Hamburg, a long-standing member of the Hanseatic trading league, was on the point of collapse in 1799. The merchants in the City of London held a whip-round and dispatched HMS Lutine with a fortune in gold and silver bullion to the rescue. The ship, however, never arrived.
La Lutine had been a Magicienne-class frigate in the French navy, launched 20 years earlier. But rather than have it fall into republican hands during the French Revolution, royalists handed it to the Royal Navy in 1793, and it became HMS Lutine.
As the frigate passed the Netherlands on 9 October, 1799, a storm blew up and she foundered off the West Frisian Islands with the loss of 269 lives – one person survived. Two weeks after the disaster, Lloyd’s of London paid out on the claim in full.
Nobody knows for sure how much the bullion was worth. The records Lloyd’s kept were destroyed in a fire, but it’s thought the gold and silver was worth in the region of £1m – around £100m today.
But in 1799, Britain was at war with the Netherlands; the Dutch claimed the wreck as its prize. In 1823 it granted Pierre Eschauzier a licence to recover the treasure. Lloyd’s protested to the British government, and the share of the licence retained by the Dutch government was transferred to London.
In 1858, the ship’s bell was retrieved, and today it hangs in Lloyd’s underwriting room.
Whenever news came in of a ship that was overdue, the Lutine bell would be rung – once for bad news, two for good. This was so the underwriters and brokers who had an interest in the ship’s return received the news at the same time.
Today, the bulk of the gold and silver is thought to remain in the sea. So, if you ever find yourself on the island of Vlieland, keep an eye out for anything that glimmers in the water. Lloyd’s of London would probably be interested to know about it.
Also on this day
Having failed to stoke revolution in Bolivia, Ernesto Che Guevara, one of history’s most famous revolutionaries, was captured by the military and executed, on this day in 1967. Read more here.