Vergulde Draeck shipwreck

In the early hours of 28 April 1656, the Dutch trading ship Vergulde Draeck (Gilt Dragon) struck a reef five kilometres south of Ledge Point, 100 km north of Perth. Little is known of what actually happened, even less is known about the fate of the survivors.

Built in 1653 by the Amsterdam Chamber of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), the Vergulde Draeck was a 260-tonne, 42-metre 'jacht'. On 4 October 1655 the Vergulde Draeck sailed from Texel in the Netherlands on only her second voyage, bound for the East Indies (now Indonesia). She was carrying, apart from passengers and crew, cargo, trade goods and silver coins worth 185,000 guilders. She reached the Cape of Good Hope on 9 March 1656 and four days later set sail for Batavia. She never reached her destination.

Having adopted the Brouwer route, ie. followed the Roaring Forties east from the Cape, but obviously miscalculating his easting and possibly the latitude, Captain Pieter Albertszoon drove her onto a reef off the western coast of the Southland between the present day towns of Seabird and Ledge Point in Western Australia on 28 April 1656.

On board was a crew of 193 and eight chests of silver coin to be used in the purchase of spices. On striking the reef the Vergulde Draeck burst open and only a few provisions were saved. When the 75 survivors had gathered ashore Albertszoon decided to send a party of sailors to Batavia, in the one schuyt (small boat) which had been saved from the wreck, to report the tragedy and ask for a rescue vessel to be sent. Albertszoon decided to stay with the survivors and to appoint his under steersman (second officer) Abraham Leeman to lead the party of seven.

He was probably influenced in his decision by the events following the wrecking of the Batavia on the Abrolhos Islands some 27 years earlier. On that occasion senior officers abandoned the survivors to sail to Batavia, leaving many survivors to be killed by mutineers.

The experiences of the rescue ships with inclement weather along the coast of the Southland, convinced Governor-General Maetsuijker in Batavia, that June and July were not the best months for rescue missions. Still concerned about the fate of the survivors, the next expedition was mounted during the summer.

On New Year's Day 1658 the fluit Waeckende Boei and the galjoort Emmeloort, under the command of Captains Samuel Volkersen and Aucke Pieters Jonck respectively, left Batavia in search of survivors of the Vergulde Draeck and the lost 11 crew from the Goede Hoop. They were instructed to rescue survivors and to salvage as much merchandise - especially coins - as possible and to chart the coast carefully. Furthermore, they were to find out if the land was inhabited and, if so, to try and establish trade with the inhabitants. They were also instructed to take formal possession of all the places they discovered.

Volkerson and Jonck were unequal to the task. Not long into the voyage Volkerson complained that the Emmeloort was too slow and he was having difficulty keeping the vessels together. On February 14 they separated and acted independently although they met up on several occasions on the coast of the Southland.

The Emmeloort sighted the Southland on 24 February 1658 at 33° 12' S - at about Bunbury - and then sailed north charting the coast. On March 8 at about 30° 25' S fires were seen on the shore. Next day a boat was sent ashore late in the day to discover that the fires had been extinguished. Next day another search party was dispatched and they met up with a group of aborigines who had been responsible for the fires. The party also reported seeing crops of grain growing and land under cultivation. However, no traces of survivors and wreckage of ships was found. The Emmeloort slowly sailed north and reached Batavia on 18 March 1658.

Volkerson sighted the Southland at 31° 40' S (near present-day Two Rocks) on 23 February 1658. Sailing past Rottnest Island and noting the submerged reefs between it and the mainland Volkerson lowered a boat which sailed between it and the mainland. The following day they saw fires and a party was sent to investigate. When they returned after two days - due to bad weather - they reported that the beach was littered with wreckage from the Vergulde Draeck. There were also signs that survivors had been there as they found a circle of planks with their ends planted in the sand. Some sort of signal perhaps?

Sailing north Volkerson made further landings at 31° 14' S and 30° 40' S but no wreckage was sighted. After fifteen days of bad weather during which time the Waeckende Boei stayed well out to sea, they returned and anchored at the north-east corner of Rottnest Island. A party was sent ashore and upon its return the helmsman had reported that navigation and landing was difficult due to the abundance of stone reefs. The island was well wooded, it was reported, and the party had seen two seals, and a 'wild cat'. That information did not encourage Volkerson to explore the island again.

In a truly epic journey, Leeman and his crew reached Batavia on 7 June 1656 - 6 weeks later. A most remarkable and impressive feat of seamanship and endurance!

Almost immediately after hearing the news of the wrecking from Abraham Leeman, the Commander of the Council of the VOC dispatched the yacht Goede Hope and the flute Witte Valk to the Southland to search for the wreck and survivors. Both ships failed miserably. The Witte Valk could not approach land due to furious storms and rough seas. The Goede Hoop was more persistent and managed to land a search party at the appropriate latitude.

