Monday 5 August 2013

Forgotten Footprints by Rosemary Hayes


Red line marks the route of the Zuytdorp
When I lived in Australia I became hooked on the stories about the survivors of shipwrecks along the West Australian coast during the 17th and 18th century when trade from Europe with the East was at its height.  In The Blue Eyed Aborigine I wrote about the two mutineers deliberately marooned in 1629 – becoming the first European settlers - but there were many other later shipwrecks along that coast and I’ve recently been researching the disastrous voyage of the VOC ship Zurtdorp and trying to weave a story around what is known about it. Precious little, as it turns out, but what details I have been able to dig up (the newly minted coins on board, the mixture of nationalities, hints of skullduggery, several suicides,  a sky high death toll and evidence of survivors of the shipwreck) are enough to whet the appetite.

The shipwreck site itself is inaccessible except in a four wheel drive vehicle and then only with a special licence from various authorities* but last time I was in the area I was able to see something of the rough terrain and deep gorges leading away from the sea and get a feel for the incredibly hostile conditions that the survivors from the Zuytdorp would have faced.

*These photos were sent to me after a recent expedition to the site 

The platform of rock at the base of the wreck site

The wreck site of the Zuytdorp from the air

Why were these ships sailing up the coast of Western Australia so many years before Cook sailed into Botany Bay on the other side of the continent? How did the Dutch trade with the East begin?

During the third quarter of the sixteenth century Philip II of Spain was engaged in a bitter struggle with his subjects in the Netherlands. Thousands of them broke away from the Catholic Church of which he was a devoted champion and, although he suppressed Protestantism in the South, the provinces of Holland and Zealand, in the north, defied him.
The Dutch people at the time of the revolt did the largest sea-carrying trade in Europe and a considerable part of this consisted in fetching from Lisbon goods brought by the Portuguese from the East, then distributing them throughout the continent – a hugely profitable business.
Since Philip had failed to subjugate the Dutch, he decided to humble them by stifling their trade. In 1580 the throne of Portugal had fallen vacant, and the Spanish army forced the Portuguese to accept Philip as king.  In 1584 he closed  Lisbon to Dutch ships thus barring them from the port bringing all the goods from the East.
Undaunted, the Dutch people decided to create their own direct trade with the East and on April 2nd 1595, the first fleet, of four ships, left Holland for the East Indies. 
The strength and influence of the Dutch trade grew and in 1602, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was founded. By 1750 it employed around 25,000 people and was doing business in 10 Asian countries.

The Zuytdorp
The Zuytdorp  was one of the largest VOC ships. She had already made two successful trips to the East Indies and Asia when she left Holland in July 1711. She was accompanied by the Belvliet, a much smaller ship, also on her third voyage. On board the Zuytdorp were 286 people – 100 soldiers, four tradesmen and 182 others, mainly sailors and some cabin passengers including women and children.
Marinus Wyssvliet was the skipper of the Zuytdorp. He had not commanded a VOC ship before whereas Dirck Blaauw, skipper of the Belvliet, had previously commanded two vessels on voyages to Asia. It seems unusual that Blaauw was not appointed skipper of the Zuytdorp, the larger and more valuable ship. However, because of his seniority, he was appointed ‘skipper in command’ of the two ships on their voyage to the Cape of Good Hope.

As well as wine, beer, butter, meat, bacon, lead ingots, cloth, rope, sulphur, pitch, canvas, paper, muskets, leather, copper, salt, iron hoops and plates the Zuytdorp was also carrying a huge amount of newly minted coins to use in purchasing trade goods in Asia.

Initially, the weather was dreadful; rough seas and a lot of fog. The two ships were part of a fleet of 13 ships which included two supply vessels going out loaded with food and drink to meet and re victual an incoming fleet returning to Holland from the East. When news came that this incoming fleet had already arrived back in Holland, Wyssvliet and Blaauw requested that some of the additional food and drink from the supply ships be transferred to the Zuytdorp and the Belvliet. This was done, and charged to the VOC’s account.

There is something odd about this. They had only been at sea for three weeks, having left with supplies to last six months, and it has been suggested that the two skippers might have hoped to profit from the illicit sale of the surplus food after the ships reached Java. This was apparently not unusual.

There were also well founded rumours that ‘Wyssvliert ill treated his people and gave them all but nothing to eat.’ This may well have been a factor in the ill health on board (see below).

The ships made good progress until they reached the doldrums where they were effectively becalmed. By this time the death toll on board both ships was unusually high and many other crew members were very sick, so the decision was taken to sail East towards the African coast and put in at the island of SăoTomé in the Gulf of Guinea in search of fresh food and water.

Because of the windless conditions, it took weeks to reach Săo Tomé and, altogether, this diversion delayed the journey by about three months. After leaving Săo Tomé, the ships became separated and during the trip down to the Cape, the skipper of the Belvliet died and the chief surgeon of the Zuytdorp and both his mates committed suicide. The ships finally reached the Cape in March within a few days of one another having taken eight months to get there – double the normal time.

