Early Voyages to Terra Australis/The Houtman's Abrolhos in 1727

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The ten years which elapsed between 1720 and 1730 were a period replete with disaster to the East India Company, arising from the losses they experienced of ships and men, both on their passage out to India and on their return1. Among the number is the Zeeland ship Zeewyk, which, built in 1725, sailed from the roads of Rammekens to Batavia, under command of the skipper Jan Hijns, on the 7th of November, 1726. After peculiar mishaps the Zeewyk came to anchor on the 22nd of March, 1727, before the fort of Good Hope in Table Bay, and after taking in fresh provision there, pursued, on the 9th of June, her voyage on the 21st of April, 1727, when by the carelessness of the skipper, she was wrecked on the Houtmans Abrolhos.

By the instructions2 for the sailing in the autumn from the Netherlands to Java, amongst other things it is also enjoined: "The Cape of Good Hope being doubled, it is thought good that you sail in an E. Direction between 36° and 39° S. lat., until you have reached a point eight hundred miles E. of the Cape of Good Hope; that you then direct our course as much N. as E., in such a manner that, on reaching 30 S. lat., you should find yourself about 950 or 1000m. from the Cape of Good Hope.

1 Appendix V.
2 Given in the Assembly of the Seventeen, on the 7th December, 1619.

"These 950 or 1000 m. from the Cape being attained, it is advisable--wind and weather permitting--that you bear down upon the land Eendraght at 27° S. lat., or more to the N., so as to take thence such a course as will enable you to clear the Tryals Shoals1, lying about 20° S. lat., without danger, and to touch at the south coast of Java with ease, in order to have the weather-gage of the Straits of Sunda, and thus reach these straits without loss of time. It must be understood that this is about the time when the east monsoon blows south of the line, and that the said 900 or 1000 miles E. of the Cape may be reached between the beginning of March and the end of September. Observe, that the distance between the Cape and the land of Eendraght is, in reality, much shorter than the chart shows; and it may happen, by the aid of currents, that the route may be found even shorter than it really is, so that the land might be reached in much less time than we are led to expect. Remember, also, that the land of Eendraght has, south of 27° lat., many perilous sandbanks, and that the soundings are of sharp rocks. Consequently, extreme caution, and the constant use of the lead at night and in stormy weather, is indispensably necessary, as at seven, six, or five miles from the coast the soundings are found to be one hundred, eighty, or seventy fathoms."

To these "perilous sandbanks and soundings of sharp rocks" belong also the Frederick Houtman Abrolhos, which, according to Horsburgh2, lie at 29° 10' S. lat., and 113° 57' E. long., and upon which many a ship of the company will have perished; since, in addition to the Batavia in 1629, the Vergulde Draeck in 1656, the Ridderschap van Holland in 1693, and the Zuysdorp in 1711, two others occur in the list here subjoined as lost between the Cape of Good Hope and Batavia.

1 Appendix IV.
2 The western limit of these dangerous shoals, in long. 113° 20' E., and the south-easternmost patch called Turtle Dove, is in lat. 29° 10', long. 113° 57'. Horsburgh,, London, 1838.

The Englishmen who visited these sandbanks in 1840 found several remains of wrecked ships; thus writes Mr. Crawford Pako:1

"I will relate a few circumstances which were of great interest to us, as marking the position of ancient voyagers, who two hundred years before were similarly engaged to ourselves, and undergoing trial and probation such as we were then exposed to.

