The de Vlamingh Dish

Article | Updated 3 years ago

In February 1697 the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh arrived off Shark Bay. On Dirk Hartog Island a landing party found an old flattened pewter dish lying in the sand at the base of a tall wooden post. On the dish was inscribed a record of the first landfall on the Western Australian coast, by the Dutch navigator Dirk Hartog, in 1616. Recognising the significance of the dish, de Vlamingh took it to Batavia (modern Djakarta) and in its place left a dish of his own, nailed to a new post.

The de Vlamingh dish: X-Ray Map

The de Vlamingh dish: X-Ray Map
Image copyright WA Museum 

De Vlamingh’s dish bore a copy of Hartog’s inscription in addition to one recording his own visit. Hartog’s dish was returned to Holland and eventually passed to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where it remains to this day.

In 1801, 104 years later, de Vlamingh’s dish was discovered on Dirk Hartog Island by the French Captain Emmanuel Hamelin of the corvette Naturaliste, on a voyage of discovery around Australia. The dish had fallen from its post, but he refused to remove it and re-erected it on a new post, despite the entreaties of his junior lieutenant Louis de Freycinet. Seventeen years later in 1818, de Freycinet, in command of his own vessel, was able to recover the de Vlamingh dish. After many vicissitudes, including a shipwreck on the Falkland Islands, it was presented to the French Academy in Paris.

After this, the de Vlamingh dish disappeared for more than a century. Leading nineteenth century scholars were unable to examine it and had to make do with de Freycinet’s published illustration. But in 1940, in the darkest days of World War II, it was found in a small room, on the bottom shelf, jumbled up with old copper engravings.

Given the state of the war, its discovery was not announced until December 1944, after the liberation of Paris. An academic account of the discovery was seen by an Australian at Oxford University and her alerted the Australian authorities.

On 28 May 1947 the French Ambassador presented the de Vlamingh Dish to the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon J B Chifley. The Commonwealth Government proposed keeping the original and presenting the replicas to Western Australia and to Victoria, which had expressed an early interest in it. But Western Australia was particularly unenthusiastic; over the next three years strong representations were made for its return to this State. As a result of person intervention with the Prime Minister (Sir Robert Menzies) by Sir Paul Hasluck, then MHR for Curtin WA, the plate was returned to Western Australia. On 5 June 1950 Sir Paul presented it to the State Government; they in turn placed it in the Museum for permanent display.

The de Vlamingh Dish remains one of the most priceless relics in the State’s collections, and is normally displayed at the Western Australian Maritime Museum, Fremantle. Not only is the dish one of Australia’s earliest ‘documents’, it also serves as a memorial of the early exploration and description of the Western Australian coast by the Dutch.

The de Vlamingh Dish is preserved in an atmosphere of an inert gas, argon, to allay any possible further corrosion. In translation the inscription reads:

The 25 October is here
arrived the ship the Eendracht
of Amsterdam the uppoermerchant Gil-
les Miebais of Liege skipper Dirck Hatichs
of Amsterdam the 27 ditto made sail for Ban-
tum under the under-steersman Jan Stins the upper-steers-
man Pieter Doekes van Bil anno 1616.
1697 the 4 February is here arrived the ship
the Geelvinck for Amsterdam the Commodore and skip-
per Willem de Vlamingh of Vlielandt assistant Joan-
nes Bermer of Copenhagen upper-steersman Michil
Bloem of the Bishopric of Bremen the Hooker the Nyptangh
Skipper Gerrit Colaart of Amsterdam assist Theo-
Doris Heirmans of Ditto upper-steersman Ger-
Rit Gerritsen of Bremen the Galliot the
Weeseltie Commander Cornelis de Vlamingh
Of Vlielandt steersman Coert Gerritsen
Of Bremen and sailed from here with our
Fleet the also the Southland
Further to explore and bound
For Batavia.

The first third is a copy of Dirk Hartog’s inscription of 1616. The translation is literal. In more modern terms, ‘senior’ could replace ‘upper’ (merchant), ‘junior’ could be used for ‘under’ (merchant), ‘master’ for ‘skipper’, ‘first mate’ for ‘upper steersman’. The departure date ‘twelfth’ is missing between the words ‘the’ and ‘also’ on the third last line. The hooker Nyptangh was a three-masted vessel, the galliot Weeseltie was smaller and two-masted; the Geelvinck was a three-masted frigate.