The mystery of the breech blocks

Picture of Zuytdorp cliffsI alluded in a previous post to the events surrounding the loss of other VOC merchantmen and the fact that quite a few Dutchmen actually reached land in Australia, then vanished. Of all the stories, that of the Zuytdorp is perhaps the most mysterious. And those breech blocks in the title of this post play an important role in the mystery.

The Zuytdorp was wrecked at the base of the cliffs that now bear her name. There they are at left. They stretch for hundreds of kilometers along the western australian coast, towering into the air, their bases battered by waves rolling in from the Indian Ocean. The west coast is still rising out of the sea. That’s how those cliffs were formed. High as they are, the weather has made its mark. There’s a shallow rock shelf extending maybe one hundred meters or so before the water falls away to depth, just like going over a cliff.

The geography is important. There are only two places along those kilometers where the cliffs dip a little so that a person can get down to a tiny beach, and the wreck of the Zuytdorp was found at one of those spots. We don’t know if the Zuytdorp’s captain sent one of his boats to Batavia for help, but if he did, it never arrived. The Zuytdorp disappeared sometime in the winter of 1712. It’s agreed that a large number of people, perhaps as many as fifty or sixty, made it ashore and in fact eventually journeyed inland, in an attempt to find water. This is one of the driest coastal spots in all of Australia. Their fate is unknown. No bones were ever found and the aboriginal people who undoubtedly knew about the wreck and the survivors have died, their word-of-mouth histories dying with them. We know they knew of the wreck. Stories were told in Perth (capital of the then colonised state of Western Australia) in 1834, related by the aborigines, of a shipwreck many miles north of Perth. At the time, it was believed the wreck was recent and a ship was sent to look for survivors. Later it was known that the story had been passed down, about a wreck 120 years earlier.

So what about the breech blocks?

The thing about wrecks is, why do they happen? The Batavia and the Zeewyck both hit low reefs at night, the lookouts mistaking the white water for moonlight on the waves. But the Zuytdorp cliffs were well known to the Dutch mariners for a hundred years and the captains kept away. Despite the vexed problem of longitude, which made it impossible for them to fix their position exactly, you don’t mistake towering cliffs for anything but what they are – even at night.

The obvious answer is a storm. The ship was driven up onto the reef at the base of the cliffs, which gave the crew the opportunity to get off the stricken vessel and cover the short distance to the shore. In that case, the captain was very lucky to be washed up on one of the only two low parts of the cliffs – unless he aimed at it. Leaving that interesting thought aside, let’s assume the storm has blown over and the boats are used to ferry those people who were still alive, ashore. They presumably would have taken what they could find in the way of food and water, sailcloth, clothing and so on. But why take the breech blocks?

Like all Dutch ships, the Zuytdorp was well armed against pirates. Most of its formidable complement of cannons were muzzle loaders, made of cast iron. But it also carried eight swivel-cannon, which were made of bronze and used breech loading mechanisms. How it works is described here. The breech blocks were solid pieces of bronze, and very heavy, each weighing about 13 kg (25 lbs). Yet eight breech blocks were found on the beach at the wreck site. Why? In Philip Playford’s fascinating book “Carpet of Silver: the wreck of the Zuytdorp” (UWA Press, 1996) he speculates that the survivors may have intended to bring ashore one of the swivel cannon, then use the eight breech blocks to fire the gun several times in rapid succession to attract a passing ship. There’s evidence they lit signal fires on the cliffs, presumably with that intention. But no Dutch sea captain was going to risk his ship on that shoreline, even if he had realised the fires were not a local bushfire.

Eventually, the survivors gave up and journeyed inland. Where they disappeared. Without a trace.