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 life of a lighthouse keeper

Goode Island lighthouse c.1909. Although officially unidentified, this family group is likely the Norgates as they were still the keepers on Goode Island until January 1910. Image: State Library of Queensland.

Goods Island lighthouse c 1909. Image: State Library of Queensland.

The life of a lighthouse keeper is often either romanticised or seen as a desolate life for those who prefer the solitary confines of the role, away from the social rigours of mainland life.

In reality, the life was a mixture of both and so much more. The ANMM has in its collection an extraordinary log book kept by the lighthouse keeper William Norgate from November 1893 to November 1929. The log is dilapidated and fragile but reveals a humble yet extraordinary life.

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A tale of love and adventure between two teakwood panels

The journal of the Loch Bredan

The teakwood cover of the journal of the Loch Bredan made by the ship’s carpenter from the panels of the ship’s charthouse door. The journal was written and illustrated by Chief Officer Robert Robertson Smythe, 1902.
ANMM Collection, photographs by Sabina Escobar, ANMM

The museum recently acquired the journal of the Liverpool barque Loch Bredan, by Chief Officer Robert Robertson Smythe. This wonderful logbook/journal was written and beautifully illustrated by Smythe during his 123-day voyage from Sydney to Liverpool via Cape Horn from the 25 July 1902 to 24 November 1902.

The Loch Bredan, built in 1882, was a steel-hulled barque of the ‘Loch’ ships of Liverpool owned by D&J Sproat & Co. She traded between England, Australia and New Zealand, arriving for the first time in Australia at Watsons Bay on November 1891 after a three-month journey from Antwerp, Belgium. In 1902, the Loch Bredan was forced to return to port within a fortnight of leaving Sydney on the return journey to Liverpool. During this trip, the ship ran into such severe weather that three life boats were smashed along with the charthouse’s doors.

She left Adelaide in September 1903 having picked up crew and cargo and disappeared with no scrap of wreckage ever found. Chief Officer Smythe was not on board, as he had signed off after arriving in Liverpool in November 1902. During this voyage, (the last one before its disappearance) the ship’s carpenter used the teakwood of these doors to make the covers for Smythe’s journal. These covers and the memories written on its pages are the only remaining pieces of the Loch Bredan today. Continue reading