Persévérant Survivor's Camp
Author/s K. Robinson
Year of publication 1988
Report Number: 34
In May of 1988, a Western Australian Maritime Museum (WAMM) team, lead by Graeme Henderson, Curator of Maritime Archaeology, undertook a survey of whaling ship wreck sites on the Western Australian coast. The program included an investigation at Dirk Hartog Island: a study of the historic site covered in this preliminary report. Henderson’s archival research suggested that the camp had been occupied by survivors of the French whaling vessel Perseverant, wrecked in 1841. Examination of the site and initial analysis of associated artefacts have supported this identification. Evaluation of the fragile in situ remains and their current deterioration has led to recommendations for further study. The author, a student of geology and archaeology, took part in the expedition as a volunteer, and as a representative of the Underwater Archaeological Society of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.
Dirk Hartog Island is prominent, both geographically and historically. The western-most promontory of Australia was the site of European man’s first recorded landfall on the continent’s Indian Ocean shores. The island’s 80 kilometre west coast endures the ravages of that ocean, and is fringed with high cliffs of gently folded sandstone. The east coast bounds the large and shallow Shark Bay and features lower cliffs, sandy bays and sand dunes. The long narrow island receives very little rainfall, and vegetation is largely limited to knee high scrub. When Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog visited the island in 1616 he stayed long enough to leave a pewter plate commemorating his achievement. He, along with later explorers found little value in the island save its prominence as a landmark.
However, the surrounding waters teemed with life. As early as 1792, whalers visited Shark Bay and by the 1830s American, British and French ships regularly harvested the great mammals along the coast, sometimes taking shelter from rough weather behind Dirk Hartog Island.
In 1976, local stockman Tom Pepper discovered the site while he mustered sheep in the dunes by the northeast shores of the island. He noted bottles and buttons in the scatter of iron fragments, and soon reported his find to the Western Australian Museum – David Hutchison, Curator of History visited the location. He described the position and orientation of the site, and collected representative artefacts. Significant among his finds were brass buttons, some embossed with an anchor and the inscription ‘EQUIPAGE DE LIGNE’. Hutchison recommended that the site be examined further and that Pepper be awarded for his information. In 1988, Henderson planned to visit and examine the site because his research indicated that such a camp had been occupied by the survivors of a French whaling vessel. Both the location and the type of remains fit a brief story of tragedy recounted by M. Estrade, Third Mate of the Perseverant, upon his rescue. The vessel, a 260-ton ship rigged whaler, of oak and copper construction ran aground near or on the shores of Dirk Hartog Island in March of 1841. Although a later sighting of the ship suggested he had suffered little damage, captain and crew evacuated the hulk and established a camp on the shore of the island. Sunbaked and windswept, this dry barren land presented less sanctuary than obstacle to the unfortunate seamen. After ten weeks on the island, during which time five men died of scurvy, remaining officers and crew made a desperate bid for salvation. They set out for Java in four of the ship’s small boats, only to be caught in a severe gale. The boats were separated and only one, containing M. Estrade and three crewmen was saved. The objectives of the WAMM study of the site were:
- to determine whether the reported site was indeed the Perseverant survivors’ camp
- to assess the condition of the site and its potential for further study and
- to seek clues indicating the location of the ship itself.