"Finding anchorage for our ship at the S.E. part of the southern group, near to a narrow strip of sand on the edge of the reef, which was scarcely large enough to be called an island, we found on it some remains of large timber, evidently a beam of a ship, through it an iron bolt of considerable dimensions; but corrosion had gone on so steadily so many years, that the slightest touch reduced it to the size of small wire. Near this were found various other fragments, which most probably had been part of the same vessel; but the most remarkable item was a copper coin of the East India N. Company, a doit bearing the date 1620 (I think), which was good evidence that these were some of the remains of commodore Pelsart, in the ship Batavia. So the anchorage which we occupied was named by us Batavia Roads, and that particular group Pelsart's Group. On another island at the west side of the same group we found many other relics of more recent date, among which another doit, which was dated 1700, which we concluded marked the position of the loss of the Zeewijk in 1720. On this island we found a large number of small glass bottles, about the size and form of a Dutch cheese, very orderly arranged in rows on the ground; a few very large glass bottles of similar form; some large brass buckles which had been gilded, and much of the gilt still existed. Numerous small clay pipes, which served to solace our crew with the help of tobacco, as doubtless they had done long ago for former owners. And one brass gun, about three pounds calibre, with a iron swivel, the iron, however, was diminished by corrosion to nearly nothing; it had a moveable chamber for loading it, which was fitted for a square hole, on the upper part of the gun near the breech. But what was most remarkable about it was that vermilion paint was still on the muzzle. The island on which this was found we called Gun Island, and the passage between the Pelsart Group and the middle one was called Zeewyk Channel."

1 Sic in original. The editor does not find this name in the English navy. There is, in all probability, a mistake in the transcript of the word given as Pako. The passage quoted is stated in a note to have occurred in a letter dated March 31st, 1853, addressed to Captain Wipff of the Dutch navy, then commanding the corvette Sumatra off Sydney.

I have had the good fortune to find among the papers of the late East India Company, what was written by the Government of Batavia about the loss of the ship Zeewijk to the directors at home, together with a map made by the skipper Jan Steyns, while on these shoals.

"To the Directors of the Assembly of the Seventeen, etc.

"On the 26th of April a letter1 unexpectedly came to hand by the patchialang De Veerman, from the late skipper and under-merchant of the Zeeland ship Zeewyk, Jan Steyns and Jan Nibbens, written from the Straits of Sunda, but without date communicating the fact that this vessel, after leaving the Cape of Good Hope on the 21st. of April, had been wrecked, on the 9th of June, on the reef lying before the islands Frederick Houtman's Abrolhos, situated near the Southland, in S. lat. 29°, and otherwise called the Tortelduyff's Islands. The crew had, in favourable weather, succeeded in recovering all kinds of necessaries from the wreck, and had constructed from the fragments of the ship a vessel, on which, setting out the 22nd of March, they arrived in the above straits on the 21st of April, numbering eighty-two souls, and bringing with them the moneys of the Company contained in ten chests to the value of Fl. 315,836:1:8. All this will more clearly appear from the subjoined copy of the letter (together with a list of the survivors, their names and rank on board before the wreck), to which we respectfully refer you, as also to an extract from the resolution passed on that day. From this will also be seen the care shown by us for the recovery of the money, in our despatching at once to the distressed vessel (which was suffering from want of fresh water) the advocat-fiscal of India, Mr. Jacob Graafland, with two commissioners from the Council of Justice, assisted by the secretary and usher of the court, provided with the necessary vessels, together with one sergeant, two corporals, and twelve privates, and there was also found a small slip,1 without signature, written by the skipper, in which he complains of the outrageous behaviour of the crew, so that we could not but conclude that some of the company's chests must have been broken open, and the contents stolen, as it very frequently happens under such unfortunate circumstances. Wherefore the above-mentioned commissioners were duly instructed to take means to prevent the concealment of the company's moneys. But the precaution proved unnecessary, as they arrived here happily on the 30th, to the great relief of the company's heavy losses of money, with the above-mentioned vessel and the ten money chests, which were found to be complete according to the invoice. In addition to this was also received a small bag, containing two hundred and seven pieces of Spanish reals, handed over by the Directors of the Chamber, Middelburg, in Zeeland, to the officers of this ship, for the purchase of fresh provisions, which also was saved. Moreover various sums in silver ducats, as specified in the memorial, a copy of which is subjoined, were found upon the crew. On that same day, namely, the 30th of April, the advocat-fiscal was instructed to report to the government as to whether an action could be brought by it against the pretended owners, who had fetched that money out of the wreck, the fact of their having it in their possession being in our opinion a violation of the law which forbids the export of coined money to private persons. His answer is to be found in a copy subjoined. But afterwards he was obliged, as a matter of official duty, to put the law in force, and an indictment was accordingly issued against the claimants before the Council of Justice, whose decision is still pending. We are nevertheless of the opinion that salvage ought to be allowed to the men who, at no inconsiderable danger to themselves, brought the money from the wreck. The journals kept on the voyage, as far as they were saved and brought over, were, in accordance with the resolution of the 30th of April, handed over to the Equipagemeester, Coenrad Mels, and a committee of skippers, under the presidence of the above-mentioned fiscal, as it appeared to us rather doubtful whether the ship had not been wrecked in an inexcusable manner. And, indeed, it was subsequently proved by the report of the committee, that the former skipper, Jan Steyns, had not only run too near the Southland, contrary to his orders, and in opposition to the protests of the steersmen, and thereby caused that disaster: but had also contemplated deceiving the government by altered and falsified journals, in order to hide as much as possible his indefensible conduct. Whereupon, on the 17th of August, it was determined to indict the said Jan Steyns before the Court of Justice, and he has since been placed under arrest.1

