Monday, June 14, 2010

The Dutch Explorers - Australia

In 1606 the Dutch sailor Willem Janszoon (sometimes abbreviated to Jansz) became the first European to document the existence of Australia. Between that first sighting and 1756, 19 Dutch ships were sent to Australia during the course of eight separate expeditions and a further 23 ships approached the continent while maneuvering to or from the Dutch colonies in the Indonesian archipelago (Sheehan 2008).

These expeditions were part of the larger mercantile and military exploits of the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or United (Dutch) East India Company (VOC). The background for this exploration was geopolitical in nature. The 80 years’ war between Protestant Holland and Roman Catholic Spain and Portugal meant that the Dutch lost access to the exotic spices sold in the markets at Lisbon. Their answer to this problem was to seek their own path to the spice islands, resulting in their 1595 mission around the Cape of Good Hope and the eventual establishment of the very successful Dutch colony in what is today Indonesia.

One of the ships on that first mission in 1595 was the Duyfken, or “Little Dove,” which was to make history just seven years later as the first fully documented European ship to call in on the Australian continent, probably at the Pennefather River on the west coast of the Cape York Peninsula. The Duyfken on this fateful trip was captained by Willem Janszoon. His mission, when he set sail under a VOC flag from Bantam in West Java, was to find out whether great wealth in gold was actually to be found in New Guinea, as persistent rumors maintained (Kenny 1995). Besides gold he would also have been seeking other salable commodities, from spices to fur.

Although neither Janszoon nor other VOC sailors found much to recommend the Australian continent, which they called New Holland, they soon charted a significant amount of the coastline: 11,713 miles (18,850 km), or 52.5 percent of the continent, from as far south as Nuyts Archipelago on the Great Australian Bight, along the western and northern coasts to western Cape York. In 1642 they also claimed Tasmania, which they called Van Diemen’s Land in honor of the VOC governor-general who had commissioned Abel Tasman’s expedition. The landing party placed the flag of the prince of Orange on the shore but saw no indigenous Tasmanians. Tasman was vague about the borders of his country’s new colony, but for nearly two centuries the prior Dutch exploration of west Australia, still called New Holland, was respected by the other European powers, which turned their attention to the relatively unexplored east coast.

Although Tasman failed to make contact with the Aboriginal people, certainly other Dutch explorers did have interactions with them, of both a positive and a negative nature. Reports vary, but it can be stated with relative certainty that at least one Dutchman was killed when Janszoon’s crew went ashore at the Wenlock River on the Cape York Peninsula. Jan Carstenszoon, who landed on Australia’s west coast in 1623, even offered financial incentives to his crew for the capture of Aboriginal people, and a number of them were taken back to Dutch headquarters in Batavia (Jakarta) and Ambon, where their trail disappears. In 1629 the Dutch ship Batavia was wrecked off the west coast and two of the survivors were banished to the mainland for mutiny. The two were provided with food, guns, and a number of trade goods such as mirrors and beads and told to “learn what they could about the country” as the first recorded European inhabitants of Australia/New Holland (Kenny 1995, 26). They were never seen by Europeans again but must have interacted in some way with the local population.