Dirk Hartog's Pewter Dish
A Maritime Relic
1616 DEN 25 OCTOBER IS HIER AEN GECOMEN HET SCHIP D’EENDRAGHT VAN AMSTERDAM DE OPPERKOPMAN GILLIS MIBAIS VAN LVICK SCHIPPER DIRCK HATICHS VAN AMSTERDAM DE 27 DITO TE SEIL GEGHM NA BANTVM DE ONDERKOPMAN JAN STINS DE OPPERSTVIERMAN PIETER DOOKES VAN BIL ANNO 1616
Translation: '1616 THE 25 OCTOBER IS HERE ARRIVED THE SHIP EENDRAGHT OF AMSTERDAM THE UPPERMERCHANT GILLIS MIEBAIS OF LIEGE SKIPPER DIRCK HATICHS OF AMSTERDAM. THE 27 DITTO (we) SET SAIL FOR BANTAM THE UNDERMERCHANT JAN STINS, THE FIRST MATE PIETER DOOKES VAN BIL. ANNO 1616’
More information can be found here.
Australia’s oldest European maritime relic is a Dutch pewter dish that was nailed to a timber post 400 years ago on remote Dirk Hartog Island in Shark Bay. Now housed at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and still bearing its inscription, the historic pewter dish was left by the crew of the Eendracht to record their visit to the ‘South Land’ on 25 October 1616.
European seafarers often left materials or messages indicating their presence on distant shores; the Dutch used plates and boards, or tablets; the French buried coins and bottles; and the British, including James Cook, marked their visits on trees or rocks (‘postal stones’). Duyfken skipper, Willem Jansz, visited the southern continent in 1606 and is believed to have gone ashore, but left no physical record available to us today, such as the 1616 pewter dish that Hartog intentionally left on Dirk Hartog Island. Interestingly, Carstensz who in 1623 retraced Duyfken's 1606 route into the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Pera and Arnhem, would record meeting an Aborigine who had a piece of metal that he assumed came from Duyfken.
On 2 February 1697, Dutch seafarer Willem de Vlamingh’s crew found Hartog’s ‘calling card’ partly buried in sand at the base of the wooden post overlooking Cape Inscription. De Vlamingh (or possibly his senior merchant) recognised the historic value of the Eendracht dish and took it on board replacing it with another flattened and inscribed pewter dish. The 1697 dish was inscribed with a copy of the text from the 1616 dish. To that was added details of the three-day visit to the island by de Vlamingh and his crew.
Before reaching Dirk Hartog Island, de Vlamingh had named the Swan River and Rottnest Island on his way north along the coast. Nailed to what was probably a pine post from Rottnest Island, de Vlamingh’s dish reads:
1697 DEN 4 FEBREVARY IS HIER AEN GEKOMEN HET SCHIP DE GEELVINCK VOOR AMSTERDAM DEN COMANDER ENT SCHIPPER WILLEM DE VLAMINGH VAN VLIELANDT ADSISTENT JOANNES BREMER VAN COPPENHAGEN OPPERSTVIERMAN MICHIL BLOEM VANT STICHT BREMEN DE HOECKER DE NYPTANGH SCHIPPER GERRIT COLAART VAN AMSTERDAM ADSIST THEODORIS HEIRMANS VAN DITO OPPERSTIERMAN GERRIT GERITSEN VAN BREMEN TE GALJOOT HET WEESELTIE GESAG HEBBER CORNELIS DE VLAMINGH VAN VLIELANDT STVIERMAN COERT GERRITSEN VAN BREMEN EN VAN HIER GEZEYLT MET ONSE VLOT DEN VOORTS HET ZVYDLANDT VERDER TE ONDERSOECKEN EN GEDISTINEERT VOOR BATAVIA #12 VOC.
Translation: '1697 THE 4 FEBRUARY IS HERE ARRIVED THE SHIP GEELVINCK OF AMSTERDAM, THE COMMANDER AND SKIPPER WILLEM DE VLAMINGH OF VLIELAND, ASSISTANT JOANNES BREMER OF COPENHAGEN; FIRST MATE MICHIL BLOEM OF BISHOPRIC BREMEN. THE HOOKER NYPTANGH SKIPPER GERRIT COLAART OF AMSTERDAM; ASSISTANT THEO-DORIS HEIRMANS OF DITTO (the same place), FIRST MATE GER-RIT GERITSEN OF BREMEN. THE GALIOT HET WESELTJE, MASTER CORNELIS DE VLAMINGH OF VLIELAND, MATE COERT GERRITSEN OF BREMEN AND FROM HERE (we) SAILED WITH OUR FLEET TO FURTHER EXPLORE THE SOUTHLAND AND (are) DESTINED FOR BATAVIA - #12 (12th February) VOC.’
More information can be found here.
De Vlamingh took Hartog’s dish to Batavia (Jakarta) from where it was transferred to the VOC archives in The Netherlands.
After more than one hundred years of being exposed to the harsh elements on the bleak and remote Dirk Hartog Island, Willem de Vlamingh’s dish had fallen from its post when it was discovered by the French explorer Jacques Felix Emmanuel Hamelin and his crew in 1801. The dish was re-attached to a new post only to be subsequently taken by the crew of L’Uranie on the orders of its captain Louis de Freycinet in 1818. It was transported to France where it was lost for more than a century.
