The Rescue of the Crew of the Helen
on 20 August 1846
Signed, Sepia brush on paper
30 x 42 cm
One of the most exciting art forms is ‘eyewitness art’, where the artist records an event that he himself has witnessed. We can look through his eyes and see a historic scene unfold. The Rescue of the ship the Helen in 1845 was en event that was so spectacular that it was etched in the memory of many people from Zierikzee even decades after the event. Although Leendert Maurice van Tetterode worked as a carpenter and not as a professional artist – no other work by him is known – he has conveyed the rescue with a dramatic flair in sepia tones.
In the early hours of the morning of 20 August 1845, Captain Joseph Orfeur and his crew of five sailed past the Dutch coast. They had departed from Liverpool in the Helen, a ship fully loaded with cotton and salt. They are on their way to the ports of Rotterdam and Dordrecht. However, the weather is nightmarish, and the ship collapses on an infamous shallow sandbank called De Banjaard. As the ship sank, the captain and his crew found themselves in mortal danger.
In the distance lay the peaceful Dutch town of Zierikzee. Alerted to the shipwreck, seven boats left Zierikzee to try and reach the Helen, but the waves were enormous and there was a storm that seemed to come straight out of hell. Three boats returned to the shore almost immediately, and the remaining four returned sometime later: it was impossible to reach the shipwreck, The humans on board the Helen were dead men.
However, there was an eight boat. Skipper Frans Antoon Berwald decided to risk his own life and unmoored his fishing boat, The Young Frederick of Zierikzee, and along with two other men and his fourteen-year-old son Fred (after which the boat was named) went out to sea. They were their only and final hope.
With great difficulty Berwald and his men reached the sinking ship, and threw out a rope with which they rescued the drowning men one by one. Soon nothing would be left of the crushed Helen, but all six men – who had seemed destined to die – were saved. One account reads that “their joy and gratitude at being saved was indescribable”.
Many spectators had assembled on the dykes of Zierikzee. Among them must have been fifteen-year-old Leendert Maurice, for thirty-nine years later he drew the spectacular rescue that he had witnessed from afar. The 20th of August 1845 remained vivid in his mind’s eye and his rendering of the event is impressive: the stormy sea, the foul weather, the ship beyond that fails to approach the Helen, the desperation of the captain and his crew, and the incredible bravery of these men:
Frans Antoon Berwald (1804-1873)
Teunis Bakker (1809-1883)
Jacob Paret (1826-1903)
Frederik Berwald (1831-1905)
Rotterdam Private Collection