Of the 286 people originally on board, there were only 166 people still alive on the Zuytdorp when she reached the Cape. 8 were cabin passengers and 158 crew. Of these, 22 were listed as sick.

Having recruited replacement crew at the Cape and taken on fresh supplies (only when persuaded to - the skipper boasted that he needed very little to make the journey on to Java, the Zuytdorp left, this time in company with a different ship (the Kockenge) on 22nd April to sail to Java. These two ships were supposed to keep together but the Zuytdorp soon pulled ahead and disappeared from sight, never to be seen again.

Had the skippers of the Zuytdorp and the Belvliet survived, it is certain that they would have been taken to task when they reached Java for the diversion they made into the Gulf of Guinea. About two thirds of all fatalities during the voyage to the Cape of Good Hope happened in the three months spent in the Gulf of Guinea.

The Shipwreck
For centuries, nothing was known of the fate of the Zuytdorp but in 1958 it was established beyond doubt that it came to grief in the (Australian) winter of 1712, between the mouth of the Murchison River and Shark Bay, at the foot of the coastal cliffs that now bear its name.
Blow holes close to the wreck site
The Survivors
That there were survivors is undisputed though, of course, no one knows how long they survived or whether they integrated with the local Aborigines. The VOC archives in the Haag in Holland estimate that around 70 people survived the wreck. Other sources put the figure both much lower and much higher. On a beach South of the wreck site, there was evidence of a fire and on top of the cliffs there was also evidence of campsites. Artifacts found at these cliff top campsites included glass, pipes, barrel rungs and coins - and there were also Zuytdorp relics found at Aboriginal wells in the region North and inland from the wreck site. A Dutch tobacco box lid and buttons were found at Wale Well where a large group of Aboriginal people lived long before white settlement.

In 1834, not long after white settlement, Aboriginal men from ‘Waylo’ (the Wale Well area) told stories of white men coming from the sea who gave food in exchange for spears and shields. They also described ‘houses’ – two large and three small – situated on the open coast and made of wood and canvas and of ‘tall white men with women and children’. But the most distinctive feature of the wreck site, repeated many times by the informants, was of a great deal of ‘white money’ (silver coins) scattered along the shore and on the platform of rock in front of the wreck.

Silver coins from the wreck of the Zuytdorp

These stories had been passed down from generation to generation and from tribe to tribe. The sudden appearance of this shipwreck and of the white people who scrambled ashore must have had a huge impact on the Aboriginal people of the area. A story of this major event would certainly have been handed on during the 122 years from 1712 to 1834.

The Aborigines in the area would also have known about the two mutineers from the Batavia (Looes and Pelgrom) who were marooned not far away, near the mouth of the Murchison River, some 80 years earlier, and their reaction to the Zuytdorp survivors (friendly or otherwise) may have been influenced by the behaviour of these two white men.

Finally, early explorers to the area, shortly after European settlement, reported sightings of fair haired Aborigines with ‘distinctly Dutch features’.

It is very likely that some Dutch sailors and soldiers – and even passengers - from the Zuytdorp survived and integrated with the local tribes and there is ongoing DNA research to establish a pre-settlement genetic link between the coastal tribes and Western Europeans.

This is the background to a YA story I am writing, centering around Annie Jansz and her family, travelling as ‘cabin guests’ on board the Zuytdorp. Annie’s feckless father is hoping to restore his family’s fortunes by taking up a job in the East but after only a few weeks at sea, any glamour attached to the voyage has long since vanished and only Annie and her father retain any sense of adventure. Their maid, May, gloomy by nature, thinks the whole venture doomed and Annie’s mother is in despair about what horrors lie ahead of them.  Other characters include an arrogant young Norwegian midshipman, a half starved ship’s boy and a desperately overworked ship’s surgeon.  The working title is FORGOTTEN FOOTPRINTS.

Pale feet that passed this way unnoticed.
Footprints of ghosts whose imprint was so light
That they merged with the land.

Rosemary Hayes


Susan Price said...

Rosemary, I was completed rivetted by this - as I remember being by your account of your WIP at the SAS Conference. Good luck with it - it will be marvellous!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Rosemary this is all fascinating and your research is marvellous. I promised to send you this article on early Arab dhows visiting Australia from Kilwa in Africa. Here it is. See below. You'll probably have to cut and paste. I wrote about the Arab dhow trade and Kilwa in my book "The Waterbearer". Thanks for a fascinating account.

Annis said...

Fascinating stuff! I've been intrigued by the astonishing story of the "Batavia" shipwreck ever since I read Mike Dash's book some years ago - talk about truth being stranger than fiction! - but hadn't come across the "Zuytdorp" before. I look forward to reading your book :)

Joan Lennon said...

It's going to be a great story - thanks for posting!