Abrolhos Islands History

Abrolhos Islands History

Shipwrecks
The Dutch East India Company's vessels, Batavia and Zeewijk, are probably the best known of the Abrolhos wrecks. The Batavia hit Morning Reef, near Beacon Island in the Wallabi Group, in 1629 while the Zeewijk was wrecked on Half-Moon Reef in the Pelsaert Group in 1727. Other wrecks include the Ocean Queen, wrecked on the Half Moon Reef in 1842; the Ben Ledi, wrecked off Pelsaert Island in 1879; and the Windsor, wrecked on the Half Moon Reef in 1908.

Fiftteen other historic wrecks have been discovered in Abrolhos waters. The majority of cultural references to the Abrolhos Islands relate to the islands' shipwrecks, particularly the Batavia. The events surrounding the loss of the Batavia is one of the most celebrated episodes in Australian popular history. The story has spawned a massive body of literature, fiction and non-fiction, as well as numerous works in other media. Other shipwrecks, notably the Zeewijk, have also become the subject of books and other works.

Wreck of the Batavia

With tales of murderous mutiny, the Batavia Shipwreck off the coast of Geraldton is one of Western Australia’s best known historic dive sites. Batavia was a ship of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). It was built in Amsterdam in 1628, and armed with 24 cast-iron cannons. On 28 October 1628 the Dutch Merchant Ship, Batavia, set off from Texel in the Netherlands loaded with gold, silver and jewels for the Dutch East Indies, to obtain spices. It sailed under commandeer and senior merchant Francisco Pelsaert, with Ariaen Jacobsz serving as skipper. The junior merchant on board was Jeronimus Cornelisz, a bankrupt pharmacist from Haarlem who was fleeing the Netherlands, in fear of arrest because of his heretical beliefs associated with the painter Johannes van der Beek, also known as Torrentius.

Also on board were 322 passengers bound for a new life in the East Indies. Her destination on this, her maiden voyage, was Java. However, blown severely off course, and with a Commander reluctant to admit he was lost, the ship ran aground off the Western coast of Australia. During the voyage, Jacobsz and Cornelisz conceived a plan to take the ship, which would allow them to start a new life somewhere, using the huge supply of trade gold and silver then on board. After leaving Cape Town, where they had stopped for supplies, Jacobsz deliberately steered the ship off course, away from the rest of the fleet. Jacobsz and Cornelisz had already gathered a small group of men around them and arranged an incident from which the mutiny was to ensue. This meant molesting a high-ranking young female passenger, Lucretia Jans, in order to provoke Pelsaert into disciplining the crew. They hoped to paint his discipline as unfair and recruit more members out of sympathy. However, the woman was able to identify her attackers. The rebels were then forced to wait until Pelsaert made arrests, but he never acted.

On 4 June 1629 the ship struck a reef near part of the Abrolhos Islands. Of the 322 aboard, most of the passengers and crew managed to get ashore, although 40 people drowned. The survivors, including all the women and children, were then transferred to nearby islands in the ship's longboat and yawl. An initial survey of the islands found no fresh water and only limited food (sea lions and birds). Pelsaert realized the dire situation and decided to search for water on the mainland.

A group comprising Captain Jacobsz, Francisco Pelsaert, senior officers, a few crewmembers, and some passengers left the wreck site in a 30-foot (9.1 m) longboat (a replica of which has also been made), in search of drinking water. After an unsuccessful search for water on the mainland, they abandoned the other survivors and headed north in a danger-fraught voyage to the city of Batavia, now known as Jakarta. This journey, which ranks as one of the greatest feats of navigation in open boats, took 33 days and, extraordinarily, all aboard survived.

After their arrival in Batavia, the boatswain, a man named Jan Evertsz, was arrested and executed for negligence and "outrageous behavior" before the loss of the ship (he was suspected to have been involved). Jacobsz was also arrested for negligence, although his position in the potential mutiny was not guessed by Pelsaert. Batavia's Governor General, Jan Coen, immediately gave Pelsaert command of the Sardam to rescue the other survivors, as well as to attempt to salvage riches from the Batavia's wreck. He arrived at the islands two months after leaving Batavia, only to discover that a bloody mutiny had taken place amongst the survivors, reducing their numbers by at least a hundred.

Jeronimus Cornelisz, who had been left in charge of the survivors, was well aware that if that party ever reached the port of Batavia, Pelsaert would report the impending mutiny, and his position in the planned mutiny might become apparent. Therefore, he made plans to hijack any rescue ship that might return and use the vessel to seek another safe haven. Cornelisz even made far-fetched plans to start a new kingdom, using the gold and silver from the wrecked Batavia. However, to carry out this plan, he first needed to eliminate possible opponents.

