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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