfgoed, RCE) and the Royal Dutch Embassy in Paramaribo. Survey equipment and expertise was provided by Plymouth University through the support and services of MSc. Hydrography students Arthur Laloe and James Hancock. The project was locally supported in Suriname by Mrs Cynthia McLeod, Paramaribo.

The nautical preparations were locally organised in close cooperation with the Maritieme Autoriteiten Suriname (MAS), which is responsible for inspection and management of nautical works in Suriname waters. Staff members of the MAS attended the survey on site for the first two days. The licence for the prospection on French Guiana (France) territory was issued by the Départment des Recherches Archéologiques Subaquatiques et Sous-Marines in Marseille (DRASSM), responsible for the French underwater cultural heritage, and by the Direction des Affaires Culturels de Guyane, responsible for the archaeology of French Guiana.


Google earth image of the Maroni river estuary, with Galibi village on the left bank underneath the mouth of the river
SK 1427 fishing boat from Paramaribo, used as survey vesel, anchored in front of Galibi
Sea chart from 1968 with the search areas based on the current and the historical topography: left the Tiger Bank area, right the Banc Francais

Review and assessment of the likely construction of the ship and quantity of iron on board in terms of cannon, anchors, ballast, fittings and the slave steel (i.e. manacles, collars, chains, etc.) was undertaken over the Spring period and a planning meeting held in Amsterdam early June. Sea trials of the marine survey spread were undertaken off Penzance late July to ascertain optimum set up for shallow water towing, the most significant technical challenge of the planned recce survey. The equipment was shipped early August and personnel followed mid-August for 10 day operation, 4 days of which we spent at sea in and around the Maroni river estuary survey. The team was based at the Lodge at the north end of Galibi village at the mouth of the Maroni River.

A local SK fishing boat (SK 1427) was mobilised for survey operations whilst moored of Galibi (beached for some of this time). A DGPS base station was set up on the first day of marine operations although ultimately its use proved unsuccessful and unnecessary. On the SK boat a dual frequency Trimble GPS system was used for positioning; Ceeducer 100 echo-sounder; Geometrics G882 marine magnetometer and Site Searcher software for on-line data processing. Following two days of set up, calibration and trials of all systems in the Maroni estuary this process was tested further on the Tiger Bank around a charted wreck and on the final day a full survey within the two designated search areas to the east of Banc Français, the primary search areas. A number of tow and buoyancy configuration were utilised during survey operations in an attempt to minimise the impact of noise on the data set. The direction of lines run with consideration for the prevailing wind and tidal flow was also a key consideration and controlling factor, in minimising noise. There was qualified success in this endeavour and more needs to be done before a more extensive survey is undertaken.

Several possible likely targets were noted but the outstanding pair were B1-3 and B1-4 on line 34 between 1030 and 1100hrs (LT) the morning of 20th August, the final day of survey at the northern end of the most easterly search area. One a 54nT dipole and the other a 52 negative monopole (total amplitude). In terms of extending and expanding the search by means of longer and more robust survey resources various recommendations have been made regarding the mobilisation of the local boat and support services and facilities. It is recommended extensive sea trials re undertaken to establish optimum towing arrangement (speed, fish depth, etc.) and buoyancy configurations. And during any future mobilisation the set-up and initial trials of any new system should take place in Paramaribo prior to final mobilisation to Galibi. Various survey tools and techniques have been discussed within this report, e.g. side-scan sonar and sub-bottom profiler, and in some cases (such as the two noted) generally deemed too expensive (in terms of resources required for support) and complex given the limited benefits of such systems for wreck location in such shallow and remote conditions. Similarly as part of any future survey there should be the facility and capability for sea-bed sampling and recommendations have been made on such a spread that could be used with the local resources available. As all operations in the target areas are very sensitive to environmental conditions and further investigations should be made to ascertain the optimum timing for any future survey to take advantage of the most favourable local conditions. It is recommended that a zodiac or similar small support craft will be provided for the support of future survey operations, for access to and from the vessel and beaches and the exposed sandbanks and for safety purposes.



Involved organisation(s)
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Surinam
Maritime Authority, Surinam
Ministry of Culture, Direction des Affaires Culturels de Guyane, French Guyane
The Netherlands Cultural Heritage Agency
Ministry of Culture, Départment des Recherches Archéologiques Subaquatiques et Sous-Marines (DRASSM), France(Marseille)
University of Amsterdam
Plymouth University
Underwater Technical Services, Norwich
Stichting Olivier van Noort, Aamsterdam

Funding organisation(s)
The Netherlands Cultural Heritage Agency
Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands In Paramaribo, Suriname

Organisations referring to this project
Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands In Paramaribo, Suriname

Involved expert(s)
Jerzy Gawronski
Leo Balai

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