The Wreck of the East India Company Ship, Phoenix in 1680 - Todd Stevens

This is another of those early shipwrecks about which very little is known. She was recorded as a 30 gun, 450 ton, merchantman returning from Bantam with pepper and cloth; lost among the western rocks on the 11th January 1680.  It appears from East India Company records that most, if not all, of a crew of 90 were saved from the wreck.  Some of the cargo was also saved as one Thomas Abney is recorded as paying £202 8s 1d at a salvage sale on Scilly. 


In December 1669, The Phoenix, was commissioned to be built by its Captain, William Wildy, and the ship was finished by the following November. It was a small vessel but typical of the time with castles fore and aft, 3 decks, 30 guns, and 380 tons- and Wildy named her after his previous command the 'Golden Phoenix; (which was originally named 'Gouden Fenicks') a ship which was taken from the Dutch as a prize. Wildy, happily sailed in that ship for a number of years but I don't know how he actually came by the vessel. However, Wildy, was obviously impressed by her as she made him a lot of money in order for him to be able to commission a brand-new Phoenix to be built.  The new Phoenix was to be hired out by Wildy, to the East India Company, every year; right up until he wrecked her here at Scilly.  Coincidentally, during her maiden voyage to the east, Phoenix had an engagement with a Dutch vessel, who was trying to take Wildy's brand new ship as a prize. It was on the return journey home when the larger Dutch ship attacked the Phoenix in order to capture her and her very valuable cargo, but Wildy had other ideas, and successfully beat off the attack and fled but not without some of his crew being injured in the fight. For this small action the captain and his crew received -"a month’s extra wages for their care and courage" - from the company for saving their precious cargo of spices.

It was on only her 3rd voyage when she was lost to these islands on 11th January 1679-80. (the year depends upon which calendar you use- Gregorian or Julian but by today's calendar it was 1680)  When she set sail on this her last, fateful, voyage, she was predestined to touch at Bantam, Tywan, Tonquin, Siam & Amoy and the company placed a vast treasure in her with which to trade in those places. There was 80,000 silver dollars placed aboard along with £200,000 in gold and silver bullion. Private traders aboard also shipped in her some of their own personal wealth. 4,100 silver pieces of eight were taken aboard by Captain Wildy, and two other passengers took a combined 9,500 silver dollars along on the voyage too. And there were more modest amounts to boot. God knows how much all this treasure would be worth in today's money! It's a pity she wasn't wrecked at Scilly on her outward-bound journey- as the islands would have been awash in treasure -again!  It was a vast wealth for a relatively small ship to carry. Indeed, Phoenix was the smallest of all the ships she was to later sail in company with home. Maybe being small made her fast; a great defence against any would be attacker, as we have already seen above; and these were dangerous times. Not only was England at war with Holland but it was a time of much piracy too, most of the threat coming from the Barbary coast.  The barbary pirates would seize any ship and sell its crew into slavery. It was something North African states had being doing for centuries and it would not end until well into the late 1790's. As set out in a letter before Phoenix sailed for the far east in 1677, the company wrote to Captain Wildy advising him to steer well to the west of the Azores and Madeira, in order to keep well away from the African coast line, for fear of pirates then operating from that continent; and not to stop until he reached St Helena. Once there, he was to form up with other ships who were doing likewise and from that island they sailed together as much as possible. On their return journey home, they were to form up into a "good posture of defence" as a kind of battle fleet with a hierarchy of command in which Wildy was ordered to be Vice Admiral. This all duly happened and the pirates were successfully avoided on this trip.

