Search for an Iceland trader
On 8 august 1992, two Icelandic divers descended in the harbour of the island of Flatey in Breiðafjörður. They were not just there to appreciate the beauty of the place, but rather to locate the wreck of the 17th century Dutch merchant shipMelkmeid,whose fate had made a lasting impression on the local community.
The loss of theMelkmeidis mentioned in a
few contemporary Icelandic sources, the
most important being the annal called
Ballarárannáll, but has also left its trace in
the Dutch archives. They record that the
shiphad been leased from its owner Pieter
Pietersz. van Hoobre by a Danish merchant
named Jonas Trellund who had sought his
fortune in the Dutch Repubic in the early
1650s. By 1658, still in his late twenties,
Trellund's endeavours had taken him across
Europe, while specializing in the Iceland
trade. From his base of operations in the
Breiðafjörður his ships sailed on to
Stykkisholm, Stapi and Bjarneyjar to trade.
In 1659, disaster struck for Trellund. After having traded along the coast of Iceland throughout the summer of 1659,Melkmeid's skipper Hans Davidtsz had anchored the vessel in the harbour of Flatey. As the last of Trellund's merchant fleet, the ship was about to start its return voyage to the Netherlands, when a storm hit the island. Along with a load of 70.000 salted fish and several tons of salted meat, dried fish, sheep skins, cod-liver oil, talc and some remaining trade wares, theMelkmeidslowly sank in the harbour of Höfnin.
For two days the crew was stuck on the ship's stern which still stuck out from the ice cold water until help arrived. In the meanwhile, one sailor had deceased and the remaining crew of 14 were forced to remain on Hafnarey for the winter. The sailors managed to survive on a diet of oatmeal rescued from the sinking ship,and food provided by local farmers. Supposedly, the men used the wreckage of theMelkmeidto build a small but seaworthy boat on which they sailed back to the Netherlands during the next summer.
Nearly 350 years later, when two divers arrived at the scene of theMelkmeiddisaster, they indeed encountered a shipwreck, but they were surprised to find that it had a metal hull. After the initial disappointment, the Danish schoonerCharlottethat wrecked off Hafnarey in 1882, was found to be deposited over a much older wooden wreck, filled with pottery typical for a Dutch merchant ship. The site of theMelkmeidis now recognized as the only identified shipwreck and the only Dutch vessel in Iceland's waters.
Soon after the discovery, in July 1993,an underwater archaeological investigation was undertaken in July 1993 at the wreck siteby the National Museum of Iceland. It was the first underwater archaeological work done in Iceland. It was was the first investigation of its kind to be undertaken in Iceland, and was on a very modest scale.The work consisted in clearing up and mapping a part of the Dutch wreck, covering an area of 4 x 8 metres, and collecting loose objects from it.
Although not the full wreck site was
documented, the length of the complete ship
was estimated to have been at least 25 m.
Combining this information with the historic
details regarding the cargo, the ship may have
had a tonnage of 100 tons or more and may
have been aFluyttype vessel. Burn marks
were found all over the wreck, suggesting that
the ship had caught fire before or after being
dragged towards the rocks on the westside of
the harbour where the wreck was found. As
the keel ofMelkmeidwas found intact on the
bottom of the sea, it is thought unlikely that
the story of the crew sailing home on an
improvised boat is true in detail. The wreck
did seem to miss specific parts, but these
may equally well have been used in buildings
on the island.
Type: Fluyt, Wooden sailing vessel
Associated with: Dutch Republic
Condition: (Partly) preserved in situ,
Published archaeological documentation available
Involved institutions: National Museum of Iceland
After the 1993 investigation of theMelkmeid, no further research has been done on the wreck site. Although underwater archaeological sites do enjoy legal protection in Iceland, not much can be said of the wreck's current condition as long as no monitoring is being done.