Profiles of Selected VOC skippers

Captains and commanders

Many of the place names in Western Australia reflect the rich history of European exploration and discovery of Australia during the 17th and 18th centuries. The names of explorers and seafarers or their ships are still used today. Dirk Hartog is one of them—Western Australia’s biggest island near Shark Bay is named after the Dutch skipper who is the first to set foot there in 1616. The impact of his visit in Eendracht would resonate through the next two centuries as Dutch, English and French explorers visited and mapped the west coast—de Vlamingh, Leeuwin, Tasman, de Houtman, Baudin, Geographe, de Freycinet and Dampier. Below are brief profiles of some of the Dutch navigators who gave shape to the map of Australia.

Dirk Hartog (1580 – 1621):

No portrait exists of Dirk Hartog—or any contemporary paintings of the ship he skippered, Eendracht—however, we know a few details about him and his family from official records kept in Amsterdam.

Baptised on 30 October 1580 in the Oude Kerk (Old Church) in Amsterdam, Dirk followed in the footsteps of his seafaring father, Hartych Krynen (or Krijnen). Hartog’s name has also enjoyed various spellings. Dutch spellings were not standardised in Dirk’s day in different places so his surname has appeared as Hartogszoon, Hartogsz, Hartoogs and Hatichs and first name as Dirck or Dirick. His name indicates that he was Hartych's son. Dirk had at least three siblings and the family lived in close proximity to Amsterdam’s IJ waterfront. The children, therefore, would have grown up immersed in the seafaring culture of Amsterdam's port, particularly as their father was also a mariner.

The young Dirk commanded his first ship in 1610 and bought his own vessel in 1611, a small trader, Dolphyn or Dolphin. Married on 5 February 1611 to Meijnsje Abels in the Oude Kerk of Amsterdam, Dirk spent several years on trading voyages to Baltic and Mediterranean ports before joining the United (Dutch) East India Company or VOC in 1615. Dirk was 36 when he made the historic voyage to the Dutch East Indies in Eendracht (Concord or Unity) as part of a fleet of five ships, although there is evidence that he may have sailed under the flag of the VOC some years earlier, which would explain why the VOC was confident in his ability to skipper the newly-built, 700-ton Eendracht to the East Indies in 1616. The ship would have had a complement of about 200.

The well-armed Eendracht sailed from Texel on 23 January 1616, carrying ten money chests containing 80,000 reals (pieces-of-eight), valued at 200,000 guilders. Separated from his fleet during this voyage, Dirk followed a southerly route established in 1611 by Dutch seafarer and later Governor General of Batavia, Hendrick Brouwer, when he left the Cape of Good Hope on 27 August 1616. This route, which came to be known as the 'Brouwer route' was formaly adopted by the VOC in August 1616, about seven months after Dirk left Texel, so he would likely not have known that the VOC had formally adopted the route during his voyage. Nevertheless, like many before him, the bold and skilled navigator took this route to the East Indies, whereupon he sighted the western coast of the unknown South Land on his way to the East Indies.

On 25 October 1616, Eendracht arrived at what is now known as Shark Bay. He and some of his crew made landfall on the western most and largest island in Western Australia where they spent about two days exploring the area before departing and leaving behind their ‘calling card’—a flattened pewter dish inscribed with details of his visit. Dirk’s discovery lifted the veil on the mythical continent known as Terra Australis Incognita (Unknown South Land) and replaced its name with Eendrachtsland (Land of Eendracht) after his ship, thereby having a major impact on world cartography.

After returning to the Netherlands, Dirk left the VOC and skippered the Geluckige Leeuw (Lucky Lion) on voyages to various European ports. He died in Amsterdam in 1621, aged 41 years, and was buried on 11 October in the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) cemetery. It is thought that his remains were later removed to a communal grave outside the city. Dirk would have remained unknown like many VOC skippers before and after him had it not been for the inscribed pewter dish that he left at Cape Inscription, which is today the earliest confirmed record of European contact with Australia.

In 1985, he was honoured with an Australia Post stamp depicting his ship.

Additional information about Hartog can be found here. 

Francisco Pelsaert (c.1591 – 1630):

Pelsaert was born in Antwerp, in the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium). He began working for the VOC in 1618. He spent seven years in India rising to the office of Upper Merchant, and it was in that role he commanded Batavia. He was not a mariner. His brother-in-law was Admiral Hendrick Brouwer, who in 1611, established a safer and faster route to the East Indies.