Cornelisz's first deliberate act was to have all weapons and food supplies commandeered and placed under his control. He then moved a group of soldiers, led by Wiebbe Hayes, to nearby West Wallabi Island, under the false pretense of searching for water. They were told to light signal fires when they found water and they would then be rescued. Convinced that they would be unsuccessful, he then left them there to die. Cornelisz then had complete control. The remaining survivors would face two months of unrelenting butchery and savagery.

With a dedicated band of murderous young men, Cornelisz began to systematically kill anyone he believed would be a problem to his reign of terror, or a burden on their limited resources. The mutineers became intoxicated with killing, and no one could stop them. They needed only the smallest of excuses to drown, bash, strangle or stab to death any of their victims, including women and children. Cornelisz never committed any of the murders himself, although he tried and failed to strangle a baby. Instead, he used his powers of persuasion to coerce others into doing it for him, firstly under the pretense that the victim had committed a crime such as theft. Eventually, the mutineers began to kill for pleasure, or simply because they were bored. He planned to reduce the island's population to around 45 so that their supplies would last as long as possible. Between them, his followers murdered at least 110 men, women, and children.

Although Cornelisz had left the soldiers, led by Wiebbe Hayes, to die, they had in fact found good sources of water and food on their islands. Initially, they did not know of the barbarity taking place on the other islands and still sent pre-arranged smoke signals announcing their finds. However, they soon learned of the massacres from survivors fleeing Cornelisz' island. The soldiers put together makeshift weapons from materials washed up from the wreck. They also set a watch so that they were ready for the mutineers, and built a small fort out of limestone and coral blocks.

Cornelisz seized on the news of water on the other island as his own supply was dwindling and the continued survival of the soldiers threatened his own success. He went with his men to try and defeat the soldiers marooned on West Wallabi Island. However, the trained soldiers were by now much better fed than the mutineers and easily defeated them in several battles, eventually taking Cornelisz hostage. The mutineers who escaped regrouped under a man named Wouter Loos and tried again, this time employing muskets to besiege Hayes' fort and almost defeated the soldiers. But Wiebbe Hayes' men prevailed again just as Pelsaert arrived. A race to the rescue ship ensued between Cornelisz's men and the soldiers. Wiebbe Hayes reached the ship first and was able to present his side of the story to Pelsaert. After a short battle, the combined force captured all of the mutineers.

Pelsaert decided to conduct a trial on the islands, because the Saardam on the return voyage to Batavia would have been overcrowded with survivors and prisoners. After a brief trial, the worst offenders were taken to Seals' Island and executed. Cornelisz and several of the major mutineers had both hands chopped off before being hanged. Wouter Loos and a cabin boy, considered only minor offenders, were marooned on mainland Australia, never to be heard of again. Reports of unusually light-skinned Aborigines in the area by later British settlers have been suggested as evidence that the two men might have been adopted into a local Aboriginal clan. However, numerous other European shipwreck survivors, such as those from the wreck of the Zuytdorp in the same region in 1712, may also have had such contact with indigenous inhabitants.

The remaining mutineers were taken to Batavia for trial. Five were hanged, while several others were flogged. Cornelius’s second in command, Jacopo Pietersz, was broken on the wheel, the most severe punishment available at the time.Captain Jacobsz, despite being tortured, did not confess to his part in planning the mutiny and escaped execution due to lack of evidence. What finally became of him is unknown. It is suspected that he died in prison in Batavia.

A board of inquiry decided that Pelsaert had exercised a lack of authority and was therefore partly responsible for what had happened. His financial assets were seized and he died a broken man within a year.
On the other hand, the common soldier Wiebbe Hayes was hailed a hero. The VOC promoted him to sergeant, and later to lieutenant, which increased his salary fivefold. Of the original 341 people on board Batavia, only 68 made it to the port of Batavia.

In 1970, the Batavia wreck and many artifacts were salvaged, including the stern of the ship. In 1972 the Netherlands transferred all rights to Dutch shipwrecks on the Australian coasts to Australia. Some of the items, including human remains, which were excavated, are now on display in the Western Australian Museum - Shipwreck Galleries in Fremantle, Australia. Others are held by the Western Australian Museum - Geraldton. These two museums presently share the remains: a replica stone arch is held in The Western Australian Museum - Shipwreck Galleries, which was intended to serve as a stone welcome arch for the city of Batavia and the actual stone arch is held in the Western Australian Museum - Geraldton; the original timber is held at the Western Australian Museum - Shipwreck Galleries, and a replica is found at Geraldton.

The ship lies in four to six meters of clear Indian Ocean making it an excellent dive spot for people of all diving abilities.You’ll see the outline of the hull which is still fully equipped with cannons and anchors in a stark reminder of the gruesome tale which has now become part of Australian maritime folklore.

