On 1 August 1711, it was dispatched from the Netherlands to the
trading port of Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) bearing a load of
freshly minted silver coins.
Many trading ships of the time had started to use a "fast route" to
Indonesia, which used the strong Roaring Forties winds to carry them
across the Indian Ocean to within sight of the west coast of Australia
whence they would make a left turn and head north towards Indonesia.
The Zuytdorp never arrived at its destination. No search was
undertaken, presumably because the VOC had no idea whether and where
the ship had been wrecked or taken by pirates and possibly due to prior
expensive but fruitless attempts to search for other missing ships,
even when an approximate wreck location was known.
Those on board were never heard from again. Their fate was unknown
until the 20th century when the wreck site was discovered on a remote
part of the Western Australian coast between Kalbarri and Shark Bay,
approximately 40 km north of the Murchison River.
Something, perhaps a violent storm, occurred and the Zuytdorp was
wrecked on a desolate section of the West Australian coast. The
discovery of a considerable amount of material from the wreck on the
scree slope and top of the cliffs established that a proportion of the
ship's complement managed to get off the stricken vessel and on to
shore. This material included coins, cannon breech-blocks, lead
sheeting, large bottles, navigational instruments, the remains of
chests and barrels, a brass dish, clay pipes, callipers, pins, writing
slates, a pistol and musket balls. Two, possibly three, campsites
appear to have been established at the time in close proximity to the
wreck site, indicating, along with the ashes of a large fire beacon,
that the survivors were present in the area for some time after their
unfortunate accident.19 Exactly how many survived this particular
episode is uncertain, however. Estimates, no more than educated guesses
really, vary from 30 up to 180.
At this stage, Australia had no colonies to which to turn for help,
so it is believed they built bonfires from the wreckage to signal to
fellow trading ships that would pass within sight of the coast. But
fires seen in the vicinity tended to be dismissed as "native fires".
What became of the survivors of the Zuytdorp remains one of Australia's
most intriguing unsolved mysteries.
A few relics, presumed to belong to survivors of the Zuytdorp, have
been found over the years, and are tantalising clues as to what
happened to the survivors. An inscribed brass tin, known as a
“Leyden Tobacco Tin”, similar to those found at other wreck
sites, was discovered at Wale Well, 55 km north of the Zuytdorp wreck
site in April 1990 It is thought to possibly have come from a survivor
of that wreck. A single coin, probably derived from the Zuytdorp, was
given to a station owner at Shark Bay in 1869 by a man named
War-du-marah, who declared he found it at Woomerangee Hill, 40 km north
of the Zuytdorp wreck site.
It has been speculated that survivors may have traded with or may
have intermarried with the local aboriginal community between
present-day Kalbarri and Shark Bay. In 1834, Aborigines told a farmer
near the recently colonised Perth about a wreck some distance to the
North. With references to a wreck and coins on the beach, details
strongly point to the Zuytdorp, however the colonists presumed it was a
recent wreck and sent rescue parties who failed to find the wreck or
A considerable body of observational evidence also exists, based on
reports by explorers and others from the early colonial period,
regarding the physical appearance of Aboriginal groups along, and
inland from, the West Australian coast. Most of this evidence relates
to encounters with Aboriginal people who appeared to have atypically
fairer skin, lighter coloured hair and eyes. A. C. Gregory, for
example, reported that when exploring in the Hutt River region in 1848
he came across a tribe whose "colour was neither black nor copper, but
that peculiar colour that prevails with a mixture of European blood."
These people Gregory wrote elsewhere had "light flaxen hair, the eyes
approaching the colour of the same." Pastoralist Augustus Oldfield
claimed in 1865 that he was "very much surprised to find in some of the
old natives in the Geraldton area features nearly approaching the
European type, although these parts have been settled but a few years."
Other genetic indicators embrace factors such as tallness and
baldness as signs influence of Europeans prior to colonisation of
Western Australia. Baldness appears to have been uncommon in all
Aboriginal populations except along the Murray River in south eastern
Australia. However, anecdotal evidence indicates it was a feature in
the central west of Western Australia, from the coast to the western
edge of the Western Desert. Surveyor Phillip Chauncy commented that in
the 1840s and 1850s the "only bald natives I ever saw are the warran
[yam] diggers [of the central west coast region]." Perhaps the most
dramatic, albeit unverified, claim of unusual physical attributes of
Aboriginal populations from the cental west of Western Australia arose
in 1861 when the Perth Gazette reported: "From Champion Bay [Geraldton]
we hear that a tribe of natives have made their appearance at the
eastern most sheep stations upon the north branch of the Upper Irwin,
who differ essentially from the aborigines previously known, in being
fair complexioned with long light coloured hair flowing down to their
shoulders, fine robust figures and handsome features: their arms are
spears ... which they throw underhanded."