The Ships

VOC ships and other visitors to the west coast

The ships of the VOC routinely faced the dangers of crossing the Indian Ocean. Storms, tropical cyclones and running on reefs were among the risks they faced. Some were never heard of again—their remains discovered centuries later by divers, fishermen and archaeologists.

VOC ships—followed by vessels of the French and British navies—played major roles in the European discovery and exploration of Western Australia. These ships had to withstand the rigours of ocean conditions.

‘East Indiaman’ was a term used to describe sailing ships voyaging to and from the Indies under charter or licence to the European East India Companies of nations including Denmark, the Netherlands, England, France and Sweden.

The size or capacity of ships can be expressed as tonnage. The registered tonnage of ships is not related to tons or tonnes as a measure of weight. The capacity of Dutch ships was expressed in Lasten (plural of last). A last was a particular volume, and therefore also a particular weight of a specified bulk cargo, such as grain or salt. The grain last was most commonly used to denote a ship’s capacity and represented a volume of 125 cubic feet (the Amsterdam foot of 283mm) and a weight of 4,250 pounds which at 0.494kg to the pound was equal to 2.1 tonnes.

In the early-17th century the lastmaat of Dutch ships was always a round number, divisible by 10 or 25, showing that it was an approximate estimate. By the mid-17th century a mathematical formula using the registered dimensions of ships was used to calculate the lastmaat. Tonnage was calculated using a similar formula.

Additional information about early sailing ships can be found here.

Duyfken

Name Duyfken (Little Dove)
Length ~24m (total)
Tonnage 25 or 30 lasten (~50 or 60 tonne)
Complement 20 men
Armament 6 guns
Commander Willem Jansz (second skipper)
Fate July 1608

A replica of the Duyfken was built in Fremantle, Western Australia, in 1997–1998. No plans exist for the Duyfken or any other Dutch ship of the era because they were built 'by-eye'. This replica jacht is as close to the original as possible. The reconstruction is based on Dutch archived log books and shipbuilders’ contracts, on artwork, maritime archaeology and performance equivalence. Small drawings of Duyfken in the 1601–1603 Gelderland journal, along with contemporary prints, paintings, sketches and a few models show the outward appearance of Dutch vessels such as the ‘Little Dove’.

The exact length of the original ship is unknown. The replica was constructed 20m between stem and sternpost, with the total length of the hull 24m.

The original three-masted jacht or pinas was built in the 1590s as a small and well-armed vessel equipped with carriage guns. On her first voyage to the Indies in 1601–1603, Duyfken’s armament was recorded at six guns (‘cannon’). The total complement (captain and crew) was twenty men, but would be reduced by disease and other misfortune during the course of a long voyage.

Returning from her first voyage to the Indies nearly two months ahead of the larger ships from which she was separated in a storm off the south of Africa, Duyfken arrived in Middleburg in February 1603. The VOC had been formed while she was away so Duyfken’s second voyage to the Indies was made as a VOC ship. Duyfken’s size and manoeuvrability, and relative low value, made her suitable for sailing ahead of the main fleet in uncharted waters, and for dangerous exploration.

In 1608, she was beached at Ternate to be repaired, only to be damaged further and condemned as unrepairable.

Click here for additional information about early sailing ships.

Eendracht

Name Eendracht (Concord or Unity)
Built 1615
Departed 23 January 1616 (first voyage)
Length ~39m
Tonnage 350 lasten (~700 tonne)
Complement ~200 men
Armament ~32 guns
Senior/upper merchant Gillies Miebais
Commander Dirk Hartogs van Amsterdam
Fate Wrecked at Ambon, May 1622 (under a different captain)

The VOC ship Eendracht only served the company for seven years, but its impact as a Dutch ‘Age of Discovery’ ship still resonates today.

Eendracht was launched in 1615. On its maiden voyage, the 350 lasten Eendracht set sail in a fleet of VOC ships on 23 January 1616 from Texel, bound for the East Indies. The ship was separated from the fleet in a storm and reached the Cape of Good Hope on 5 August. Hartog remained there until 27 August when he set off across the Indian Ocean.

His course followed the Brouwer route, which was a more southerly route than the one usually followed by such voyages in the early years of the VOC. It made use of the ‘roaring forties’ to sail eastwards before turning north towards Java. Because Hartog had set sail before the VOC’s formal adoption of the Brouwer route, it is unclear whether he was instructed by the VOC to take this route or it was his own initiative.

