30 July 2016

Busy Dutch explorers around 17th century Australia

The question my students had to answer was who was the first European to set food on Australian soil and when? Possibly it was Dutchman Willem Janszoon in 1605-6. But although Janszoon said he travelled along parts of Cape York Peninsula in 1606, there were two problems: a] he didn’t leave any record of the discovery and b] the land he said he saw was regarded as an extension of New Guinea.

So Dutchman Dirk Hartog (1580-1621) had to have been the first. Bap­ti­sed in the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, Dirk followed his father into the mariners’ world, married in 1611 and became a private merchant in the Baltic and Mediterranean seas. He only threw in his lot with the booming Dutch East India Company/VOC in 1615. At first Hartog had to lead short voyages to various European ports aboard the small trading vessel, the Dolphin.

The excitement mounted when he was appointed master of The Eendracht, a ship that was to travel on its maiden voyage from the Netherlands to the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. Carrying trunk loads of gold coins, Hartog sailed out the northern Dutch island of Texel in Jan 1616 with several other VOC ships. But the fleet became separated in a storm and was split up. Hartog arrived independently at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.

In took months before Hartog’s ship found their second surprise – in October that year they unex­pectedly came upon various islands in Shark Bay, which were found to be uninhabited. He made landfall at one of those islands, immediately called Dirk Hartog Island after him. Hartog thus became the European expedition to land on the west coast.

Captain Dirk Hartog

Hartog spent three days examining the coast and nearby islands, naming the area Eendrachtsland after his ship. Finding nothing of interest, he planned to leave, creating only the Hartog Plate as verific­ation of their discovery. On this plate, Hartog recorded details of his visit to the island, nailed it to an oak post and placed it upright in a cliff crevice (now called Cape Inscription). Translated from the Dutch, he wrote: “On 25 October 1616 here arrived the ship the Eendracht of Amsterdam, upper-merchant Gillis Miebais of Liege, skipper Dirck Hatichs of Amsterdam; the 27th October we set sail again for Bantam, the under-merchant Jan Stins, upper-steersman Pieter Dookes van Bill, 1616”. Thus today we know Shark Bay as the site of the first recorded European landing on Australian soil.

Hartog continued sailing northwards along the uncharted coastline of Western Australia, making nautical charts himself en route. Imagine the impact on 17th century cartography! The mythical continent known as Terra Australis Incognita could now be given a proper name, the Land of the Eendracht. [Later discoveries made the coastal charts more accurate, so the continent was later renamed Hollandia Nova by the Dutch, and Australia by the British].

Press to expand explorers' routes around Australia
Shark Bay and de Vlamingh's first landing site are marked in red,
as is Batavia.

Anyhow, Hartog sailed away from the Australian coast and continued across the Indian Ocean towards Batavia/Jakarta, utilising the strong westerly winds. The ship arrived in Dec 1616, late but in one piece. When the Eendracht reached Macassar, the local citizens were not pleased to see the Dutchmen and many of those poor sailors were killed in an altercation. Apparently it didn’t matter. Hartog visited other trading centres in the East Indies, deliv­ering chests of money and a healthy load of cargo that included beautiful silks. Fortunate­ly the rest of the crew finally returned back the Netherlands in safety in October 1618.

Dirk Hartog left the employ of the VOC upon his return to Amster­d­am in 1618, still sailing and trading, but now on private excursions in the Baltic Sea.

80 years later, in 1696, another Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh arrived in West Australian, including a stay in Dirk Hartog Island. Unbelievably he found the original plate that Hartog had left back in 1616! God certainly moves in mysterious ways! de Vlamingh replaced it with a new plate which reproduced Hartog's original inscription and added notes of his own. He took the Eendracht Plate to Batavia now Jakarta; from where it was taken into the VOC national archives. Its last, permanent home was the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam for all to see.

European ships starting arriving more often. In Aug 1699 the English Captain William Dampier anchored in Shark Bay and surveyed the northern end of Dirk Hartog Island. He spent nine days in the Shark Bay area before sailing north around North West Cape. In 1772 a French captain landed on Dirk Hartog Island in Shark Bay and claimed it in the name of the King of France. 

In 1801 Captain Hamelin on the Naturalist, a ship from a French expedition led by Nicholas Baudin, entered Shark Bay and a party was sent ashore. These explorers found the Vlamingh memorial of Dirk Hartog’s original plate! The Vlamingh Plate was gifted to the French Academy in Paris. Since the second plate tells of the early Dutch presence in the Indian Ocean, its trade with Java and the subsequent mapping of the Australian west coast and Tasmania, it was presented to Australia in May 1947 in perpetuity.

The original Hartog Plate, 1616
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


In 1966 and 1985 Hartog was memorialised on Australian postage stamps, both depicting his ship. But imagine the excitement when the Hartog and de Vlamingh's dishes were reunited in 1979, during Western Australia's centen­ary celebrations. And then again in 1988 during Australia’s first-fleet bicentenary celebrations.

In 2000, the Hartog Plate was again brought to Australia for an exhibition at the Nat­ional Maritime Museum in Sydney. These temporary exhibitions promoted the idea that the Hartog Plate, the oldest-known written object from Australia's European history, should be acquired for an Australian museum, but the Dutch authorities wisely said Nee, dank u wel.


Andrew said...

I have heard that the Portuguese visited even earlier but I can't remember the detail. The map is very useful.

Deb said...

How extremely random is the language we speak. Australians might have spoken Dutch from the beginning. My parents spoke Polish at work, we spoke Yiddish in the home and I learned English at school. That was enough.

bazza said...