Wreck of the Zeewijk

The Zeewijk was the last of the four Dutch East Indiamen to be wrecked on the west coast of Australia. The Ship's Council having made the inexplicable decision to disregard sailing orders and actually seek out the west coast of Australia, the ship ran onto the Half Moon Reef at about 7:30pm on 9 June 1727. It did not break up immediately, and the heavy swell made evacuation impossible until 18 June. The longboat was launched on that day, and the crew and stores were thereafter gradually transferred to nearby Gun Island. Later, the men landed ten chests of money, containing 315,836 guilders and weighing a total of three tons.

The crew of the Zeewijk would be marooned in the Pelsaert Group for ten months, during which time they lived off seals, seabirds, eggs, and victuals salvaged from the wreck. They obtained some water from rainfall, but were forced to explore throughout the group in search of further supplies. A great many men died on the islands, including two boys who were accused of sodomy and marooned on separate islands of the Mangrove Group.

On 10 July the longboat, fitted for a voyage and crewed with eleven men, was sent to Batavia to obtain help. It never arrived there, and nothing is known of its fate. Four months later the castaways began building a 60-foot (18 m) boat, sufficient to carry all the men and the money chests. Completed in March 1728 and affectionately named the Sloepie ("little sloop"), it was the first ocean-going vessel built in Australian history. On 26 March 1728, the surviving men set sail for Batavia, arriving in Sunda Strait late the following month.

The Western Australian Museum in Geraldton is recommended as the first port of call for visitors to the Abrolhos. The museum's exhibits explain the natural diversity of the islands. Fishing history is also on display. Stories of tragedy and survival are told, and fascinating artifacts from the Batavia and Zeewijk wrecks are featured in the Shipwrecks Gallery. A dive tour to the site tells the fascinating history of this Dutch ship which was wrecked on Morning Reef in the Abrolhos Islands in 1629. You can arrange a tour to dive the wreck and explore the underwater world at the Geraldton Visitor Centre.

Geological history

The islands of the Abrolhos are geologically diverse, with North Island, the Wallabis', Rat Island and Gun Island being classified as “mainland remnant” type islands made up of limestone, siltstone, and marls of continental origin that have been isolated by rising sea levels over the last 8,000-10,000 years. In contrast, the newly created adjacent islands, such as Long, Suomi and Pelsaert, consist of coral rubble of more recent origin.

On East Wallabi, a track leads to the beaches of Turtle Bay and Fish Point, where coral lumps are within swimming distance of the shore.
In the Easter Group, Wooded, Morley and Leo islands offer beautiful lagoons and sandy beaches. The Lesser Noddy breeds in the mangrove areas of these islands, though access to the mangroves is not recommended because of possible damage to the environment or disruption to the breeding birds.The Pelsaert Group has a rich maritime history, as well as abundant bird life. On Gun Island, survivors of the wreck of the Zeewijk in 1727 made camp and built a boat in which to escape the deserted island. The relics of guano mining operations can be seen on the southern end of Pelsaert Island

According to the surviving historical record, the first sighting of the Abrolhos Islands was by the Dutch VOC ships Dordrecht and Amsterdam in 1619, only three years after Dirk Hartog made the first authenticated sighting of what is now Western Australia, and only 13 years after the first authenticated voyage to Australia, that of the Duyfken in 1606. Discovery of the islands was credited to Frederick de Houtman, Captain-General of the Dordrecht, as it was Houtman who later wrote of the discovery in a letter to the directors of the Dutch East India Company:

"On the 29th do. Deeming ourselves to be in an open sea, we shaped our course north-by-east. At noon we were in 29° 32' S. Lat.; at night about three hours before daybreak, we again unexpectedly came upon a low-lying coast, a level, broken country with reefs all round it. We saw no high land or mainland, so that this shoal is to be carefully avoided as very dangerous to ships that wish to touch at this coast. It is fully ten miles in length, lying in 28° 46."

The Abrolhos islands are named by Dutch Commander Frederik de Houtman, who came across several of the low-lying, coral-reef fringed islands in June 1619. The word Abrolhos is thought to be derived from the Portuguese expression Abre os olhos, meaning “keep your eyes open” The word Abrolhos is of Portuguese origin, making the Abrolhos Islands one of only two Australian places with a Portuguese name. The term is commonly reported to be a contraction of the Portuguese expression abro olhos ("open the eyes") or abri vossos olhos ("keep your eyes open"), but this has been shown to be a false etymology. In the Portuguese language of the time, abrolhos meant "spiked obstructions", and served not only as a word for offshore reefs, but also as their word for caltrops and chevaux de frise. To Spanish ears, however, the word sounded like abre ojos ("open your eyes"), so they imputed this meaning, and this false etymology was later borrowed by English, Dutch and French writers.

Petroleum exploration wells were drilled in Abrolhos waters in the 1960s and 1970s, but were capped and abandoned. The Abrolhos was amongst the areas released for further exploration in 2002.


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