Ships, Shipwrecks and Medals in the 17th Century

The 17th century saw an enormous increase in seaborne trade not just in the regions around Europe, but between Europe and the bourgeoning colonies in the New World, and between Europe and points farther east with the establishment of trading companies like the Dutch East India Company in 1602. Click here for a 51-minute video presentation posted on January 31, 2024,.

(Above) American Numismatic Society Chief Curator Peter van Alfen explores depictions of ships and shipwrecks on a number of 17th century Dutch and English medals, and recent archaeological finds of some of the wrecks commemorated on the medals.

Shipbuilding and seafaring technologies rapidly advanced along with the refinement of the triple-mast square rig, which was well suited to long oceanic voyages. The amounts of gold and silver being transported on ships at this time, whether minted or not, was immense.

There was constant risk in putting such great quantities of precious metals on ships. While the Dutch, English, Spanish, and French were always eager to capture Spanish treasure ships, there was also the threat of unexpected weather, the powerful storms that could overwhelm and sink ships in open water or drive them onto shore. The sinking of the Swedish ship Vasa is one example in which methods of recovery, such as a diving bell (above, right), were developed to recover valuable objects.