Search and survival: Abraham Leeman and the Vergulde Draeck

The power of nature wrought wild on the high seas. Ships in a storm on a rocky coast, Jan Porcellis, 1614–18. Courtesy Hallwyl Museum, Stockholm.

The power of nature wrought wild on the high seas. Ships in a storm on a rocky coast, Jan Porcellis, 1614–18. Courtesy Hallwyl Museum, Stockholm.

Bad luck and bravery

Dutch explorers and traders in the 17th century knew to their cost the dangers of sailing near the Great South Land. A humble and tenacious sailor named Abraham Leeman experienced the worst that these treacherous coasts had to offer – not once but twice.

In the hours before dawn on 28 April 1656, a Dutch East India (VOC) ship called the Vergulde Draeck struck an uncharted reef on her way to Batavia (now Jakarta) and sank off the coast of what is now called Western Australia, but was then an enigmatic landmass scarcely known to Europeans – the fabled Great South Land. In an era when the calculation of longitude was fraught with difficulty and error, this was a tragic event yet not a shocking one. The VOC had lost some 168 ships in the previous decade to various misfortunes, and this latest wreck was further proof of the occupational hazards for those who made their living by the sea.

The disappearance of the Vergulde Draeck could have remained an unsolved mystery for Joan Maetsuycker, the newly appointed Governor General of Batavia, and yet another loss for him to explain to the company council back in Amsterdam. But on 7 June 1656 a small boat carrying seven starving, dehydrated and exhausted men arrived to tell an incredible tale. The leader of this bedraggled group is believed to have been Abraham Leeman, who had been the Vergulde Draeck’s under-steersman, or second officer.*

Leeman explained how the ship had been wrecked upon a reef and that he and his men had managed to sail a small open boat to Batavia, spending over a month at sea. What was more, they were not the only survivors. They had left 68 other men and women, including the ship’s captain, alive on a shore on the Southland.

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The Batavia tapestry

Melinda Piesse with her Batavia tapestry

Textile artist Melinda Piesse with her Batavia tapestry. Photographer Kristina Kingston, reproduced courtesy Melinda Piesse

Last week we unveiled a new large-scale embroidered work by Melbourne textile artist Melinda Piesse at the museum. Known as the Batavia tapestry (2017), it illustrates the tragic story of the wreck of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) flagship Batavia in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Western Australia, on 4 June 1629 and the sorry fate of the ship’s company.

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A ringing success: Kenn Reefs expedition, days 7 and 8

Lee Graham and his trusty tow-board. Image: Julia Sumerling/Silentworld Foundation.

Lee Graham and his trusty tow-board. Image: Julia Sumerling/Silentworld Foundation.

While the dive team was busy documenting sites KR10 and KR11 on the morning and afternoon of 14 January, the magnetometer team took advantage of the calm weather and sea conditions to run a survey along the outside of the entire Kenn Reefs system. The first area surveyed was along the outside fringe of the ‘foot and ankle’, with specific emphasis placed on detecting offshore components of known shipwreck sites (such as KR1, KR2 and KR4). Because sea conditions were calm, the team also ‘deployed’ Lee on a tow-board behind the magnetometer.

The tow-board (also known as a ‘Manta-board’) is a flat, hydrodynamic-shaped board with handles that is connected to a towing vessel with a length of line. The person using the tow-board grips the handles, is pulled through the water at low speed, and can visually search the seabed for shipwreck material. Most tow-boards are designed so that their users can turn, dive and ascend through the water column at will, simply by changing its orientation with the handles. Lee was positioned 10 metres behind the magnetometer in the hope he might be able to visually spot and identify any anomalies it detected.

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Kenn Reefs expedition, day four (continued) and day five

Silentworld Foundation CEO and project team leader John Mullen uses a metal detector to search for artefacts in shallows off Observatory Cay, while Jacqui Mullen (background) documents a find. Image: Julia Sumerling/Silentworld Foundation.

Silentworld Foundation CEO and project team leader John Mullen uses a metal detector to search for artefacts in shallows off Observatory Cay, while Jacqui Mullen (background) documents a find. Image: Julia Sumerling/Silentworld Foundation.

While the magnetometer crew conducted its initial search west of Observatory Cay, a second team embarked upon a metal detector survey of the cay itself and searched for evidence of survivor camps associated with the wrecked vessels Bona Vista and Jenny Lind.