1 Appendix I and III.
1 Appendix II.
1 These papers have not been sent over.

"The position of the islands against the most outlying reef of which the Zeewyk was wrecked, is shown by the accompanying maps. They lie out of sight of the Southland, and are partly overgrown with some edible wild plants. On them were found not only some excavated wells, but also some signs of a Dutch ship, probably wrecked against the above-mentioned reef, which might have been the Fortuyn or Aagtekerke, whose crew may have died or perished at sea on their way hither. This also seems to have been the fate of the boat of the Zeewyk, which, under the command of the upper-steersman Pieter Langeweg, with eleven common sailors and the papers of the Company, had set out for this port shortly after the wreck of the ship, in order to give information of the mishap and to ask for assistance. Up to this time nothing has been heard of it.

"We cannot without painful feelings think of the heavy misfortunes, from which the Company has been a sufferer during the last nine or ten years, especially in the loss of many ships and treasures, which mishaps have to our great concern been considerably increased in number, not only by the disaster which befell the ship Luchtenberg, on the Wielingen, on the Zeeland Banks, shortly after leaving port, as communicated to us by the Directors of several Chambers, and particularly by the letter from Amsterdam of the 8th of January; but also by the misfortunes that befell the other ships that had sailed for this country in company with that ship on the 2nd of November, 1727, and were obliged to put into several harbours in a disabled state. Again, by the stranding on the 3rd of July, in Table Bay, of the ships Middenrack, Stabroeck, and Haarlem, of which the Middenrack was dashed to pieces and lost all hands, except the few who were on shore at the time, while the two others were driven so close on shore that all hope of safety was abandoned, but succeeded so far as to run their prow aground, whereby the crew and money were saved, and the remainder of the cargo was recovered from the ship undamaged by the sea water. The cargoes of these two stranded ships together with three boxes containing amber from the Middenrack, which was washed ashore, have already been brought over by the ships Meyenberg and Nieuwvliet, they having, through God's blessing, happily ridden through this awful storm from the N.W., not without extreme danger. The ship Hillegonde also lost its rudder and goodgings, and had to be helped into Saldanha Bay. Thus we shall not be able to make use of it here for some time to come, any more than, as we fear, of the ships Berkenrode and Heenhoven, which had not yet appeared at the Cape on the 18th of July. This is the more alarming, as the Heenhoven, on the 9th of February, in the north, at about 570 L., parted through stress of weather from the consorts Meyenberg and Haerbroeck, in whose company it had left Zeeland on the 24th of January. However we hope soon to welcome the arrival of the above-mentioned two ships, under the blessing of the Most High, who also is besought henceforth to ward off all disasters from the ships and the establishment of the company, and to make them prosperous in all things; so that the crew of the outward-bound ships may not be afflicted so severely by sickness and death, as has been the case of late with several ships, to such an extent, that it has been necessary to reinforce them one from the other at the Cape; whereby, since the departure of the ship Meerlust, in sixteen ships from Holland, only 1375 sailors, 575 soldiers, and 40 artisans, in all 1990 paid servants, including the sick, have come over."

