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Wreck of the Treasure Ship the Admiral Gardner

On January 25, 1809, the Admiral Gardner set sail through the English Channel, headed for India. Not long into the voyage, a sudden and violent storm hit the Channel just off Dover. Captain Eastfield and his crew tried desperately to ride out the storm, but to no avail as the ship succumbed to the wind and ocean. The ship ran aground on the Godwin Sands and, by the next morning, the ship was submerged by the unrelenting ocean. The shipwreck carried with it a precious cargo of copper coins and claimed the lives of one crew member. It would be nearly two centuries later before the treasure could be recovered.

The British East India Company

By the start of the 19th century the British East India Company (BEIC) had been in business for over two hundred years and had mastered the art of trade with India and China. The Company sent a fleet of ships to India, China, Malaya (Malaysia), and the Indonesian islands once a year to pick up goods, precious minerals, and treasure. They were fitted and equipped with great care, and often escorted by Royal Navy war ships through unfriendly waters and the East India ships themselves were heavily armed. The firepower assigned to the British East India Company and its ships was justified by a seemingly never-ending war with the French alongside rampant piracy in the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, the Straits of Malacca, and the South China Sea.

The British Crown in seeking a way to ease its financial and military burden in governing India, backed the British East India Company in its efforts to rule large swaths of India; the BEIC possessed its own private mercenary armies, exercised military power, and assumed administrative functions of government; all with the support and permission of the British government back at Westminster Hall. Company rule in India effectively began in 1757 after the Battle of Plassey and lasted until 1858 when, following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Government of India Act 1858 passed by Parliament led to the British Crown re-assuming direct control over all of India in the form of the new British Raj, which would last until 1947 when Great Britain granted full independence to India.

Coat of Arms of the East India Company
Coat of Arms of the East India Company

East Indiaman

“East Indiaman” was a generalized term for any sailing ship operating under charter or license to any of the East India Companies belonging to a major European trading power of the 17th through the 19th centuries. The primary commercial trading powers of the era who had East India Companies were; Great Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, France, and Portugal. In Great Britain, the British East India Company held a monopoly granted to it through a Royal Charter by Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1600 covering all English trade between the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, making it the oldest among companies of its type. The original English (after 1707’s Act of Union, British) East Indiamen usually ran between England, the Cape of Good Hope, and India. Their main ports of call were Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta. The Indiamen often continued on to China and Sumatra before returning to England via the Cape of Good Hope and Saint Helena.

The Admiral Gardner was an armed East Indiaman of the British East India Company. She was three masted, boasting 23 guns with an estimated tonnage of 816 and 145 feet in length. Constructed in 1796 at Blackwall alongside the HMS Venerable; she was named after Baron Alan Gardner (1742–1809), who had a distinguished career in the Royal Navy until he became a Member of Parliament in 1796. Officially the Admiral Gardner was owned by John Woolmore with William John Eastfield serving as Captain when the Admiral Gardner ran aground in 1809. However, she had two Captains in the years prior to the wreck, they were Edward Bradford serving from 1797-1804 and George Saltwell as Captain for a short time from 1804-1805.

The Admiral Gardner had six major voyages to her credit in the years leading up to 1809’s disastrous wreck. She set sail on her maiden voyage in September of 1797 headed for the Bengal region of India and Bengkulu (British Benkulen) on the isle of Sumatra in modern day Indonesia. Admiral Gardener returned safely to St.Helena in May 1799 and then arrived home at Blackwall in August of 1799. The vessel’s second mission was to Madras, India and onto Penang, China; this particular voyage lasted from March 1801 through July 1802 and was completed successfully. Edward Bradford’s final voyage as Captain of the Admiral Gardner began in February 1803 with orders to Madras and Bengal. He and the Admiral Gardner completed their task in June 1804 upon returning to Blackwall, England. Captain Bradford would be replaced for a short time, one voyage in fact, by Captain George Saltwell. Assigned quick turnaround trip from Madras back to St.Helena then home to England, Captain Saltwell and the Admiral Gardner set off from Portsmouth in April of 1805. In November of 1805 10 members of the crew were severely injured after an engagement against a French Man’O War from which they narrowly escaped being seized or destroyed. Upon making port in Madras in December 1805, Admiral Gardner made an unscheduled second stop at Colombo, in Sri Lanka in February 1806. She made it to St.Helena in May that year and arrived back home in England making port at Blackwall that August.

The East Indiaman Repulse.
The East Indiaman Repulse.

The Admiral Gardner’s Final Voyage

In January 1809, the Admiral Gardner departed the Thames estuary for Madras on her sixth voyage with a mixed cargo of anchors, chain, guns, shot and iron bar. The ship also carried 48 tons of East India Company copper coins for use as currency for native workers in India. The coins were minted in Birmingham for use by the East India Company in the “Madras Presidency”. The Admiral Gardner set sail from Blackwall, picking up her passengers and some of the crew at Gravesend; she took on board a Channel pilot and anchored in the Downs near the South Foreland. While at anchor she was joined by other East Indiaman, the Britannia and the Carnatic. During the night, a severe south-west gale kicked up, thus causing all three ships to drag their anchors. On board the Admiral Gardner the pilot decided it was necessary to cut the anchor cable, he went forward with an axe to carry out this task himself and in doing so managed to cut off two fingers on his left hand. He became delirious and had to be taken below and tended to by the ship’s surgeon. In the meantime, the ships continued to drag until running aground, losing the vessels. It would be nearly 200 years before the treasure of the Admiral Gardner would see the light of day once again.

