Life Stories

Object Biography: The Shipwrecked Flagon

This Dutch green glass flagon in the University of Victoria art collection is dated to around 1700. Its humble form tells us it was not a luxury object but rather manufactured for everyday use. However this flagon’s “life story” portended more dramatic events in its future, as it was stowed onboard the Dutch East India Company ship Akerendam bound for Indonesia for the overseas trade in spices and exotic cargo. Caught in a winter storm off the coast of Norway in 1725, Akerendam sank with all 200 lives aboard lost.

The wreck would not be discovered until 1972, when its treasure was raised and then sold or auctioned to museums and private collectors around the world. Donated by Dr. Bruce L. Brown and Mrs. Dorothy E. Brown to the University of Victoria art collections in 2006, today the flagon enjoys a peaceful existence on display to admirers. Here is its story:

Dutch Glass Production in the 17th Century

Bottles like the one recovered from the Akerendam shipwreck illustrate an important step in the history of glass use in the Netherlands. There are no records of glass-producing facilities operating in the Netherlands until the late sixteenth century. Prior to this time, glass manufacture in Europe was limited to two major centres: Venice and Antwerp. Venetians had founded the first furnace in Antwerp in 1541. Given the techniques and materials then available, examples of glass production from this period are often opaque or translucent with material inconsistencies.

When hostilities with Spain broke out in 1568, up to a hundred thousand families including merchants, artisans and craftsmen migrated from Antwerp – then the cultural and merchandizing capital of the southern Netherlandish provinces – north to Amsterdam. Among these were the glassworkers who would establish their industry in the new and flourishing capital of Amsterdam. A city with a history of shipping, fisheries and Baltic trade, Amsterdam would in the seventeenth century become the foremost entrepôt of Europe. As shipping, industry and the trade in commodities flourished, so did the demand for vast numbers of glass bottles and containers to replace earlier vessels made of earthenware or metal.

“Of great importance is a document addressed by one Jacques Casteleyn to the Mayor and Regents of the City of Amsterdam which probably dates between 1641-1642. Casteleyn announces that he has erected a glasshouse in Amsterdam to make all sorts of bottles, Heilbron-style roemers, and other glass articles that formerly had to be imported from France, Germany, Lorraine, Hesse, and other countries. He implies that his glasshouse is the first in the Netherlands to make crude glass.” [McNulty, Robert H. “Common Beverage Bottles: Their Production, Use, and Forms in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Netherlands, Part I.” Journal of Glass Studies, Corning Museum of Glass, 13 (1971), 91-119 (94).]

What would this bottle have contained?

The design of this flagon developed from the onion-shaped bottles in common usage. “Glass onions were large hand-blown glass bottles used aboard sailing ships to hold wine or brandy. For increased stability on rough seas, the bottles were fashioned with a wide-bottom shape to prevent toppling, thus making the bottles look somewhat onion-shaped.” Innovations added a channel, scored around the mouth to allow a string to be tied around to secure the cork. Additions such as this hemp-woven holder (see image at right) improved handling. Utilitarian bottles such as this one would have been used to store spirits on board the Akerendam.

With increased wealth and trade, wine became a staple in the middle-class Dutch diet in the seventeenth century, obtained from as far away as Italy, Spain, Madeira, Greece, France, the Canary Islands, Sicily and Portugal. However, the large wooden storage casks, when frequently opened, resulted in the access of oxygen which could turn the wine to vinegar. The solution would come in the second half of the seventeenth century, when the production of glass was invigorated by the development of coal-burning furnaces in England, which led to better control of kiln temperatures. As a result, glass produced in countries like the Netherlands was often referred to as ‘English glass.’ With stronger bottles, the practice of bottling vintage wines could begin. Wine was preserved better in bottles than in the casks, where it would be allowed to continue to age and improve for up to four to six years. As the volume of wine contained in a keg required about two hundred and fifty bottles, the average householder created a large demand for glass bottles.

With more bottles being used for storage, necks became shorter. At the end of the century, the string rim moved up the neck to just below the mouth, because corks were now driven into the neck, flush with the mouth, no longer just part way. Brass wire replaced thread in securing the cork, and the corked and tied bottle mouth was usually dipped in wax to prevent the access of air.

Another Dutch ship, the Amsterdam, sank in 1749 off Hastings, England. Located in the 1990s, the cargo was found to include 12,000 bottles of French wine. As the contents were intact, sampling proved that both types contained French wine.

