The adventures of a ship
Pictured by Siewert van der Meulen in a successive series of sixteen prints
An early 18th-century comic of ships
What moved Siewert van der Meulen to create this series is a mystery but it is certain that the picture story is unique! In the 17th century, shipbuilding was one of the main industries; in the 200 years that the VOC existed, a variety of shipyards laid down and finished more than 1,450 large and small vessels. Thousands of workers from home and abroad earned their daily bread in the industry. The construction of a retourschip (a VOC merchantman) went relatively quickly, the period between the laying of the keel and the launch being an average of one year – and, strange though it may seem to us in the 21st century, all these vessels were built ‘by eye’. Length, breadth and depth were determined beforehand but the shape of the hull was created during construction! The master shipbuilder’s know-how was based on experience, the skills being learned in practice. And nobody came up with the idea of recording all that experience and knowledge!
Siewert van der Meulen’s series of etchings are thus extremely informative. By way of clarification the artist placed a short comment under each of the prints. For the builders of replicas such as the Batavia and the Amsterdam. The series formed a welcome complement to what they already knew about shipbuilding. There is a great deal to be seen in the prints. In print no. 3, for instance, The carpenters work on the ship on all sides, we see men working above a fire and bending the heavy oak beams, and, in print no. 6, a crane is being used to put the masts in place. The final process was that of making the ship’s hull watertight using – among other things – harpuys (a mixture of oils and resins), a dirty job that could only be done with the ship lying on its side.
The real adventures
The ‘life’ of a ship started when first it went to sea. Van der Meulen does not avoid reality: Schepen, door een Zeeslagh geruineerd (Ships ruined by a sea battle), Een Schip door storm overvallen…(A ship attacked by a storm…) and a stranded ship show that life at sea was a dangerous undertaking. Fortunately, however, most ships arrived home safely and, after what were sometimes decades of faithful service, they were brought home and broken up.
In addition to the ships, the prints also show various buildings. Siewert van der Meulen did not pretend to make topographically accurate drawings and yet there are a few references to Amsterdam. In print 6, for instance, the tower behind the ship can be identified as the still-extant Schreierstoren. But that’s all there is: the main focus of interest was, after all, the ships.