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Barbarism and brutality: surviving the Batavia shipwreck

A depiction of the massacre among the marooned survivors of the Batavia. From Pelsaert's published journal, 1647. ANMM Collection: 00004995.

A depiction of the massacre among the marooned survivors of the Batavia. From Pelsaert’s published journal, 1647. ANMM Collection: 00004995.

A shipwreck turns to tragedy

Almost 400 years ago, in the hours before dawn on 4 June 1629, a flagship of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was wrecked upon Morning Reef near Beacon Island, some 60 kilometres off the Western Australian coast. It was the maiden voyage of the Batavia, bound for the Dutch East Indian colonies of modern-day Jakarta, but the tragedy of shipwreck would be overshadowed by the subsequent mutiny among the survivors on the isolated Houtman Abrolhos Islands.

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Blasting the Zeewijk Cannon, Conservation in action

Ok, so we didn’t blast the cannon in the conventional sense, but stabilising a 289yr old cannon was almost as satisfying!

In June 1727, a Dutch East India Trading Company ship, the Zeewijk, was headed for Batavia (Jakarta) when it wrecked off the coast of Western Australia. The survivors made it to Gun Island and were able to salvage chests of coins and other cargo but could not float the ship. In July 1727, a longboat with 11 survivors was sent for help, never to be heard from again.

The remaining survivors were able to use salvaged materials from the Zeewijk and local mangrove timbers to construct a new ship, the Sloepie. It was in the Sloepie that the remaining 88 crew members set sail, yet only 82, of the original 208 people, made it to Batavia. It is believed that the Sloepie represents the first European-style ship constructed in Australia and with Australian timber.

In 1840 those aboard the HMS Beagle discovered relics at the camp site, and further relics were discovered during guano mining in the 1880s and 1890s. Over the years, many more objects were found until the Western Australian Maritime Museum conducted a series of expeditions on the wreck site from 1976 .

One cannon from the Zeewijk wrecksite was treated by the Western Australian Maritime Museum using electrolysis, and was later allocated to the Australian National Maritime Museum.

The Zeewijk Cannon displaying active corrosion.

The Zeewijk Cannon displaying active corrosion.

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Object of the week: Batavia – Mutiny, madness and murder

Jan Hendrycks confesses that one day he had been called by Jeronimus into his tent and that he gave him to know that at night time he must help him with the murder of the Predikant’s family. At night, Zeevonk has called outside Wiebrecht Clausen, a young girl, whom Jan Hendrycks stabbed with a dagger, and inside, all people – the mother with her six children – had their heads battered in with axes…He said, certainly, I have a knife. So without any objection, Andreas has gone to Myken Soers who was heavily pregnant and threw her underfoot and cut her throat….
~Henrietta DrakeBrockman, Voyage to Disaster, 2006

These words, which appeared in The Disastrous Voyage of the Ship Batavia (1647), are believed to have been written by Commander Francis Pelsaert. The text details the tragic fate that befell the survivors of the wreck of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) cargo vessel, Batavia.

In 1628, Batavia departed Texel in Holland for Batavia, carrying a cargo of trade goods, chests of coins and around 332 crew, soldiers and passengers. Francis Pelsaert was in overall command. The captain was the embittered Ariaen Jacobsz who, during the voyage, plotted with a merchant, Jeronimus Cornelisz, to usurp Pelsaert’s command. Before this plan was realised, however, Batavia hit Morning Reef at the Houtman Abrolhos islands, off the Western Australian coast on 4 June 1629.

Approaching the Islands, 1647
ANMM Collection

The crew, passengers and a few supplies were ferried to nearby islands. Despite some loss of life, all the women and children reached land safely. Realising the dire situation, Pelsaert launched a reconnaissance voyage to the mainland in search of fresh water. After this failed, Pelsaert, Jacobsz and 46 crew and passengers sailed for Batavia in a long boat.

Cornelisz seized the moment and took command of the supplies, weapons and survivors on the island later christened Batavia’s Graveyard. It is estimated that over 200 people remained on the island; at least 100 were soldiers and sailors of the VOC and some 25 were youths and children. Cornelisz set his plan in motion. First he dispersed the survivors, ordering about 40 men, women and children to Seal’s Island and about 15 men to Traitor’s Island. Promising he would be back with more supplies, he sent a further 20 men to another island, West Wallabi.