Francisco Pelsaert could not have imagined the horrors his crew and passengers would face shipwrecked and marooned on barren and almost waterless islets. Not only did he lose his ship on the west coast in 1629, more than a third of his ship’s complement—men, women and children—perished before he could save the remaining survivors. According to Australian journalist Henrietta Drake-Brockman’s 1963 ‘Voyage to Disaster’, ‘…the wreck of the Batavia provides the greatest dramatic tragedy in Australian history, besides which the mutiny on the Bounty is an anaemic tale’. Pelsaert was in poor health before the wrecking of Batavia and the subsequent tragedy. Nevertheless, he took part in an expedition to Sumatra, and returned to Batavia where he died in September 1630. His journal of the Batavia disaster was published in 1647.

Abel Janszoon Tasman (c.1602 – 1659):

Abel Janszoon Tasman—explorer, merchant and seafarer—was born in the Netherlands around 1602 and was educated in Lutjegast, Groningen. His first wife died after the birth of a daughter. He remarried in 1632 and continued his career at sea.

Tasman joined the VOC in 1634 as a skipper and was employed sailing east Asian waters. In 1638, he brought his wife and daughter to settle in Batavia. He was subsequently appointed commander of two ships, Heemskerck and Zeehaen, to search for the ‘still unexplored’ southern continent. In 1642, having first sailed to Mauritius, Tasman reached the western coast of Tasmania, ‘This land is the first land in the South Sea that is met by us, and is still known to no European peoples, so we have given this land the name of Anthoonij van Diemens Land in honour of the Honourable Governor-General our high superior who has sent us out to do this exploration’. After several landings on the southern coast, he sailed eastwards and sighted the South Island of New Zealand, which he named ‘Staten Island’.

In 1644, Tasman commanded a second expedition with three VOC ships, Zeemeeuw, Limmen and Bracq. They sailed to Australia’s northern coast, exploring and charting northern and western coasts from Cape York to Point Cloates. Tasman’s expeditions demonstrated that the various coasts that had been surveyed were all part of a single island-continent. He gave the continent the name ‘New Holland’.

Tasman retired in 1653 in Batavia, and died six years later.

In the early 1800s, there was a successful movement to change the name Van Diemen’s Land to Tasmania. Since then, Tasman has been honoured in the naming of various geographical features in Australia and New Zealand.

Willem de Vlamingh (1640 – c.1698):

Willem de Vlamingh named Rottnest Island and the Swan River and replaced Australia’s oldest European maritime relic with another pewter dish to record his visit to the west coast.

Born on the island of Vlieland in 1640, he was the son of skipper Hessel Dircksz, who traded to the Baltic Sea. Initially Willem Hesselszoon (Hessels’ son) made his living in whaling in the Northern Seas, off Greenland and Iceland. He adopted the surname ‘De Vlamingh’ indicating the family roots were in Flanders. Willem Hesselsz de Vlamingh joined the VOC in 1688, sailing twice to the East Indies before he was chosen to command an important voyage of exploration to the South Land. He was commissioned to look for survivors of Ridderschap van Holland, which went missing in 1694 with 325 people on board, but the expedition was also intended to undertake serious scientific survey and was sponsored by the polymath Nicolaes Witsen. De Vlamingh set sail from Texel on 3 May 1696 in command of three ships, the GeelvinckNijptang and Weseltje.

De Vlamingh was aware that since Abel Tasman's journey in 1644, no serious attempt had been made by the VOC to further explore the southern continent. The disappearance of Ridderschap van Holland offered the VOC the obligation to look for the survivors and the opportunity to survey the South Land. He did not find the ship or any evidence of survivors but his survey of the Western Australian coastline included mapping the mouth and lower reaches of the Swan River where the capital of the state of Western Australia would be established more than a century later.

De Vlamingh’s squadron sighted the west coast just before dark on Christmas Day 1696. Five days later, his approach hampered by mist or smoke, de Vlamingh landed on Rottnest Island, which he named Mistieland or ‘Mist Island’. His journal noted that ‘…there are very few birds and no animals except a kind of rat as big as a common cat’, prompting him to rename the island Rottenest or ‘Rat’s Nest’. Smoke was seen on the mainland and a party was sent to investigate. Ashore they collected botanical specimens and and some of the men consumed zamia nuts which resembled Dutch beans but were poisonous and made them seriously ill. A few days later, de Vlamingh ventured up the Zwaanenrivier (Swan River) to survey the area and hoped to catch a ‘South lander’, having found footsteps in the sand.

