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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Reflections on a piece of pewter: The Hartog plate

Dirk Hartog plate, 1600–1616

Dirk Hartog plate, 1600–1616. Tin alloy (metal), 36.5 cm (diameter). Reproduced courtesy Rijksmuseum

This week a very special piece of pewter is coming to the museum … the Hartog plate, on loan from the Rijksmuseum to mark 400 years since Dutch mariner Dirk Hartog made the first recorded European landing on the west coast of Australia in October 1616. As a testimony of his visit, Hartog left behind an inscribed pewter plate that is recognised as the oldest European artefact found on Australian soil.

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Illuminating Dirk Hartog

Dirk Hartog's plate envelops the ANMM rooftop in A chance encounter roof projection, 2016. Photographer Andrew Frolows/ANMM

Dirk Hartog’s plate envelops the museum’s rooftop in ‘A chance encounter’ roof projection, 2016. Photographer Andrew Frolows/ANMM.

Last Thursday night saw the launch of the museum’s latest roof projection, A chance encounter, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Dutch mariner Dirk Hartog’s landing on the west coast of Australia in the VOC ship Eendracht. To mark his landfall on 25 October 1616, Hartog left behind an inscribed pewter plate in Shark Bay, Western Australia, which provides tangible evidence of one of the earliest European encounters with Australia.

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Commemorating Dirk Hartog’s chance encounter

Dirk Hartog plate, 1616. Tin (metal), 36.5 cm (diameter). Reproduced courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Dirk Hartog plate, 1616. Tin (metal), 36.5 cm (diameter). Reproduced courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Four hundred years ago, Dutch mariner Dirk Hartog (1580–1621) sailed into history when, on 25 October 1616, he made the first documented European landing on the west coast of Australia in the Dutch East India Company (VOC) ship Eendracht (‘Concord’ or ‘Unity’). Today his name is synonymous with the inscribed ‘Hartog plate’ that marked his landfall at Cape Inscription on Dirk Hartog Island in Shark Bay, Western Australia. This evocative pewter relic, now held in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, provides tangible evidence of one of the earliest European encounters with the mysterious Terra Australis Incognita – the unknown southern land.
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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