Castle, Batavia, Oct. 30th, 1728

APPENDIX, NO. I.[edit]


We take the liberty of informing you, that, in sailing from the Cape of Good Hope to Batavia with the company's late ship Zeewyck, we were wrecked on a reef on the ninth of June, 1727, at seven o'clock in the evening, in the first watch.

The reef against which the vessel struck, is surrounded by a very high and heavy surf, and runs in the shape of a half moon. On the inner side lie many small islands, called Frederick Houtman's Ambrollossen (Abrolhos), which we gained on the eighteenth of June and upon which we remained from that day, until we had fetched from the wreck everything that seemed to us necessary for the preservation of our life, spars, ropes, timber and provisions. As soon as we had got these materials on shore, our carpenter at once set to work with his men, by order of the officers, and by the help of the common people, to build a vessel, so that we might save our lives, if it pleased Gad. We called it the Sloepie, that is, the little sloop, made up from the wreck of the Zeewyck. When it was ready for sea, we made sail with a south wind and fair weather on the twenty-sixth of March, having with us the money chests of the company, as well as provisions for the voyage. We continued to enjoy favourable weather throughout the voyage, and so arrived by God's blessing, on the twenty-first of April, 1728, in the Straits of Sunda, eighty-two souls, of whom, we herewith subjoin a list for the information of your nobility and council. We beg to wish you and the council from the bottom of our heart, every prosperity and happiness, and present respectfully our humble services.

Yours etc., (S.) JAN. STEYNS. JAN. NOBBENS.


My High Excellency, together with the Council of the Netherlandish India, I pray of you most urgently to send me help and assistance against these robbers of the money and the goods of the wreck Zeewyk, who have divided the money and goods among themselves. I am stark naked; they have taken everything from me. 0, my God! They have behaved like wild beasts to me, and everyone is master. Worse than beasts do they live; it is impossible that on board a pirate ship things can be worse than here, because everyone thinks that he is rich, from the highest to the lowest of my subordinates. They say among themselves, "Let us drink a glass to your health, ye old ducats!" I am ill and prostrate from scurvey.



Monday, April 26th, 1728.

At five o'clock this afternoon we received a letter by the patchialang De Veerman, very unexpectedly and fortunately, from the former skipper and under-merchant of the ship Zeewyk, bound for these parts, written in the Straits of Sunda, but undated, reporting the wreck of the ship on the reef lying before the Islands Frederick Houtman's Abrolhos, near the Southland, at 280 L., on the 9th of June of last year. The crew having afterwards fetched several necessaries from the wreck, made from the timber a sloop or vessel, on board of which eighty-two souls have reached these straits, together with the money taken out by the ship, consisting of three tuns, according to the double invoice received. But, besides that letter, there also came to hand a little card, unsigned, apparently in the handwriting of the skipper, in which he complains in unmistakable terms of the behaviour of the crew so that we cannot but suppose that the money chests have been broken open, in order that so splendid a booty might be divided. Therefore, on the motion of the Governor-General, it was resolved to send out at once to the assistance of the suffering vessel and crew, who were obliged, in default of fresh water, to put up with salt water for some time. Accordingly the brigantine De Hoop, and the sloop De Olyftack, and the patchialangs De Snip and the before named Veerman, being made ready by order of his excellency, the advocat-fiscal of India, Mr. Jacob Graafland, with two commissioners from the Council of Justice, assisted by the secretary and usher, together with one sergeant, two corporals, and twelve private soldiers, were dispatched, in order that the ready money might be secured without delay, as much of it, that is, as might still be found. Further, a thorough search was to be made after the remainder, both among the crew and in all the corners and nooks of the sloop, which has been put together by them.

This said sloop no other vessels shall be allowed to approach, with the sole exception of that on board of which the commissioners are; so that all possibility may be removed from any clandestine transfer of the stolen booty to another crew, and of the noble company's being thus injured by a complot of a gang of expert thieves. The guilty ones shall be seized and subjected to an exemplary punishment, as a warning to all other evil doers in similar lamentable and fatal occurrences.