From the Swan River region, de Vlamingh sailed north to Dirk Hartog Island, arriving on 30 January 1697. On 2 February, upper-steersman (first mate), Michiel Bloem of Bremen, who was sent ashore discovered Hartog's dish. The wooden post, to which the dish was attached, was decayed but still standing upright. The dish was on the ground, partially buried in sand near the post. The dish was taken on board Geelvinck. De Vlamingh then had another pewter dish flattened onto which he had copied Hartog’s inscribed text, and he added a record of his own landing.

On 12 February the Geelvinck departed Shark Bay and arrived at Batavia on 20 March. He presented Hartog’s dish to the VOC authorities in Batavia from where it was sent to the Netherlands.

In poor health, de Vlamingh left Batavia and sailed home to the Netherlands. On reaching Amsterdam in August 1698, de Vlamingh sent Amsterdam’s mayor Nicolaes Witsen a box of seashells, Australian botanical specimens, and drawings, including the first map of the Swan River which is now held at the State Library of Western Australia.

In 1997, during the third centenary of de Vlamingh’s landing, Crown Prince Willem Alexander (now King of the Netherlands) unveiled a statue of de Vlamingh on the Swan River’s bank at Burswood.

Additional information about the dishes and de Vlamingh can be found here  and here.

Jan Steijns (Steins)

The ill-fated Zeewijk was Jan Steijns’s first and last command. The Dutch skipper from Middleburg paid dearly for not following VOC orders to stay on a safe northward course to the East Indies in 1727. Had the sick captain whom Steijns replaced, Jan Bogaard, not been too ill to sail, tragedy might have been avoided.

Steijns was held responsible for the wrecking of the Zeewijk, and alleged to have ignored protests from his steersmen. His actions led to his prosecution for carelessness and trying to falsify navigational details in his journals to hide his mistake. Under-steersman Adriaan vander Graaf stated in his journal on 21 May 1727 , that ‘It was decided unanimously to steer ENE, if there is an opportunity, in order to, if feasible, call at the land of Eendracht’. However, Steijns altered the journal to say that they would do so to sight the South Land, which is quite different from ‘to call’ at it (to visit it). His decision contravened VOC sailing orders, which warned skippers to steer clear of the reefs and sandbanks off the western coast.

Zeewijk was wrecked on 9 June 1727, on the northern edge of Half Moon Reef in the Houtman Abrolhos islands, about 60km west of present-day Geraldton. Marooned on the flat rocky island, its highest point less than 4m above sea level, the survivors sent a party of eleven of the best sailors under the command of First Officer Peter Langeweg in the longboat to Batavia, to call for help. The group sailed away on 10 July but was never heard of again.

The 'sloop'

With no sign of a rescue vessel, the remaining survivors decided to build a vessel with enough room for all the survivors, Zeewijk’s ten chests of silver coins (worth 315,834 guilders, weighing 3.5 tons) and provisions. It would be the first boat built by Europeans in Australia. The journal entry of 29 October states that ‘…from the wreck we have, to the best of our ability, despatched a good deal of victuals…as well as timber, rope and iron fittings, everything, in short, which could serve for the building of a new vessel for our rescue’. On 7 November the keel was laid and the vessel launched on 28 February, the Zeewijk's crew celebrating the event by consuming wine saved from the wreck. On 26 March, 88 men set sail for Batavia. The voyage took a month and six died on the way, leaving 82 of the initial 208 to arrive in Batavia on 30 April 1728. In Batavia, Steijns appeared before the Council of Justice accused of causing Zeewijk’s disaster and falsifying the ship’s records. He lost his position, salary and property to the Company.

Readers may notice the name 'Sloepie' or the term 'little sloop' sometimes appearing in reference to the vessel that the Zeewijk's crew built. According to the findings of Adriaan de Jong, the word 'Sloepie', actually spelt 'Sloeptie', is a spelling error found in a letter written by Jan Steijns and the under-merchant of the Zeewijk, Jan Nebbens. The spelling error is subsequently corrected by the writers. This letter is the only source where the myth of the name 'Sloepie' comes from. The vessel has also been called Tortelduijf (Turtledove), a possible confusion among the Zeewijk survivors that their ship might have wrecked on Turtledove shoals. The term 'little sloop' also seems to be an error introduced in a 19th century translation along with Sloepie.

The term Sloepie means 'little sloop' but at 16.5m to 17.5m, the vessel was larger than a little sloop. The under-steersman, Adriaan vander Graaf, thought of it as a yacht whilst Steijns and others thought of it more as a sloop. The name Sloepie has not been traced to any of the journals relating to Zeewijk.