Half a century after making a major shipwreck discovery that would lead to a lifelong passion for maritime archaeology, Graeme Henderson is setting out once more to find a Fortuyn.

On 19 January, Graeme and a team of Australian shipwreck archaeologists plan to leave Perth bound for Australia’s Indian Ocean territories of Christmas Island and the Cocos Keeling Islands on a quest they’re calling ‘Closing in on the Fortuyn’.

They hope to locate missing Dutch spice-trade ships of the 18th Century, among them the Dutch East India Company’s 800-ton Fortuyn. Fortuyn was a very appropriate name as she was carrying a fortune in silver bars and coins when she was lost in 1724.

Graeme has quite a pedigree in finding Dutch shipwrecks.

In 1963, as a 16-year-old spearfishermen, he discovered the wreck of a 1656 Dutch trader, the Vergulde Draeck (or Gilt Dragon), along with its vast treasure, while diving with friends off WA’s coast.   

“After that life-changing encounter with the Gilt Dragon in 1963, it would be wonderful to track down the final resting place of one or two other early trading vessels,” said Graeme, who acknowledges that first find inspired his life’s work.

It also prompted new laws that would prevent the plundering of shipwreck treasures found in Western Australian waters.

“The fate of the Fortuyn has previously been considered unknowable, but a reassessment of the archives has produced realistic search targets,” said Graeme.

Research undertaken by Australian and Dutch archaeologists over recent years points to the Christmas and Cocos Keeling Islands region as a promising starting point for the search.

Western Australian Museum CEO Alec Coles said Graeme Henderson’s expedition would fire the imagination of all who had an interest in the earliest European visitors to WA waters and the unsolved mysteries of the missing Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (also known as VOC or Dutch East India Company) vessels.

“Our Dutch colleagues also have a keen interest in discovering more about those early voyages to the southern lands as we move towards the 400th anniversary next year of their first encounters with Australia,” Mr Coles said.

“Graeme has a distinguished record when it comes to finding shipwrecks. The Fortuyn is one of the great unsolved mysteries of the VOC years and it will be one of the most significant finds off our coast if he’s successful,” he said.

With the 2016 anniversary in mind, team members Graeme Henderson from Perth, Andrew Viduka from Canberra, Alex Moss from Adelaide and James Parkinson from Melbourne will conduct magnetometer surveys along targeted coastlines seeking iron objects such as cannon and anchors from the outgoing Dutch ships Fortuyn and Aagtekerke, and several other missing, homeward bound vessels.

The ‘Closing in on the Fortuyn’ project is sponsored by the Maritime Program for the Netherlands Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, the Netherlands Embassy in Canberra, and the Silentworld Foundation.  It is one of the activities commemorating Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog’s first landing in Western Australia at what became known as Cape Inscription, in 1616.

The 800-ton Fortuyn was built in 1723, with a length of 145 feet, for the Amsterdam chamber of the Dutch East India Company.  Under the command of skipper Pieter Westrik, with a crew of 225, and armed with 36 cannon and 8 swivel guns, it departed Texel on its maiden voyage on 27 September 1723.

The ship carried 200,000 guilders in silver bars and silver coins.  The Fortuyn sailed in company with the East Indiamen Hogenes and Graveland, bound for Batavia (now Jakarta) via the Cape of Good Hope.  After a fast passage of 97 days the Fortuyn anchored in Table Bay on 2 January 1724, reporting just one man dead and three sick – a healthy passage at the time.  The Fortuyn took on some extra rations and left the Cape for Batavia on 18 January, but was wrecked en route.

In 1992, Graeme Henderson became the first director of the Western Australian Maritime Museum.  He was awarded an AM in the Australia Day honours list in 2012.




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