Half Moon Reef

Half Moon Reef skirts the western side of the Pelsaert Group, the southernmost reefs and islands of the Houtman Abrolhos Islands, off the coast of Western Australia. The Abrolhos lie about 60 km west of Geraldton, and consist of 122 islands clustered into three main groups: the Wallabi Group, Easter Group and Pelsaert Group, which extend from north to south across 100km of ocean. Lying in the stream of WA's warm, southward-flowing Leeuwin Current the marine environment surrounding the Abrolhos is a meeting place for tropical and temperate sealife.

It was here that, in 1727, one of the most remarkable sagas in the annals of maritime history occurred. At about 7.30 in the evening of 9th June the Dutch East India Company ship Zeewijk, with a crew of 212, ran violently onto Half Moon Reef, which skirts the western side of the Pelsaert Group, the southernmost reefs and islands of the Houtman Abrolhos off the coast of Western Australia. Using the ship's longboat, Captain Jan Steijns ferried 96 survivors to nearby Gun Island. However, 30 people chose to remain on the wreck that somehow was able to hold together on the reef. They remained there for nearly five months. On these islands the survivors found wells dug by human hands, edible vegetables and parts of a wreck of a Dutch ship.

On the 10th July, 12 men sailed to Batavia in the Zeewijck's long boat but were never seen again. Possibly, they too might have become marooned. By the end of October, the Zeewijk castaways concluded that the longboat could not have reached Batavia, as otherwise a relief ship would have returned to rescue them. Left with very few options they made the courageous decision to construct a small ship from the wreckage. They set to work and a smaller vessel which they called Sloepje was completed in a little over four months, an amazing achievement, considering the extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

On 26th March 1728 Sloepje, with 88 survivors on board, set sail for Batavia. Although six died during the month long voyage, 82 survivors made it back to Batavia reaching it on 30 April 1728 after having been marooned for nine months. The survivors managed to salvage all ten money chests from the wreck, taking them to Gun Island in the first instance and then onto Sloepje. This was a remarkable feat, given the disintegrating state of the wreck and the fact that the total weight of the chests was more than 3 tonnes.

Batavia's High Court of Justice prosecuted skipper Jan Steyns for losing the Zeewijk and falsifying the ship's records. He lost his position, salary and property to the Company.

Artifacts from ther wreck of the Zeewijk on display at the Western Australian Museum Fremantle

Discovery of the wreck

The actual whereabout of the wreck of the Zeewijk had been the subject of much speculation since colonisation. In 1840 HMS Beagle found relics at the camp site, including a VOC cannon and two coins dated 1707 and 1720 which helped to confirm that the site belonged to the Zeewijk. They named the Zeewyk Channel after the wreck. In the 1880s and 1890s a large amount of material was recovered during guano mining. Items including bottles, coins, wine glasses, jars, pots, spoons, knives, musket and cannon balls, tobacco and pipes were found. Florance Broadhurst, director of the Broadhurst and McNeil phosphate company, catalogued the finds, initially thinking they were from the VOC ship Batavia and ended up donating most to the Western Australian Museum in Perth.

In 1952, during a visit to Geraldton, Lieutenant Commander M.R. Bromell of the Royal Australian Navy learned that rock lobster fisherman Bill Newbold had found a cannon on the sea-bed, and during a subsequent visit, Bromell located a cannon on the leeward side of the Half Moon Reef. After an elephant tusk found two years earlier put him on the trail, in March 1968 journalist and diver Hugh Edwards led divers Max Cramer, Neil McLaghlan and Museum staff Harry Bingham and Dr Colin Jack-Hinton to the seaward side of the reef to find the main wreck site.

The Western Australian Museum subsequently conducted several expeditions to survey the site and to recover artefacts, the most notable in 1976 by Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg, who also completed a catalogue of all the finds from the site. Many artifacts recovered from the Zeewijk are on display in the Western Australian Museum Fremantle's Shipwreck Galleries.

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Detail of "Caert van't Landt van d'Eendracht", 1619, showing features labelled "Fr. Houtman's abrolhos"

The Abrolhos Islands

Today, the Abrolhos also form an important part of Western Australia's most valuable commercial fishery - for western rock lobster - and during the open fishing season from 15th March to 30th June each year around 150 fishermen licensed to fish the Abrolhos waters, their families and deckhands, take up residence on the 22 islands designated for fishers' camps. In the 14 weeks the islands are open for commercial rock lobster fishing they produce an average of around 1.5 million kilos of lobster, worth over $40m, and comprising about 15 per cent of the total catch from the fishery.

The Abrolhos Islands are famous for their historic shipwrecks, of which the Zeewijk is only one. Eighteen other historic wrecks, mostly from the 19th Century, have also been discovered in Abrolhos waters. Fifty-four vessels are listed as wreecked here, and include two of the earliest¬İrecorded vessels lost in Australian waters, the Zeewijk and Batavia. The largest vessel lost in the group was the 2892 ton iron steamer Windsor, off Pelsart Island, 1908. Most of the vessels lost in the group are small luggers and fishing boats, with a number of larger sailing vessels: the fully-rigged iron ship Ben Ledi, 1107 tons, 1879, the American barque, Cochituate, 347 tons, 1861, the barque,Hadda, 334 tons, 1877, and the wooden barque, Ocean Queen, 268 tons, 1842.

Half Moon Reef was thus named because of its shape. Gun Island was thus named because a small four-pound brass gun was found there by Capt. Wickham on 24th April 1840. It was thought to be from the Zeewijk, which was wrecked nearby.

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