Three members of the party got lost in the bush whilst going inland and were never seen again. Subsequently, a longboat with 8 searchers was smashed on inshore reefs by pounding surf and were also never seen again. The Goede Hoop returned to Batavia soon after this event leaving the 11 men, possibly stranded and marooned, having found no trace of the Vergulde Draeck or its survivors. She reached Batavia on 14 October 1656.

In April 1657 another vessel, the flute Vink, sailed from the Cape to Batavia with instructions to call at the Southland and search for survivors. Once again there was no success, primarily due to bad weather and high seas. The Vink reached Batavia on 27 June 1657.

Sailing north a search party made another landing at 31° 09' S on March 20 and found a beam from the Vergulde Draeck. A second landing was made and more wreckage was found.

Having been ashore many times and having found wreckage Leeman set out once again with thirteen other men only to return to the Waeckende Boei when he noticed the weather turning bad. On returning to the ship Volkerson disputed Leeman's concerns and send him back. By nightfall the storm had broken and the sea rissen so high that Leeman and his men were unable to land and were forced to ride out the storm in the darkness of night. The storm worsened the next day and the boat lost a rudder and steering had to be managed by using the oars. Eventually Leeman sighted a small inlet between two rocks and with little control over the boat made for the beach. They landed with considerable damage to the boat.

Meanwhile, the Waeckende Boei had headed out to sea to ride out the storm. After 4 days Volkerson returned to the site where the boat was last seen. He fired cannons but there was no response. He concluded that the boat and crew were lost, presumably drowned and decided to sail back to Batavia. However that evening, March 28, they saw a fire on the land. He discharged a cannon again and immediately another fire was seen close to the first.

Not having another boat onboard and convinced that Leeman and his crew had perished, he could not go ashore to investigate. He decided to stay in the vicinity and wait for daybreak. By then the ship had drifted further north and although Volkerson records that he sailed past the shore and that he got close in to the coast, nothing further happened that prevented him from sailing north to Batavia, which he reached on 10 April 1658.

During the 4 days the Waeckende Boei was riding out the storm, Leeman and his crew were doing all they could to repair their damaged boat. Keeping a lookout for the Waeckende Boei they survived by killing seals and gulls and drinking brackish water found in the rocks. They returned to the mainland near where wreckage of the Vergulde Draeck littered the beach fearing that they would be stranded there. Then, on the 28th in the evening, sails were sighted and Leeman ordered a fire to be lit.

Shortly afterwards, the Waeckende Boei reduced sail and fired a gun to which Leeman responded with a second fire. They could have sailed their boat to the ship but the sea was rough, it was getting dark and the surrounding reefs were of concern. Instead they decided to wait until morning.

But when dawn broke (29 March 1658) the Waeckende Boei was nowhere to be seen. They sailed their boat out to sea trying to find her, but to no avail. They were now marooned . . . . . . With their spirits low, Leeman had to work hard to convince his men that there was only one solution for their plight and that was to sail to Batavia. For a week they worked to outfit the boat for the long voyage on the open sea.

On the morning of the April 8, 1658 began one of the more heroic sea voyages of all time. In a remarkable feat of courage, seamanship and endurance, Leeman sailed a leaky craft with fourteen men on board, for 21 days along the barren Western Australian coast and across the Timor Sea to Java.

And incredibly, he was making this journey for the second time! Truly a remarkable man! When Leeman finally reached Batavia and reported his experience to the Governor-General and his councillors, they decided not to mount anymore expeditions to search for the survivors of the Vergulde Draeck.

Meanwhile, 68 people had to survive in this foreign land. What happened to them remains a mystery to this day.

While Dutch and English ships were relatively frequent visitors to the coasts of Western Australia in the years that followed, as far as is known for certain no other ship foundered on these coasts again until 1712. This was the Zuytdorp which had departed the Cape of Good Hope on 22 April 1712 with at least 200 people on board.

What Became of the Survivors?

A range of objects and features have turned up over time, providing tantalising clues regarding their fate. For example, an upright with planks around it was encountered by searchers near the Vergulde Draeck wreck site in 1658. Unexplained uprights and poles were chanced upon in the mid-19th century at three points along the coast, and a spectacular incense urn was handed over to the New Norcia Mission in 1846 by some indigenous people who had found it at a well about 20 kilometres south of where the Vergulde Draeck was wrecked. A curious Circle of Stones with one or two of radiating lines, first seen in 1875 in very inhospitable country 200 km north of the Vergulde Draeck site, is thought to possibly be associated with the survivors from that ship.

