What happened to the Dutchmen?

posted in: History | 3
Picture of Zuytdorp cliffs

For many years, Australia was known as New Holland. Anything more different to the flat, verdant and continually damp polders of the Netherlands than the forbidding, parched land of the central west Australian coast is hard to imagine.

Be that as it may, two young Dutchmen from the Batavia were the first white inhabitants of Australia, set ashore in December 1629 as punishment for their part in the murders that took place on the Abrolhos Islands. I mentioned their fate in a previous post. It wasn’t until 1788 that the first (intended) settlement took place, on the other side of Australia at what was to become Sydney.

Wouter Loos and Jan Pelgrom weren’t the only Dutchmen stranded on the West coast, though. We know that seventy-five people survived the wreck of the Vergulde Draeck (Gilt Dragon) in1656 and came ashore on the coast near what is now called Ledge Point, a little north of Perth. We know this because seven men, under the command of one of the officers, sailed a small boat to Batavia to get help. The vessels sent to search for survivors found the landing site, but no trace of the people. More information about the wreck of the Vergulde Draeck is available on the VOC Historical Society site.

Then in 1712, the Zuytdorp sank in deep water just off the cliffs that bear her name, those same towering walls along which the Batavia’s longboat sailed in 1629. Unlike the other wrecks, no survivors ever reached Batavia, so the exact date, and the number of survivors, is unknown. However, there is clear evidence that there were survivors. The Zuytdorp, by accident or design, went down at one of only a few places where the cliffs are not sheer. I’ve been there. You can scramble down the limestone onto a tiny beach. On the way, there’s a large, open cave. A team from the West Australian museum excavated a multitude of artefacts there, including chunks of molten metal which suggested a huge bonfire had been burning. Evidence was found further inland to suggest the survivors moved away from the coast but what ultimately happened to them is a matter of conjecture. No human remains were ever found. Some believe the Dutch were assimilated into the aboriginal tribes in the area. If they were not, it’s hard to imagine they could have survived in such a desolate, barren area. Water is scarce, especially in the hot, dry, summer months. Recently, DNA tests have been conducted to try to find any trace of European ancestry in the aboriginal people that can be dated to before 1868, when the area was first settled.

Every one of the Dutch shipwrecks has its own story of ingenuity and survival, or a profound mystery. What happened to the Zuytdorp is a case in point. But that story deserves its own post.

3 Responses

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  2. MonaKarel

    I am continually amazed at the courage of people who set sail in a wooden boat into strange waters where the weather was best described as wretched in some places. To get to Australia they’d have to go around the Cape of Good Hope, where the seas were not terribly friendly. And we don’t like to venture across the state without a TripTick or GPS app

    • Greta van der Rol

      Yes, around the Cape of Good Hope. That was the easy part. Then along in the roaring forties till they judged they’d better turn North. It’s amazing how few Dutch ships went down – only 5 (for sure) between 1600 – 1750 or so. They couldn’t reliably calculate Longitude – which was why a few hit Australia.

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