On 25 October, while sailing north towards eastern Indonesia, Hartog unexpectedly sighted land at about latitude 27 degrees south. Hartog anchored in the shelter of an island and some members of the crew went ashore on the north of what is now known as Dirk Hartog Island. There they left an inscribed pewter dish nailed to a wooden post set in a rock cleft overlooking what is now Cape Inscription.

Though Eendracht’s log book is lost, a letter from Hartog to a friend refers to several uninhabited islands behind which was a vast mainland. Eendracht had remained at anchor for about two days, the crew exploring the island before continuing the voyage and charting the coast to North West Cape. Hartog named the land ‘Eendracht’s Land’ after his ship, replacing the description Terra Australis Incognita or Unknown South Land.

Eendracht returned to the Netherlands and on 13 May 1619 again set sail from Texel bound the East Indies, this time under a different captain. The ship reached Jacatra (Jakarta) on 22 March 1620. Eendracht remained in the Indies and was wrecked on 13 May 1622 off the west coast of Ambon Island in the Moluccas. The wreck has not been found.

Batavia

Name Batavia
Built 1628
Maiden voyage began 29 October 1629
Length 160 Amsterdam feet (43m)
Tonnage 300 lasten (~620 tonne)
Complement 316
Armament 30 gun
Commander Francisco Pelsaert
Fate Sank near Morning Reef, Houtman Abrolhos, 4 June 1629

Batavia is Australia’s second oldest known shipwreck. Australia’s oldest known shipwreck is the English East India Company ship Tryall, which was wrecked when it struck rocks, now known as Trial Rocks, north-west of the Montebello Islands in 1622.

The VOC flagship, Batavia, was named after the VOC headquarters in Java, and the ‘Batavians’ who opposed the Roman attempts to conquer what is now the Netherlands. The ship was wrecked on a reef in the Abrolhos islands on 4th June, 1629, and the remains were discovered in 1963.

Batavia sailed in a fleet of seven ships, but was separated from them soon after leaving Texel by a storm in the North Sea. The cargo included chests full of silver coins and two antiquities belonging to the artist, Rubens, intended for sale to an Indian Mogul. There was also pre-fabricated sandstone blocks and bricks for a portico to be erected as one of the four gateways to the walled-city of Batavia. The portico, now on display at the WA Museum in Geraldton, were stowed low in the hold along with a large number of bricks as ballast, to give the ship stability. The VOC often loaded construction materials as ballast on outward-bound ships. The Batavia shipwreck provides the best-known archaeological example of this practice. In 1643, the VOC shipped out 430 tombstones for a new church in Batavia. Lead, cannon and anchors could also be stowed low in the hold to serve as ballast.

Original timbers from Batavia’s hull are on display at the WA Museum in Fremantle, while most of its cannon and anchors have been left in situ on Morning Reef. Nearly 8,000 coins were recovered in the 20th century. They were in two chests which Batavia’s commander Pelsaert was unable to salvage when he returned from Java to rescue survivors. Aboard Batavia were merchants, officers and crew, plus about 100 soldiers. About one-third of the approximately 340 persons on board were passengers including wives and children of VOC employees and their servants.

Batavia is the first archaeological example of a post-medieval ship with a layer of animal hair—in this case goat hair—and moss, as rough felt in resin and tar between the planking and outer wooden sheathing to protect against damage by wood-boring teredo worms. In 1964, the State Government enacted legislation to protect Western Australia's historic shipwrecks, and in 1976 the Netherlands government transferred its rights to the VOC shipwrecks to the Australian Government.

A replica of the Batavia ship—constructed between the mid 1980s and 1990s in Lelystad, the Netherlands—was transported to Australia in September 1999 and moored at the National Maritime Museum in Sydney. In June 2001, the ship returned to Bataviawerf in Lelystad, where it is open to visitors. Details of the ill-fated voyage can be found here.

Batavia bones

In 1999, a three-week WA Museum archaeological excavation on Beacon Island uncovered a mass grave of Batavia skeletons next to a fisherman’s shack. The remains included three adults, two children and an infant less than 12 months old.