That the sailors and their kindred were present for an extended period on the coast of Western Australia and had had interaction with Aboriginal groups appears to have entered their oral traditions or become the stuff of legends and mythology. An example, and not the only one, recorded at the time of the British colonisation, among all the Aboriginal tribes from the Moore River to Shark's Bay, referred to "two tribes living on the banks of a large river, one (black) ... and the other (whites) residing on the opposite shores. For many years the two tribes were on amicable terms until ... a change in the sentiments of the northmen [whites] took place. ... [and] these northmen refused to hold any intercourse with their southern [black] neighbours ... day it began to rain, and poured incessantly for many months, and the river overflowing its banks the blacks were forced to retire ... The flood was long in ebbing ... and thus is was long before they regained their old hunting grounds ......[but] to their astonishment place of a fordable river they had left ...the impassable sea rolled to the north of them, and their late haughty neighbours had entirely disappeared".

Finding the Wrecksite

When the secluded and pretty little township at the mouth of the Moore River was finally formally gazetted in 1951, the historian Henrietta Drake-Brockman recommended that it be named Guilderton in honour of the 'Gilt Dragon' and the thousands of guilders worth of silver coins it was carrying. While the wreck had not yet been discovered, there was already speculation that it was somewhere in the vicinity, as in 1931 a young boy who was playing in some sandhills uncovered about 40 Dutch coins. They were all dated between 1619 and 1655, indicating that they could have been from the Vergulde Draeck, given that it was wrecked in 1656. Another thirty-two years went by before the wreck was found.

The wreck was found was on 14 April 1963. Its discovery was widely reported upon and generated genuine excitement. While it was known that five VOC and English East India Company vessels had come to grief along the Western Australian coast during the 17th and 18th centuries, none of these wrecks had previously been located.

The discovery of the Vergulde Draeck and the other significant pre-colonial wrecks was the catalyst for the development of maritime archaeology in Western Australia. One of the discoverers of the Vergulde Draeck, Graeme Henderson, is today the director of the WA Maritime Museum, a globally acknowledged centre of excellence in maritime archaeology.

Now in his sixties, Mr Henderson fondly remembered diving on the wreck in the weeks after the discovery. "We were picking up brass candlesticks, jugs and elephant tusks, all sorts of exotic things," he said.

It was an experience Mr Henderson largely credits with inspiring his passion for history, which in turn drove a career that has been littered with awards and prestigious appointments, including tenures as senior curator and director of the WA Maritime Museum.

On the day of discovery, Mr Henderson, his father Jim - a reporter with the Daily News who later wrote articles on the find - older brother Alan and family friend John Cowen wrested an elephant tusk from the deep and on to their boat, where refrigerator salesman and diver Alan Robinson was nursing a hangover.

In 1958, Robinson had publicly claimed to have found the wreck, but in a different location. Once silver coins began to be brought up, he claimed the wreck as his own. Robinson set up camp on the beach and, using gelignite, blasted away at the wreck to plunder its treasure.

According to Mr Henderson, one day when he was diving on the wreck, Robinson set off an explosive that could have killed him if it had been closer. Shortly after, Robinson allegedly attacked Jim Henderson while he was in the water, punching him and screaming, "it's mine, all mine".

"He was trying to tell us, in no uncertain terms, that from that point on the wreck belonged to him," Mr Henderson said. "During the late 60s and 70s there was a great deal of lawlessness in the area of shipwrecks, Alan Robinson being the main pirate."

The first discovery of a 17th- century wreck in Australian waters, the Vergulde Draeck and its treasure sparked heated debate about who was entitled to reap the riches from sunken ships. Following extensive looting of the wreck site, often involving the use of explosives, State legislation (the Museum Amendment Act 1964) was quickly enacted to protect it and other historic wreck sites, including that of the Batavia (1629) which was discovered several months later.

The legislation deemed these wrecks to be archaeological sites; it was later revised and expanded under the Maritime Archaeology Act 1973, followed by the Commonwealth in 1976. A parliamentary select committee later credited the discovery of the Vergulde Draeck to the Henderson family and Mr Cowan, in stark contrast to claims made by Alan Robinson.

The controversial treasure hunter was never far from a courtroom in the decades after. In 1983, he was found hanged by his bed sheet in Sydney's notorious Long Bay Jail while facing charges of allegedly conspiring to kill a former lover.

Wrecksite Excavation

The Western Australian Museum has undertaken extensive excavation work at the Vergulde Draeck site and has painstakingly removed and conserved a wide range of material. The collection includes African elephant tusks, ballast bricks, beardman jugs, ceramic masks and medallions, clay tobacco pipes, bronze and brass utensils, various tools, glass bottles, an astrolabe and many silver coins. Many of these artifacts are on display at the Western Australian Museum Fremantle Shipwreck Galleries.

Wrecksite Commemoration

On 28 April 2006, the VOC Historical Society, in collaboration with the Shire of Gingin and the Seabird Progress Association held a ceremony in the coastal township of Seabird, not far from the wrecksite, to commemorate the 350th Anniversary of the wrecking of the Vergulde Draeck. 

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