Ill-fated destiny aboard the Akerendam

On the 19th of January, 1725, three large sailing ships of the Dutch East India Company set sail from the island of Texel in the Netherlands. One was the Akerendam, a brand new Dutch East Indiaman, a stately vessel 44 metres long with three masts and a rich, ornate stern. On board was her crew of 200 men, along with 40 iron cannons and a cargo including 19 chests of newly-minted gold and silver coins, weighing 2500 kilograms. The three ships are bound for Batavia, modern-day Jakarta in Indonesia, which was a major trading centre in Asia. The coinage, such as those pictured at left, would pay for spices and exotic products of the far East.

A lucrative cargo – but only if it could be safely brought home to European markets and sold to finance the whole expedition. The long journey – often two years or more, return trip – was subject to numerous perils. While navigating unpredictable storms and ocean currents, ships were also at risk from the outbreaks of diseases like typhus on board, or piracy. The proposed route for the Akerendam was to sail down the west coast of Africa, around the Cape and through the Indian Ocean to arrive in South East Asia.

In the 1700s world trade was ruled by the Netherlands and Great Britain. The Dutch East India company was the world's largest trading company, with trade routes stretching from the Cape of Good Hope to Japan. Records from 1725 indicate that 23,000 men were then employed in the VOC, with 60,000 employed in all types of seafaring, including the admiralty. The trips to Asia and America cost a lot of money and the chance of returning was very small. Mortality rates for men employed in the VOC during the 18th Century were as high as 7 percent, with some years up to 23 percent.

Trade hostilities between the Dutch Republic and England, active through the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th Century, put the Akerandem at risk if she tried to navigate the more direct route via the English Channel. To avoid English "privateering" and piracy active in the Channel, Akerendam instead charted a course into the North Sea to sail over the north coast of Scotland before heading south. This was risky in the middle of winter, and indeed the Akerendam was blown off course during a blizzard, and was finally wrecked off the coast of the island of Runde, off Ålesund, Norway. All 200 men died.

In July 1972, three Swedish and Norwegian sports divers discovered the remains of the Akerendam shipwreck on the seabed just a few hundred metres offshore of Runde. Although little remained of the ship, they found several cannons, and 57,000 gold and silver coins. Under the provisions of international shipwrecks, they were allowed to claim three-quarters of the treasure, while the remaining portion was assigned to Norway. The Norwegian share of the Runde treasure was divided between the University of Oslo’s Coin Cabinet and Bergen Maritime Museum. Now titled the ‘Runde treasure,’ the coinage and other finds from the Akerendam are exhibited in the Runde Miljøsenter since 2011.

Dutch bottles raised from other shipwrecks:

Through underwater archaeology, discoveries reveal the technological, socioeconomical, and cultural systems of the societies from which the shipwrecks originate. Only one-third of the 250 Dutch East India ships known to have been wrecked have been located. One of the first to be scientifically excavated is the Rooswijk, which sank in 1740.

“Sharing space with the various metals in the hold were enough glass onion bottles brimming with wine to stock an enviable cellar. One has survived its centuries in the sand with the cork still intact, meaning that its contents could be syringed out and sampled – or at least studied.” [see image at right.]

Charting a journey to Canada

Following the sale and auction of the Akerendam treasure, the flagon was collected by Dr. Bruce L. Brown and Mrs. Dorothy E. Brown. They donated the flagon to the University of Victoria art collections in 2006, along with significant other artworks.

The vast majority of glass bottles produced for daily use have long since broken and been lost to the historical record. It is one of history’s ironies that this flagon only survived because of the tragedy of the Akerendam shipwreck. If it had continued in common usage, it likely would have been broken and lost to history in an 18th century rubbish heap. Objects once commonplace become exceptional, through surviving unexpected circumstances and persevering to be admired and contemplated today. This bottle’s “life story” – made in the Netherlands, bound for the far East but shipwrecked and preserved by 265 years on the ocean floor, and eventually brought to a University on the west coast of Canada – allows it to live on and tell its tale.



  • Bruijn, Iris Diane Rosemary. Ship's Surgeons of the Dutch East India Company: Commerce and the Progress of Medicine in the Eighteenth Century, Leiden University Press, 2009.
  • Gawronski, J. “The Hollandia and the Amsterdam: Ships and the Economic Network of the VOC in Amsterdam around 1750.” In Underwater Archaeology, edited by Denise C. Lakey, The Society for Historical Archaeology, 1997, 1-8.
  • Marchini, Lucia. “Rescuing the Rooswijk.” Current World Archaeology, Dec. 5, 2017.
  • McNulty, Robert H. “Common Beverage Bottles: Their Production, Use, and Forms in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Netherlands, Part I.” Journal of Glass Studies, Corning Museum of Glass, 13 (1971), pp. 91-119.
  • ____. “Common Beverage Bottles: Their Production, Use, and Forms in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Netherlands, Part II.” Journal of Glass Studies, Corning Museum of Glass, 14 (1972), pp. 141-148.
The Shipwrecked Flagon