Map of the Goodwin Sands
Map of the Goodwin Sands

Discovery and Recovery of the Admiral Gardner

In 1976, the rare East India Company coins that the Admiral Gardner was carrying appeared in sand dredged from the Goodwins for use as fill during construction work at Dover Harbour. Divers located the site and her cargo of tokens in 1983 while investigating a fisherman's snag. A number of parties then claimed interest as they thought it was the Britannia, lost at the same time but carrying silver East India Company coins.

Following a salvage agreement, operations began in 1984, recovering over one million coins. The site was designated in 1985 in response to concern about the apparent lack of archaeological standards applied during the salvage operation although salvage work continued under licence. The site is now subject to a 300m radius restricted area prohibiting unlicensed activities within the boundary. Michael Pitts, an underwater photographer, took several images of the site in 1985. The result has meant the 1985 work is well documented photographically. In 1986, the salvage company had the designation revoked due to the site being over three miles off the English coast. After the extension of the limit to 12 miles offshore in 1987 and the eventual relocation of the wreck, it was re-designated in 1990.

The seabed around the wreck site comprises sterile sand that is periodically mobile and several metres of the wreck mound have been uncovered by shifting sands. Remains that are more extensive were exposed in 1995; however, sand banks and waves up to one metre high have been observed around the site which indicates the level of burial of the wreck can change daily with tides and weather. Changeable sediment levels mean there is little or no flora covering the site. The last visit on behalf of Historic England was in 2012. The site was found to be deeply buried at that time. Thus, very little fieldwork has been undertaken. The area of exposed wreckage covers roughly 15meters x 20meters and stands one metre above of the current seabed level. Further searches located another area away from the main wreckage mound where two guns and an anchor were exposed. In 1999, the site appeared undisturbed and relatively stable, though disruption of the concreted mound by the earlier salvage operations was still evident. Only the top meter of one of the cargo mounds consisting mainly of iron stock and anchors was exposed.

The Goodwins South Sand Head and North Head of South Calliper, were included within the licensed Historic Aggregate Dredging Area 342 between 1976 and 1998. The Dover Harbour Board (DHB) dredged material from Licence Area 342 during this time for fill material for the construction of the hoverport terminal and land reclamation at the Eastern Docks, it was during the 1976 dredge that the Admiral Gardner was first discovered. The current proposal submitted in 2016 has DHB applying for a marine licence from the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) to dredge parts of the Goodwins South Sand Head and North Head of South Calliper where Area 342 once was. The application requires an Environmental Impact Assessment under a European Union law, although that requirement will likely change or be discarded with Britain’s impending exit from the European Union. Although the exact location for dredging has yet to be determined, the initial scoping phase of the EIA application highlighted a wider area for resource prospection, and study of possible impacts on local sea life, environment, and the historic artefacts in question. Marine aggregate dredging in England is a well-established industry with clear and effective methods to understand and protect features of the known and potential historic environment through published best practice guidelines. Historic England and their Marine Planning Unit are working closely with the MMO, DHB, their environmental consultants and survey contractors to apply the most appropriate protective measures possible, which may include a much wider exclusion zone surrounding the Admiral Gardner from being dredged. Currently there is 150-meter exclusion zone around the site of the Admiral Gardner’s wreckage.

Finds Recovered from the Admiral Gardner

From the ocean depths came a bounty of items from the Admiral Gardner. Approximately 100 cash copper coins, 10 white gun flints, and 20 gun flints in concretion. A cannon ball in concretion with 10-cash copper coins dated 1806 and a lump of 10-cash copper coins in concretion were recovered from this wreck during excavation of the seabed. Twenty-One cannonballs, a wooden treasure barrel, a copper ingot, 4 pieces of iron shot, and 2 large clusters of copper coins were recovered from the Admiral Gardner as well as various other items such as; shot, copper ingots, barrels, a hull rib, coins, fittings, a leather book cover, bowls, nails, pots and musket flints. Approximately over 1 million coins were raised which accounts for only half of the 54 tons on board when she sank.

Coins from the Admiral Gardner

The copper coins recovered from the shipwreck were struck in 1808 by Matthew Boulton at his privately-owned Soho Mint in the city of Birmingham. Boulton used state-of-the-art coin presses which employed steam engines. The coins were struck in denominations of 5, 10, and 20 cash. The term “cash” refers to the small coins that circulated in Asia at that time.

The obverse design bears the Arms granted to the East India Company in 1698. The motto reads AUSPICIO REGIS ET SENATUS ANGLIAE, which translates as “Under the patronage of the King and Parliament of England.” The reverse design inscription is Persian, which was the language of the Moghul India. The reverse inscriptions translates as “ten cash are equal to two falus”, to falus being equivalent to ¾ of a farthing in 1809.

1808 10 Cash Coin from the Admiral Gardner
1808 10 Cash Coin from the Admiral Gardner

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