Zuytdorp shipwreck

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 any survivors.

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."

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The wrecksite

In 1927 a stockman discovered the survivor's campsite at the top of the cliffs. He found silver coins and some artifacts but no signs of human remains. It was another 30 years before it was realised that this was indeed the wreck site of the Zuytdorp.

Divers from the Western Australian Museum surveyed and removed items from the wreck at various times during the 1970s when conditions were good enough to dive. Between visits by Museum divers, the wreck was looted by unknown persons and hundreds of silver coins were removed. The person who looted the wreck is almost certainly the arsonist who burnt a caravan used by the Museum's diving team as its base.

The wreck site, one of the few restricted zones under the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976, remains under regular surveillance. The Western Australian Museum in both Fremantle and at Geraldton has produced exhibitions on the wreck, a website, and many reports.

In June 2012, the Shire of Northampton unveiled a commemorative plaque in Kalbarri commemorating the 300th anniversary of the Zuytdorp's wrecking. The plaque also mentions two other Dutch East India Company ships that were wrecked in the area: the Batavia and the Zeewijk.

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