The killings on Batavia’s Graveyard began in the early days of July. In the weeks that followed, Cornelisz and his men brutally raped and murdered around 125 men, women and children. Ghastly accounts have survived, of sick people having their throats cut while they slept and a little girl strangled while her parents dined with Cornelisz.

Wreck of the Batavia – Massacre, 1647
ANMM Collection

Meanwhile, on West Wallabi a leader, Wiebbe Hayes, emerged. Though they were unaware of the killings on Batavia’s Graveyard, a few survivors managed to escape Cornelisz and his gang to seek refuge on West Wallabi. Hayes prepared for a confrontation with Cornelisz by building a fort and making weapons out of the ship’s debris. Several battles ensued in which Hayes and his men emerged the victors and captured Cornelisz as a prisoner. In the meantime, Pelsaert arrived to learn of the events that had occurred on Batavia’s Graveyard and declared, ‘the pack of all disasters has moulded together and fallen on my neck.’

So began the trials and confessions of the murderers. Though Cornelisz adamantly denied all responsibility, he was tortured and confessed to his crimes. Cornelisz and the perpetrators had their hands cut off and were ‘punished with the cord at the gallows’ on Seal’s Island.

Beardman jug, excavated from the wrecksite of the Batavia, c 1629
ANMM Collection

The object of the week is a beardman jugon display in the museum, which was one of several thousand objects salvaged from the wreck of Batavia. The jug features a rose medallion on the body with a bearded man on the neck. This style stoneware, also known as a Bellarmine jug, emerged in Germany in the 16th and 17th centuries. This jug probably contained alcohol and is one of several items in the museum’s collection of coins, armour and musket balls retrieved from the wreck. Though an ornate drinking pitcher, it’s the stories behind this jug that convey the historical significance of the Batavia. The artefacts recovered are more than just remnants from past; they contain whispers of what transpired on that island of horrors – Batavia’s Graveyard.

Nicole Cama, curatorial assistant

Photography competition winners announced!

To celebrate the museum’s 20th anniversary on 29 November 2011, we launched a photographic competition inviting visitors to share their museum moments from the past 20 years.

We received some fantastic entries from visitors across Australia, including a number of photos from Endeavour‘s  current circumnavigation voyage. Below we feature the winning entries. Congratulations to Jacob, Sophie and Mitchell!

If you would like to view more of the entries, check out our Flickr page.

The winning photographs, along with a selection of other entries will feature in an upcoming issue of Australian Photography magazine and the next issue of Signals, the museum’s quarterly publication.

What’s your favourite photo? Tell us in the comments below or on Flickr, we’d love to know!

Winning entries

Overall best photograph and category winner of From your archives – photographs from 1991 – 1999

200 degree view of ANMM from Batavia by Jacob R NSW

Jacob R. (NSW) Taken: December 1999
200 Degrees Darling Harbour from Batavia’s Mainmast.

Category winner of New memories – Photographs from 2000 – 2012

Endeavour at full sail by Sophie M WA

Sophie M. (WA) Taken: 13 October 2011
This photo is of HMB Endeavour firing its canon in respect as it circled the Leeuwin on its ways into Fremantle Harbour.

Category winner of Kids only! – Photographs taken by children 16 years and younger

HMAS Vampire artillery by Mitchell K NSW

Mitchell K. (NSW) Taken: July 2011
A view of the artillery on HMAS Vampire.

Insights from a Registration Intern – Shipwrecks and artefacts


Tamara, Registration Intern

Over the past couple months I have assisted the registration department at the Australian National Maritime Museum as a student intern. The internship is a component of my master’s degree in museum studies from the University of Sydney.


Coin from the shipwreck Batavia

At the museum I am involved in the lengthy process of meticulously documenting and photographing new objects in the collection. The group of objects I am working with are from three Dutch shipwrecks off the coast of Western Australia – Batavia, Zeewijk and Vergulde Draeck. The ships sailed from the Netherlands to trade goods in faraway lands before their voyages were cut short, off the western coast of the Australia in 1629.

In the 1970s the objects were excavated from the shipwreck sites. Over 1500 of these objects are now part of the museum’s collection. They include silver coins, cannons, cannon balls, bottles, pipes and elephant tusks. From these objects we can learn more about the trading patterns from the period.