In 1940, de Vlamingh’s dish was discovered by chanced in a storeroom at the French Academy. It was gifted to Australia in 1947. Australian Prime Minister Ben Chifley wanted it kept in Canberra and a replica sent to Western Australia. This caused some indignation in Western Australia. The 29 May 1947 edition of The West Australian commented:
Vlamingh's plate rightly belongs to Western Australia. The French, good fellows; have repented of their forbears’ pillage and have made restitution. It is the Commonwealth now that is prepared to play the dubious game of hanging on to someone else's property.
The dish was returned to Western Australia in 1950 and is on display at the WA Museum—Shipwreck Galleries in Fremantle.
In 1801, French captain Emmanuel Hamelin arrived at Dirk Hartog Island in the corvette Naturaliste as part of the 1801–1803 ‘Baudin expedition’. Hamelin’s crew discovered de Vlamingh’s dish at the base of the rotted timber post erected 104 years earlier. Hamelin recorded de Vlamingh’s text then nailed the dish to a third post made from a section of ship’s spar, leaving the remains of de Vlamingh’s original post. He also erected his own plate or plaque although this has never been found. Hamelin’s junior lieutenant Louis de Freycinet, who named the site 'cap de l’inscription' or Inscription Point, wanted to take de Vlamingh’s dish back to France to preserve it; however, Hamelin disagreed, believing it would be wrong to remove the historic item.
Expedition chronicler and biologist Francois Peron, in his account of the Baudin expedition, wrote that
Captain Hamelin would have thought it sacrilege to carry away this plate, which had been respected for near two centuries.
Peron notes that the quartermaster of the Naturaliste returned from the island with de Vlamingh’s dish, ‘…of about six inches diameter…’, only to be ordered by Hamelin to put it back. Lieutenant Freycinet feared de Vlamingh’s dish would be damaged or taken away. Seventeen years later he returned in his own ship to take it:
Believing that such a rare plate might again be swallowed up by the sands, or else run the risk of being taken away and destroyed by some careless sailor, I felt that its correct place was in one of these great scientific expeditions which offer to the historian such rich and priceless documents.
Louise de Freycinet presented the dish to the French Academy in Paris after nearly losing the precious artefact in the Falkland islands where his ship sank in 1820.
There was apparently no sign of the dish left by Hamelin, although Uranie’s artist Jacques Arago, who seems to have disagreed with removal of dishes, suggested in his account of the incident that Freycinet might have removed it (Jacques Arago, ‘Narrative of a Voyage Round the World, in the Uranie and Physicienne corvettes commanded by Captain Freycinet, during the years 1817, 1818, 1819, and 1820. London, 1823’, p177).
In January 1822, British lieutenant Phillip Parker King anchored in Shark Bay and, having spotted the posts after rounding the Cape, found to his ‘great mortification’ that the dishes had gone. The next morning, he landed and searched the Cape,
…the only vestige that remained was the nails by which they had been secured
(Captain Phillip Parker King, Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western coasts of Australia performed between the years 1818 and 1822).
King believed that they had been removed by Aborigines but later discovered that they had been taken to Paris by Freycinet. Of the posts King observed: 'one of the posts was about two feet high, and evidently made of the wood of the callitris, that grows upon Rottnest Island; it appeared to have been broken down; the other was still erect and seemed to have been either the heel of a ship’s royal-mast, or part of a studding sail boom; upon one side of it a flag had been fastened by nails'.
King left a record of his visit in 1822 when he and Lieutenant Roe spelled out their names using nails hammered into Hamelin's post, which is also on display at the Shipwrecks Galleries in Fremantle. De Vlamingh’s post, which was removed during a 1907 survey of the Cape Inscription site in preparation for the contruction of a lighthouse and related buildings, is believed to have been made from Rottnest Island ‘pine’ (Callitris preissii which grows widely in southwestern Australia) identified in 1822 by King’s botanist.
Hartog’s 1616 dish is housed at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, bearing the crack and pitted scars caused by exposure to the harsh elements to which they were subjected.
Willem de Vlamingh’s pewter dish is on display at the WA Museum—Shipwreck Galleries in Fremantle. It is preserved inside a bullet-proof, argon gas-filled case.
De Vlamingh’s 35cm-diameter pewter dish was analysed in 2013 at the Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne. Pewter is a malleable metal alloy, mostly tin, with lead, copper, bismuth and antimony. The synchrotron scans revealed the dish comprised around 85% tin—typical of pewter from the 17th century—with a halo of copper, zinc and arsenic around the holes made by 17th century square-shanked bronze sheathing nails. The fine scrape marks of Dutch cutlery are still visible.
Analysis conducted by conservation experts from the WA Museum and National Gallery of Victoria detected an unusual amount of copper, which was used to harden the alloy. The combination of copper and bismuth with the tin and lead was unique, according to former WA Museum metals expert, Dr Ian MacLeod.
…the Dutch pulled it together using alloys and materials from all over the place.
The synchrotron scans revealed that before de Vlamingh’s dish fell from its post, a single grain of sand had become lodged in the back of the dish during a cyclone. The cyclone must have been exceptionally powerful to embed the sand in metal.
Monitoring of the display case prompted the WA Museum to replace it because it was not holding the argon gas at the required pressure. The latest analysis enabled scientists to create a new ‘roadmap to conservation’. The results have also been applied to the conservation of Hartog’s dish in the Netherlands.
Images of de Vlamingh’s dish can be viewed here.
Corrosion, de Vlamingh Plate Case and Syncrotron Study