Back in the UK now, after a month long trip promoting my shipwreck books in Western Australia and taking part in the 400th anniversary celebrations of the landing of the Dutch mariner, Dirk Hartog, in Shark Bay, in October 2016.
My fascination with the 17th and 18th century Dutch shipwrecks began eight years ago when I visited the Shipwreck Galleries in Fremantle for the first time.
I was aware of the powerful Dutch East India Company (the VOC), its establishment of headquarters throughout Asian countries and, in particular, its hugely profitable trade in spices; but what I didn’t know was that, by 1617, its great ‘retourships’ were required to adopt the new Brouwer route, sailing South from the Cape in South Africa before turning West to pick up the ‘Roaring Forties’ winds and then North towards the East Indies, parallel with the coast of Western Australia or, as it was called at the time, ‘The Unknown Southland’.
As I stared at the great hull of the ship Batavia, at the replica stone blocks destined for the castle gate in Java and all the artifacts salvaged from the ship and read about the mutiny, the shipwreck, the massacre on the Abrolhos Islands, the eventual retribution and then the marooning of the two young mutineers, I was intrigued.
Why had I never heard of this appalling event in Australia’s history? What if those two young men, Pelgrom and Loos, had survived and integrated with the coastal aborigines? If they had, then they would have been the very first European settlers in Australia, nearly 150 years before Cook sailed into Botany Bay!
Since then, I’ve been on quite a journey. I have written two books about the early Dutch shipwrecks off the West Australian coast, ‘The Blue Eyed Aborigine’ and the new ‘Forgotten Footprints’, have visited the Abrolhos Islands where all the Batavia horrors occurred, toured schools in the Eastern States, flown over the Zuytdorp cliffs, travelled by boat parallel with Red Bluff, South of Kalbarri, from which so many early Dutch mariners took their bearings, given the Batavia lecture at the Maritime Museum and, most recently, had a wonderful trip from Yallingup up to Shark Bay, speaking to schools and other groups about my books and about the rich maritime history of the State.
And what a privilege it was to be part of the celebrations in Denham to mark the 400th anniversary of the landing of Dirk Hartog at Cape Inscription in October 1616, to attend the moving opening ceremony, watch the procession of cardboard boats, admire the costumes for the 17th century ball, crawl over the replica ship ‘Duyfken’ and travel across to Dirk Hartog Island and see the new commemorative plaques and the cleft in the rock into which the original post, plate attached, was rammed.
The day I left WA to return to the UK, I was able to fit in a visit to the newly opened exhibition at the Maritime Museum in Fremantle – ‘Travellers and Traders in the Indian Ocean’ and see the originals of both the Dirk Hartog plate and the Vlamingh plate and to learn that the very latest research will soon be available into whether Western European DNA found in some Aboriginal coastal tribes can be traced to pre-settlement days.
And yet, whenever I go into Australian schools and ask the question: ‘Who was the first European to set foot on Australian soil?’ nine times out of ten the answer is still ‘Captain Cook.’