The first human remains had surfaced in the early 1960s when the wreck was identified on nearby Morning Reef. In February 2015, archaeologists returned to ‘Batavia’s Graveyard’ where they unearthed the remains of four individuals in separate burial sites, including a headless adult skeleton.

Heemskerck

Name Heemskerck
Built Rapenburg 1638
Maiden voyage began 29 May 1639
Length 106 Amsterdam feet (30.2m)
Breadth 24 Amsterdam feet (6.8m)
Tonnage 60 lasten (~120 tonne)
Complement 60
Armament 18 guns
Commander 1642 master Yde Tjerkszoon Holleman on voyage out
Fate Broken up in Batavia in 1649

Named after Dutch explorer and later admiral Jacob van Heemskerck. In 1642 Heemskerck was accompanied by the flute Zeehaan (Sea Hen), both ships under the command of Abel Tasman on a voyage of discovery to Australia and New Zealand. Heemskerck was a 60 lasten jacht while Zeehaan was a 65 lasten fluyt commanded by Gerritt Jansz. Heemskerck had two decks, and carried a crew of about 60 men. Zeehaan had 50 men on board.

The type of ship which the Dutch classified as jacht or pinas was designed to be relatively fast and manoeuvrable, and they were heavily-armed relative to their size. The term jacht is related to the verb jagen—to hunt or pursue. The VOC built three classes of jacht—the biggest was 120 lasten (240 tons); the mid-size approximately 80 lasten (160 tons); and a smaller class of an unspecified capacity. Our word 'yacht' comes from spieljacht—a jacht used for play or recreation.

Flutes (fluyt, plural fluyten in Dutch) were built to have high cargo capacity relative to their dimensions. They were not usually heavily armed, and were characterised by a round stern and great 'tumblehome' meaning they were broad at the waterline but the topsides curved inwards to give narrow upper decks.

British navigator Matthew Flinders in his 1798–1799 circumnavigation of Tasmania named two mountains on the west coast of the island after Tasman's ships—Mt Heemskirk and Mt Zeehan.

Additional information about the discovery of Australia can be found here.

His Majesty’s Ship Roebuck

Note: HMS was not used until the 19th century

Name Roebuck
Built Wapping, East London
Exploratory voyage began 4 January 1699
Length 29m
Breadth 8m
Tonnage 292 tonnes
Complement 50
Armament 8 guns
Commander William Dampier
Fate Wrecked at Ascension Island 1701

William Dampier’s Roebuck was originally built as a Royal Navy fireship in 1690 and converted to a 5th-rate warship. In 1699 Roebuck carried the first English exploratory expedition to Australia. By the time Dampier reached Australian waters, worms and rot had taken their toll on the ship, forcing Dampier to abandon his expedition to search for the east coast of Australia. He attempted to return to England before the ship sank. However Roebuck sank at anchor off Ascension Island in the Atlantic after the carpenter had concluded that even temporary repair would be futile.

The crew salvaged what they could, including Dampier’s journals and specimens. They were rescued several weeks later by a passing East Indiaman.

The position of the wreck was lost over time, with a number of expeditions failing to find it. It was located by a WA Museum expedition in 2001, 300 years after sinking at Ascension Island. The WA Museum expedition recovered a bell from Roebuck and the shell of a large clam native to the Indo-Pacific region Dampier had visited. A broad arrow inscribed on the bell confirmed its Royal Navy origin.

Click here for more information about the Roebuck

Zuytdorp

Name Zuytdorp (South Village)
Built 1701 (keel laid 1700)
Departed Wielingen, 1 August 1711
Length 160 Amsterdam feet (~45m)
Tonnage ~576 lasten (~1,200 tonne)
Complement 286
Armament 38 cannon, including six swivel guns
Commander Marinus Wijsvliet
Fate 1712

The wreck of the Zuytdorp, which had left the Cape of Good Hope for Batavia in April 1712, was discovered at the foot of the Zuytdorp cliffs, 64km north of the Murchison River, on the west Australian coast. In 1927, Tamala Station stockman Tom Pepper and his Indigenous relatives, Lurleen Pepper and Ernest and Ada Drage, discovered silver coins, a wooden figurine and other artefacts. The wreck was later identified from its cargo of about 250,000 Dutch silver coins found on the seafloor. It was the first of the four Dutch wrecks found in Western Australia (Batavia 1629, Vergulde Draeck 1656 and Zeewijk 1727). However, unlike the three other Dutch ships wrecked off the west Australian coast, no survivors from the Zuytdorp ever reached Batavia.