The remaining objects to be registered consist of hundreds of coins. Each coin will need to be carefully described, measured, weighed, photographed and given a museum number before it is ready to be packed for storage.

ANCODS Collection

Selection of objects from the ANCODS collection.

My work at the museum follows on from a number of other internship students who have diligently been working to register the collection. A selection of objects from this collection can currently be seen in the recent acquisitions showcase in the gallery.

Registration Intern

A musket barrel made of copper?

The Museum has several items from the 1629 wreck of the Batavia on display in the Navigators gallery. One is labelled as a musket barrel. However it is made of thin copper sheeting. Either the Dutch were very brave souls to fire such a thing, or there is more to this ‘musket barrel’ than meets the eye! 

The tragic story of the Batavia and the ensuing mutiny and violence is well known. The Dutch East India Company (VOC) cargo ship foundered on the Abrolhos Islands off the Western Australian coast whilst en route  from the Netherlands to the ship’s  namesake Dutch colonial city,  Batavia, (present day Jakarta, Indonesia).  

When the Batavia started breaking up, the crew and passengers were ferried to nearby islands in the ship’s boats, whilst food, water and provisions were salvaged.

Meanwhile a group of mutineers had formed under Jeronimus Cornelisz, who had been plotting to take the ship and turn to a life of piracy.

The top image depicts survivors on two islands with the Batavia in foreground. The bottom image shows an unsuccessful search for water in the Batavia's sloop. The engraving is from the book 'Ongeluckige Voyagie van't Schip Batavia, nae de Oost-Indien' published by Jan Jansz, Amsterdam, 1647. ANMM Collection.

When the Batavia‘s captain Francis Pelsaert set out to reach Batavia in the ship’s long boat, Cornelisz marooned 20 of the soldiers on a neighbouring island with the excuse of searching for a water source, took control of the remaining 268 survivors and all the weapons and then proceeded to murder anyone who he perceived as a threat to his command or a burden on supplies. Eventually, Cornelisz and his fellow mutineers killed 125 men, women and children.

Fortunately for the soldiers, under the leadership of Wiebbe Hayes, they had found a source of water on their island and they remained defiant against the mutineers. Hayes started making weapons out of debris from the Batavia and built a (still extant) stone fort. The soldiers held out against attacks from the mutineers until Pelsaert arrived in a rescue ship.

Pelsaert tried and executed the leading mutineers, including Cornelisz. Two were marooned on the Australian mainland.

The shipwreck of the Batavia was largely forgotten about – and mis-identified – until in 1963 it was ‘re-discovered’. The site was analysed by archaeologists and is now protected under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act. The wreck site contained a vast array of items, including cannon and other armaments.

The musket barrel from the Batavia is constructed of a copper sheet that has been joined and soldered. This copper tube is 81 cms long. With an opening of 2 inches, it is too wide for a musket ball, so if it was indeed used to fire lead shot, it would have been ‘grapeshot’ or several musket balls together.

There are 2 small brackets on the ‘seam’ of the barrel and it has been suggested these were for attaching it to a musket stock. The barrel also has a small hole at the closed end, right where a touch hole would be. At first glance it looks very much like a very large calibre matchlock musket barrel.

Note the oval shaped hole near the bottom end that has been suggested may have been for breech loading the 'musket'. There were traces of lead in the end near the 'touch hole'.

Copper sheeting is not strong enough to contain a gunpowder charge to eject shot. Yet copper barrels were indeed used in the 17th century. The Swedish Army during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) experimented with so-called ‘Leather Guns’, which were small, lightweight artillery pieces that used iron and sometimes copper, bound by wire or cord and then encased in leather. Although it was not by any means perfect, apparently this construction was strong enough to successfuly fire round shot. The Leather Gun was taken up by the Scots in the English Civil War.

There is also a surviving 17th century example of a copper barreled leather covered blunderbuss from Germany. The leather gun was cheap to produce and still effective at firing cannister or grapeshot at short range. It became too hot after several rounds, but still would have  served well as either a blunderbuss or a swivel gun where only a couple of rounds were designed to spread a large amount of lead shot.

Did the Batavia have such guns? Is this a type of  ‘leather gun’? If not, exactly what is it? 

Any suggestions on the matter of the mysterious copper barrel would be greatly appreciated!