Essays on Early Ornithology and Kindred Subjects/Australian Birds in 1697

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IN 1696 the Honourable Directors of the Dutch Chartered Company trading to the Dutch East Indies decided to send an expedition for the purpose of searching for missing vessels, especially for the Ridderschap van Hollandt, of which no news had been received for two years. The local Board of Directors of the Amsterdam Chamber of the Company was charged to carry out this resolution, and it equipped three vessels which were placed under the command of Willem de Vlaming. The Commander was directed to search for missing vessels or for shipwrecked sailors at the Tristan da Cunha Islands, the Cape of Good Hope, and the Islands of Amsterdam and St. Paul in the Southern Ocean. Thence he was to proceed to the 'Onbekende Zuidland,' by which name, or by that of Eendragts Land, Australia was designated in whole or in part in the official dispatches of the Dutch East India Company in the seventeenth century.

On the 29th of December, 1696, the vessels under the command of De Vlaming lay at anchor between Rottnest Island and the mainland of Australia. The island was searched for wreckage with little result. One piece of timber was found which, it was conjectured, might have been deck timber, and a plank was found, three feet long and one span broad. The nails in the wreckage were very rusty. The search for shipwrecked sailors on the adjacent mainland was unsuccessful. On the 20th and on the 31st of December, and on the 1st of January, 1697, De Vlaming notes in his journal that odoriferous wood was found on the mainland. Portions of it were subsequently submitted to the Council of the Dutch East Indies at Batavia, and from these portions an essential oil was obtained by distillation. It may well be supposed that this experiment was the first in the manufacture of eucalyptus oil, which, however, in our day is obtained not from the wood but from the leaves of the tree. On the 13th of January De Vlaming records that a dark resinous gum resembling lac was seen exuding from trees.

In a narrative of the voyage published under the title Journaal wegens een Voyagie na het onbekende Zuid-land, we read that on the 11th of January nine or ten Black Swans were seen. In a letter from Willem van Oudhoorn, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, to the Managers of the East India Company at the Amsterdam Chamber, it is stated that three black swans were brought alive to Batavia, but died soon after their arrival.[1]

Several boat expeditions were made, and Swan River was entered and ascended. During these expeditions the author of the Journaal mentions that the song of the 'Nachtegael' was heard. There are no nightingales in Australia, but the bird to which the writer of the Journaal alludes may have been the Long-billed Reed Warbler, the Australian representative of the Sedge Warbler and a denizen of the reed-beds of the Swan River. Two species of geese are also mentioned by the same writer under the names of European geese. It is somewhat difficult to determine to which geese the author of the Journaal alludes under the names 'Kropgans' and 'Rotgans.'

When English-speaking Dutch are asked to translate 'kropgans,' they do so by 'Christmas goose' or 'fat goose.' Dictionaries are silent respecting 'kropgans,' or render it by 'pelican.' I am inclined to think that this rendering arises from a confusion between 'kropgans' and the German word 'kropfgans,' and that 'kropgans' was formerly applied to domestic geese in general which were being fed for the market, and also, as in the present instance, to the wild goose from which they were derived, namely to the Grey Lag Goose (Anser ferus). If this be so, the Australian bird with which the kropgans is compared in the Journaal may be the Cape Barren Goose (Cereopsis novæ-hollandiæ) which is found sparingly in Western Australia. The 'Rotgans' is the Brent Goose (Branta bernicla) and the Australian bird which most resembles it is the Musk Duck (Biziura lobata), which also is found in the west of Australia, although more sparingly there than in the south of the island continent.

Other birds which were seen at the same part of the Australian coast were 'Duikers,' by which name Cormorants are probably designated, Cockatoos and Parrakeets. It is said that all the birds were shy and flew away at the approach of human beings. No aborigines were seen, although smoke was visible.

On the 15th of January De Vlaming quitted the anchorage near Rottnest Island, and followed the coast until 30° 17' S. lat. was reached. Two boats were there sent to the shore and soundings were taken. The country near the landing-place was sandy and treeless, and neither human beings nor fresh water were to be seen. But footmarks resembling those of a dog were seen, and also a bird which the Journaal calls a 'Kasuaris' and which must have been one of the Emus.[2]

On the 30th of January, 26° 8' S. lat. was observed, which is approximately that of False Entrance. On the 1st of February the pilot of the Geelvink left the ships in one of the Geelvink's boats in order to ascertain the position of Dirk Hartog's Anchorage, and the captains of two of the vessels made an excursion for a distance of six or seven miles inland. They returned to the ships on the following day, bringing with them the head of a large bird, and they imparted the information that they had seen two huge nests built of branches.[3]

The pilot of the Geelvink returned to the ship on the 3rd of February, and reported that he had passed through a channel—probably that which is now known as South Passage—and had followed the coast of Dirk Hartog's Island until he reached the northern extremity of the island. There, upon an acclivity, a tin plate was found on the ground. Certain words scratched upon the metal indicated that the ship Eendragt, of Amsterdam, of which Dirk Hartog was master, had anchored off the island on the 25th of October, 1616, and had departed for Bantam on the 27th day of the same month. The pilot brought the metal plate—a flattened tin dish—with him, and also two turtles which had been caught on the island. The squadron anchored in Dirk Hartog's Reede on the 4th of February, and remained there until the 12th day of that month.

The anonymous author of the Journaal relates that on the 6th of February many turtles were seen, and also a very large nest at the corner of a rock; the nest resembled that of a stork, but was probably that of an osprey, which places its nest on a rock—often on a rock surrounded by water.

De Vlaming quitted the Australian coast at 21° S. lat., and proceeded to Batavia, where he arrived on the 20th of March, 1697.

  1. Heeres, The Part borne by the Dutch in the Discovery of Australia, p. 84.
  2. No Cassowary is known to inhabit western Australia.
  3. Wedge-tailed Eagles and also Ospreys build nests of sticks.