Tag Archives: Zuytdorp

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.

What happened to the Dutchmen?

Picture of Zuytdorp cliffsFor 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.