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.
The problem of longitude – how to determine your location in an east-west direction at sea – plagued sea travel for centuries. The lack of reliable methods to determine it led to dangerous, long and costly voyages. The loss of cargo, ships and lives was high and demanded an immediate solution.
Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude commemorates the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act of 1714. The Act lead to the greatest scientific breakthrough in maritime history: the ability to determine a ship’s position at sea. This discovery brought together two solutions to calculate longitude: developing accurate timekeepers for seafaring and tracking the movement of celestial bodies.
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.
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.