In the archives there are numerous entries regarding various ships of the period, whereby individuals aboard could trade with far eastern countries for what they referred to then as- "foreign gold” or indeed for diamonds. Every person had to declare to the company that they were planning to trade, and state exactly how much money-or indeed commodity- they took along -no matter how small the amount, so that the company could charge for freight.  There are numerous entries in the company archives for items that the crew and passengers took aboard- even down to the Captain's request to take: 'a pendulum clock and needles and thread and buttons' aboard. The smallest request was granted by a committee which shows their close attention to detail regarding freight. (sound familiar?) However, I couldn't pin down exactly what they meant by- 'foreign gold'.  Every time the company made any references to money, they always stated its type, like-pieces of eight, or- dollars, or- gold bullion, but these- "foreign gold" entries were referring to something very different indeed; it was like they didn't know what else to call it.  However, by my discovering this new wreck west of Samson island, I may have inadvertently solved that mystery. During my searches around the site, I have discovered lots of small gold items, which must have come from those foreign parts this ship had visited in 1678-9. They seem to be mostly ringlets of some kind; but all are individual items of what i can only describe as very crudely constructed jewellery. The gold used is very soft and tests show it's as pure as you can get. (see images) Sadly there seem to be no entries in the Phoenix trading documents that state whether any of this 'foreign gold' was ever purchased by anyone aboard, but that is not to say none was ever recorded as the records are not complete. However, on the other hand, this may point towards the many gold items I have been finding possibly being contraband; whereby a sailor did not declare his trade to the company to avoid paying any freight on it. There are lots of records of the company revealing contraband of this type found hidden aboard their other ships-and indeed contraband diamonds and spices; also the price for not declaring your trading was far higher than just freight costs; if caught, you were charged more for breaking company rules and then banned from sailing with the company ever again. So, this possible contraband consignment of what could easily be the referred to as- "Foreign gold" went down with the ship and its existence aboard has never been known about until now. It is my belief that the gold I have recovered must be examples of the "foreign gold" they often referred to in the company archives.    

Obviously this ship was on her return journey and so the vast majority of all the money originally stated above as carried aboard the Phoenix had been spent on pepper, silk, and other spices- leaving the modest amount of coins I found on the wreck site today, being merely what was left to get the ship home -i.e. for the purchasing of victuals, etc, en route. The vast amount of coinage left here on the sea floor, laying scattered among the guns and boulders, are silver shillings of both Charles I & Charles II reigns. (Both of whom visited Scilly and stayed at the Star castle at some point)- and these shillings were most likely the sailors' pay.  However, there are some of the silver dollars and gold coinage referred to above in evidence on the site as well. (All items raised are currently securely held in the indemnity of the Receiver of Wreck until rights of ownership have been established) 

 I have yet to find out exactly how the ship came to be where she now lies and there is still no smoking gun to pin down a positive ID of the site either. However, all the evidence points towards the Phoenix. The old chart I wrote about previously being the best evidence yet that Wildy's ship sank within that immediate area- and none of the recovered coins are dated to a time after the Phoenix was lost. Another interesting piece of evidence I turned up recently- is that on a previous voyage Phoenix carried "a full kentledge of broken guns"  to the east and back; she then had a quick turnaround for this, her last voyage, and she sailed again with only a reported- "half Kentledge" aboard; which was most likely to be the remainder of the very same 'broken guns'. Interestingly, on the sea bed are numerous big broken guns. There are also a few whole examples but these are outnumbered by a large pile of about a dozen broken ones at one end of the site, and thus another tentative pointer towards this being the Phoenix.

(Kentledge = Ballast.) 

Lastly the islands had a real salvage expert back in the 17th century and his name was Thomas Ekins- who I wrote about before, regarding the Shaftesbury. He is recorded as salvaging from at least 4 of the late 17th century shipwrecks that are known to exist here- Shaftesbury; Golden Lyon; Phoenix; & Princes Maria. I am certain he also worked the wreck of the Royal Oak as well but have not seen positive documentary evidence of it yet. However, the wreck happened during his tenure here and quite a lot was recorded as being saved from it, so why wouldn't he have?   Also, the wreck on the Menglow is the Golden Lyon

 I would like to thank my friend and colleague Ed Cumming for his help in uncovering the facts behind the wreck of the Phoenix and allowing me access to documents by the late Chippy Pierce of the wreck site(s) near Pednathise Head.