I recall some Frenchmen who several years ago came to Sulawesi, full of hope to find the ‘deeply laden’ Portuguese and Indian ships lying in the roads of Makassar on the eve of the VOC’s attack on the city in June 1660. Yet, eyewitnesses of the affairs knew to relate that:
[…] last appeared in this Road two Dutch ships [Mars and Breukelen, the vanguard of the Dutch fleet]; running under the King’s forts, they ducked their sails thrice and at each duck saluted them from each ship with three guns. […T]he next morning they assaulted the Portuguese ships in the road, being six in number and a junk, two whereof were laden for Goa (one of which bore 600 tons and 26 guns), one for Macao, the junk for Batavia, and the three other intended elsewhere. Confidence overnight and fear this morning prevented those wise merchants from providing themselves with ammunition, guns, or men; so that the great ship was soon blown up, the Macao-man taken […], another ship and the junk burned; two crawling into the shore saved themselves; and the third, though taken, by slipping her cable showed her enemy a slippery trick, bringing three of [the Dutch prize crew] also to shore, where their heads were soon lopped from their shoulders. (Boxer,C.R. 1967: Francisco Vieira de Figueiredo: A Portuguese Merchant-Adventurer in South East Asia, 1624-1667. Verhandelingen van het KITLV, 52, ‘sGravenhage: Martinus Nijhoff, pg.27, quoting English eyewitnesses of the affair.)
The two vessels run ashore were, some days after the victorious landing of the VOC’s troops, also claimed by the Dutch. And: Even if there were any remains of the ships, they by now would be lying under the new land formed by the extensive deposits of silt that since the seventeenth century have been carried by the Jeneberang, the river flowing through historic Makassar, through its ever-changing estuaries – thus, under one or other of the recent real-estate projects sprawling along today’s shoreline.
Indeed, it would seem that the real treasures to be found with these vessels are their stories, the so often tragic fate and, sometimes, heroic exploits of those entangled in the dramatic moments of a ship’s foundering.