The ship had lost 112 of the 286 crew and passengers in the Atlantic, drifting for weeks in stifling heat. At the Cape of Good Hope 22 of the ship’s complement disembarked to go to hospital. Some replacement crew were recruited before the ship set out to cross the Indian Ocean. Zuytdorp had previously made two successful voyages to Batavia, in 1702 and 1707.

Additional information about the Zuytdorp can be found here.

Zeewijk

Name Zeewijk (Sea-bight or Sea-bay)
Built 1725
Departed Rammekens on 7 November 1726
Length 145 ft (41m)
Tonnage ~400 lasten (~850 tonnes)
Complement 212
Armament 36 cannon and six swivel guns
Commander Jan Steijns (Steyns)
Fate Abrolhos on 9 June 1727.

On its maiden voyage, Zeewijk carried ironwork, bricks, and cash money worth 315,837 guilders in ten chests. Provisions included meat, fish, butter, cheese and wine. The ship also carried a donkey, which died on the voyage. Zeewijk was wrecked on Gun Island in the Houtman Abrolhos. The survivors built a vessel 58 feet long (16.5m) to carry all 82 of them to Batavia which they reached on 30 April 1728. This is the first watercraft built by Europeans in Australia.

In 1830, the crew of the British survey ship HMS Beagle found a swivel gun, coins, wine bottles and a breech-block with the Dutch East India Company’s initials VOC engraved on it near the Zeewijk wreck site in the Abrolhos islands. The Zeewijk wreck was found in 1968.

Additional information about the Zeewijk can be found here and here.

Gros Ventre

Name Gros Ventre (Big Belly)
Built Bayonne, 1766
Length 112 French feet (36.4m)
Tonnage ~350 tons
Complement 120 men
Armament 12–14 guns
Commander Louis Francois Marie Aleno de St Aloüarn
Fate 1776

In 1772 the storeship or gabare arrived at Turtle Bay on the northern end of Dirk Hartog Island where its crew laid claim to the western part of Australia on behalf of France. According to the ship’s log, the crew raised a flag and with cries of “Long live the King”, fired a volley of musket shots into the air on the cliff top overlooking Turtle Bay, just a stone’s throw from Hartog’s dish site. They also buried coins and a wine bottle, in which the claim of French sovereignty was inserted and sealed, under a small tree or shrub.

In January 1998, a team led by French historian Philippe Godard discovered a 1766 French écu (coin) with the bust of King Louis XV on one side.

Two months later, the WA Museum recovered a bottle sealed with another coin. The bottle was thought to have contained the annexation document, however, CT scans (computer tomography) found no annexation document inside the bottle. Dark shadows in the sand inside the bottle indicated the presence of organic material, which could have been paper or parchment. Deposits of red material on the top of the cork, rim of the bottle, and surface of the coin indicated that the coin had been sealed with wax. Samples were sent for analysis and found to contain cinnabar, a red pigment used to colour wax. Insects had attacked the cork. Microscopic examination of the sand particles revealed remnants of plant material, pollen grains and insect parts.

Additional information about de Saint Aloüarn can be found here and ‘1772: The French Annexation of New Holland’ by Philippe Godard and Tugdual de Kerros, published 2008.

L’Uranie

Name L’Uranie
Maiden voyage began Toulon, 17 September 1817
Length 112 French feet (36m)
Tonnage 350 ton
Complement 144 (including one stowaway)
Armament 20 guns (possibly reduced to six for exploratory work)
Commander Louis de Freycinet
Fate Lost at Uranie Bay, Falkland Islands, 14 February 1820

Unwilling to be separated for the next three years from the woman he had recently married, Louis de Freycinet arranged for Rose de Freycinet to secretly board his ship disguised as a sailor, even though women were not allowed on French government ships.

Uranie, which was named after Urania the Greek muse of astronomy, was lost in the Falkland islands after a three-year voyage of discovery to Australia, south-east Asia and the Pacific. The remains of Uranie lie about 200m from shore in Uranie Bay.

The site was found in 2001 by a WA Museum expedition.

Additional information about L'Uranie can be found here, with details of the wreck site here.