The Trials. About two hundred years have elapsed since the instructions here mentioned were drawn up, and still these cliffs belong to the "doubtfuls." To what is this to be attributed? Do they in reality not exist at all? The Governor-General, Antonio Van Diemen, to whom the science of geography is so deeply indebted did not doubt their existence. He thus writes to the Governor of Mauritius, Adrian van der Hael, on the 2nd of September, 1643.

"The yacht Cleen Mauritius, has like the former ships bound for these parts, not seen anything of the Trials. This, however, proves nothing. Those who could discover those shoals (as they are usually called) in coming from your country, must be ordered to touch at the Southland at about 270 S.L., or Dirk Hartog's Reede; they must then sail as far north as 20°, when they would find themselves about fifty miles E. of the Trials. They then have to sail W., as there is no doubt that they lie in 20° S.L."

It may also not be unnecessary to quote in full the following statement, taken from the "Vertooninge van Eylanden, Custen, Havens, en Bayen a° 1757, door den E. Capiteyn D. van Schilde en Schipper P. Hoogendorp (H.S.)"

Extract from the journal of the skipper. Franchoys Buscop, on his voyage out in the ship t' Vaderland Getrouw, under date July 21st, 17071, about his falling in with the Trials.

In the morning, at seven o'clock, in the day watch, we saw the littie islands of the Trials' Shoals, at E. by E. well E., about five miles from us, being three in number, the most southerly of them running up to a sharp point and hanging over towards the S.E. being at its top a little rounder than the one in the middle, but lower than the north one, and a little more pointed. We also saw a high pointed cliff south of the islands.

Shortly afterwards we saw the surf breaking E.N.E.½ N. a short mile from us, and four from the island. We at once turned away towards the S.W., heaved the lead, and found fifty-seven fathoms water, with a bottom of fine sand and rocks.

1 On board of this ship, Mr. Jacob Roggeveen was a passenger, who, a few years later, became celebrated by his voyage round the world, and was afterwards made a Counsel of Justice at Batavia.

Shortly afterwards we encountered a storm with rain from the S.W. and S.S.W. by S. Turned again to the W., ran in that direction till noon, then put our course N.W.; heaved the lead and found sixty-five fathoms, bottom as before. Took the bearings of the pointed island, lying E.N.E., at five and a half to six miles distance from us, and found the longitude to be 124° 34'; I had calculated it at 123° 6', so that by the position of these islands we were 1° 28' more to the E. than we imagined. S.L. 20° 34'. I then corrected my reckonings. Afternoon wind S. and S.S.E., blowing at top-sail and top-gallant-sail breeze, with fog and drizzle. In the evening, again heaved the lead, but found no bottom. Shortened sail in order to heave the lead during the night. First watch, water of a pale tint. Heaved the lead several times, but no bottom found. Held on at N.W. to the beginning of the day-watch; steered N.; wind at night S.S.E. and S.E., top-sail and top-gallant-sail breeze.1

According to a letter in the Nautical Magazine of the year 1843, p. 392, the Trials were also seen by the Dutch ship Jacobus, captain Louwerens. It is worthy of remark, that this observer places them in the same longitude, whilst the latitude differs by about 1°.

The late veteran captain C. Brandligt has assured me that he saw them; but he could not find the journals by which he wished to prove the statement to me.

1 1 The Zeeland ship Vaderland Getrouw, sailed from Rammekens on the 6th of January, 1707, arrived on the 5th of May at the Cape, left Table Bay on the 31st of the same month, and came to anchor before Batavia on the 5th of August.--U. S. Nautical Magazine and Naval Journal, 1856, No. 4.

"Rocks and shoals in the ocean have been frequently seen and their true position given, but on further search could not be found. Now, scientific men may dream, but I am under a strong impression that they do exist; but, from some unknown causes, the ocean has its rise and fall, and they are seen at the lowest ebb only."