They made them tough in those days

posted in: History | 1
WA coast

On a recent journey down the west coast of Australia, I wrote a blog post in which I mentioned the town of Leeman, and I promised to tell the story that goes with that name. It’s another one of those incredible stories associated with the Dutch shipwrecks on the WA coast.

In 1656 the Vergulde Draeck (Gilt Dragon) foundered on one of the reefs that make that western coast so picturesque – and so dangerous. All the VOC ships carried two boats and both small vessels were used to get the survivors ashore. The VOC (the Dutch East India Company) had learned some lessons from the 1629 sinking of the Batavia and its horrific aftermath, when all the ship’s officers made for Batavia in the long boat, leaving the castaways at the mercy of Jeronimus Cornelisz. You’ll find many references to those events in my blog, or read the whole tale in my book, To Die a Dry Death.

So standing orders were that the captain stayed with the survivors, who were landed on the beach. The vessel’s upper steersman Abraham Leeman was sent with six men in the smaller boat to make the perilous crossing to Batavia to seek help, leaving sixty-eight others behind. We know this because Leeman kept a journal, which was translated and published in James Henderson’s book Marooned.

As with the Batavia‘s longboat twenty-seven years before, Leeman and his team faced incredible hardships, in particular lack of drinking water, before they successfully completed the two thousand mile journey to Batavia in the tiny yawl. Ships were immediately dispatched to search for the Vergulde Draeck, without success. As usual, the precise location of the shipwreck was not known because the calculation of longitude was not an exact science. Some time later Leeman himself was sent out on the Waeckende Boey. Leeman located the survivor’s original campsite, which had been abandoned, so the ship’s captain sent parties to check the string of small islands that dot the sea in that area. On one such search, while Leeman and thirteen men were on an island, the wind picked up, so the skipper moved his vessel, resulting in Leeman and his crew staying on the island overnight.

The Waeckende Boey never returned.

Imagine the shock and despair as these men realised they’d been abandoned on this desolate coast. But Leeman was able to rally his sailors, who found water, and killed seals for their meat and skins. Once more, he sailed a small boat up the Western Australian coast to Java, with the loss of one man. This time, the longboat was wrecked as they tried to make land. Most of the men apparently ran off into the jungle, but Leeman and three others walked the length of Java until they were captured by a Javanese prince and held for ransom, which was paid.

The hamlet of Leeman isn’t far from where the wreck of the Vergulde Draeck was finally found in 1963, just over three hundred years after she sank. I wonder how many of the people who pass through Leeman know the story that goes behind that name?  Abraham Leeman personifies the qualities of a great leader, able to inspire, cajole, give hope when there is little. I can’t imagine having to make that dreadful journey north under the Zuytdorp cliffs once, let alone twice. Yes, they made them tough in those days.

UPDATE Dec 2015. Oops. It seems I (and many others) have swallowed a falsehood. Leeman most certainly made the second trip, but probably not the first. Read all about it.

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