Deb, above, made the point I had in mind. (But I never learned Yiddish although both my parents could speak it!). The map is fascinating and tells a good story of exploration.
Australians, like Americans, could have been speaking various other languages than English.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


It makes perfect sense *nod*. Having Portuguese colonies in Southeast Asia, in the century before Dirk Hartog, put them right in the area! It would not have been far fetched to think that as Portuguese Timor was not far from Australia, a good wind could have easily blown Portuguese ships off course and onto our coast line.

If only there were 16th century Portuguese maps and shipping records that mentioned the new continent.

Hels said...


It does seem a bit random. Of the old European colonies, Angola and Brasil etc speak Portuguese, Dutch is the official language of Suriname and one of the official languages of Curaçao etc, Spanish is the language of almost all of Central and South America, plus English etc.

Presumably it depended on which European country actually colonised the new lands, set up their trade routes and sent their convicts/administators/explorers/soldiers. Not which country's ship spent a month on a coastal strip of land.

I think Hungarian would have been the hardest to learn.

Hels said...


The New World was a mecca for people seeking safe haven for centuries. Many Dutch-speakers made their way to South Africa, and found it easy to integrate. But imagine the Spanish Missions making their way up the Californian coast from Mexico, not knowing a word of English. Or the expulsion of the French-speaking Acadians by the British i.e from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island etc. I think those people would have gone anywhere, as long as it was safe.

We are such a mix here - 25% of the Australian population was born overseas. But even that is a changing situation. From 1946-70, almost all the migrants spoke Italian, Greek, Dutch and Polish. More recently the non-Australian born citizens are more likely to speak Vietnamese, Hindi, Arabic etc

Train Man said...

Creating the Hartog Plate was an act of genius. Finding it later on was a miracle.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, There is much contention about the earliest European visitors to the Americas, but today these early explorers' stories are surrounded by dissension and dishonor, rather than by honor and admiration.

Hels said...

Train Man

When Hartog planned to leave Shark Bay, he must have understood the importance of leaving his mark somehow, somewhere. In order that the Hartog Plate could verify the Dutchmen's discovery, I love the idea of recording all details of his visit on a hard surface - crew names, dates, home port, ultimate destination etc.

Re the miracle, I totally agree with you. What was the chance of another Dutch explorer landing on the same remote Australian coast and the same remote coastal island 80 years later, AND finding one pewter dinner plate on a rotting post? The coast was so exposed that the wind, tides, dingos etc would normally have destroyed the plate in a heartbeat.

Hels said...


I imagine that capturing new lands to expand and protect the colonial empire was considered doing God's work. Dutch, French, English, Spanish, Portuguese etc money poured into exploration and colonisation, and must have just about bankrupted small European countries. But it was considered financially worthwhile in the long run. And honourable.

So when did the subjugated nations decide that they wanted to get rid of colonial invaders and retain/regain their own sovereignty? Against huge odds, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Brasil, South Africa, Indonesia, India, Philippines etc did throw off the colonial shackles. But what a longgggg struggle. The Decolonisation of Africa was worse; it was mid 20th century when colonised peoples successfully fought for independence; only then did colonial powers withdrew their ruling class from Africa and slink off homewards with dishonour.

Leon Sims said...

What can you tell us about the possibility of the Chinese reaching Australia

Hels said...


I have seen quite a number of references to Chinese explorers reaching our shores, hundreds of years before the Dutch and other Western Europeans got going. China's Admiral Zheng must have developed and paid for his fleet of very large, very sturdy junks. As well as plenty of sailors, the ships must have had scientists and astronomers.

Although the extant evidence is scanty, it was not beyond the realms of possibility that the first outsiders to land here were Chinese speakers. My only question is why, if the Chinese were first, why didn't they send later explorer- and merchant-ships to solve the problem of fixing Australia's coast in detail.

Mandy Southgate said...

I agree with your commenter Deb above - it is indeed strange that Australian's speak English - or fortuitous. The Dutch 'discovered' South Africa in 1652 and became the dominant language of whites until the 21st century (when Afrikaans was officuall named). It's interesting because French Hugenots had a huge influence on what would become the Afrikaans people but while they took their surnames, the language remained Dutch.

Hels said...


your South African example is an interesting one. In Australia it depended on Britain actually colonising the new lands, setting up their trade routes and sending their convicts-administators-explorers-soldiers. Even now 25% of Australian citizens were not born in Australia yet there is a clear expectation that whatever their language is at home, English is the only language at work and in shops.

But what happened if a second group of European colonisers arrived later. Was the second group submerged into the extant community and eventually disappeared as an independent community (like your Huguenots)? Did the second group concentrate in a specific geographic area _within_ the new land and maintain their own language, religion and history (like the Francophones in Canada)?

My messiest example, but the one that seemed to work the best, comes from Alsace. The border between France and Germany moved often; the good citizens of Alsace had to speak both languages fluently. So regardless of which government they live under, nothing much changes languagewise.

Victoria Laurie said...

1606 The Duyfken, skippered by Willem Jansz, was the first Dutch vessel known to reach Australia.

1616 Eendracht commander Dirk Hartog of the Dutch East India Company landed at Shark Bay.
A celebration will be held today near Shark Bay, to mark the day that forever links Dutch explorers and one of the earliest chapters in Australia's European discovery.

1629 Dutch East India Co ship Batavia was wrecked off the Houtman Abrolhos Islands off WA

1770 Captain James Cook and crew became the first Europeans to reach the EAST coast of Australia.

Victoria Laurie
The Australian
October 25, 2016

Hels said...


I would liked to have been at Cape Inscription today and I am very pleased both the Australian government and the Dutch representatives will be there. Thank you.