Shipwreck Databases Western Australian Museum

Beacon Island Archaeology

Beacon Island

A brief background

Image: Beacon Island in 1990

The 17th Century

When the VOC ship Batavia was wrecked on Morning Reef in the Wallabi Group of the Houtman Abrolhos islands in 1629, Beacon Island was the main island where the survivors reached and lived on. It was the closest large island to the wreck and was reasonably easy to access. Importantly, much of the material that could float over the reef would end up close to the island. The island had no water, but as it was winter, the survivors appeared to have no difficulty surviving on rainwater. Following the wreck, 48 people including the commander Francisco Pelsaert, all the senior officers, two women and a three-month old child departed in search of water. They left the remaining survivors leaderless until the undermerchant, Cornelisz, finally escaped from the wreck, the last person to come ashore. The search party failed to find water and sailed on to Batavia (today modern Jakarta), the VOC headquarters on Java in Indonesia at the time.  While commander Pelsaert was gone, Cornelisz lead a massacre on the islands resulting in the death of about 120 men, women and children. Beacon Island became known as Batavia’s Graveyard. When the rescue party finally got back to the islands they captured the ringleaders, executed seven on the island and returned to Batavia Indonesia where a further seven were executed. Out of 341 people that departed from the Netherlands only 116 survived.


Images: Left - Batavia wrecking on Morning Reef and, Right - Beacon Island Massacre (WA Museum)

The 19th Century

In 1830 The British Navy charted the Abrolhos Islands. The vessel HMS Beagle, under command of Lt. Wickham, visited the southernmost group of the Abrolhos where they found wreckage on an island, and thinking it was from the Batavia, named the Pelsaert Group after the commander of the Batavia and the Pelsaert Island, Wreck Point and Batavia Roads. So began the story of the Batavia and its loss in the Abrolhos, because Wickham had a copy of the printed version of Pelsaert’s Journal, the version which did not mention Pelsaert describing the wallaby, the first European description of a marsupial. The Beagle went on to name the Wallabi Group, where the Batavia, unknown to them was really wrecked. 

The 20th Century

In the 1950s, the crayfishing industry was well underway in the Abrolhos. A group of fishermen who had been living on the main fisheries island—Pigeon Island—decided to move to Beacon Island to more easily access the fishing grounds around Morning Reef. At the same time, historian, Henrietta Drake-Brockman had obtained a copy of Pelsaert’s original journal in which he described the wallaby. Drake-Brockman realised that the Batavia had to have been lost in the Wallabi Group, not the previously thought Pelsaert Group, because the wallaby was only found on that group. Author-journalist Hugh Edwards went in search of the wreck and spoke to many of the fishermen and their families, but was unable to find the wreck. Then a Beacon Island fisherman, Dave Johnson reported finding a huge anchor on Morning Reef, and subsequently a team of Geraldton divers under the leadership of Max Cramer dived on the site and confirmed it was the Batavia.

In the 1970s the WA Museum excavated the wreck site and recovered part of the hull of the ship. A display of the excavated material and artefactss can be seen in the WA Museum in Geraldton and Shipwreck Galleries in Fremantle.

The 21st Century

Following the excavation of the wreck site, the Museum again became involved in the Batavia when a mass grave was found on Beacon Island in 1999. In the 1960s the fishing community had found a number of gravesites when they had been digging on the island. The mass grave was found as a result of digging an extension to leech drain connected to a lavatory. Extensive damage was done to the bodies in the grave and this marked the beginning of the realisation that the management of a fishing industry on top of what was Australia’s earliest European settlement was incompatible. Radio carbon dates from the excavation of the grave gave dates in the 1950s indicating the modern contamination of the site. 


Images: Left - Batavia hull remains in situ, and Right - Batavia hull remains on display at the Shipwreck Galleries (WA Museum)

In the early 2000s, the WA Museum, with the help of the Department of Fisheries, proposed that the fishing community on Beacon Island should be relocated to other islands. In 2015 the Department of Fisheries were able, through the State Government, to provide ex gratia payments to the fishing communities to relocate and funds to demolish the buildings and bring the island back to its natural condition.

As part of this programme, the WA Museum received a CoastCare Grant from the Federal Government to record the buildings and their contents before they were demolished. The ARC Linkage Grant Roaring 40s then took up this project to convert the recording of the buildings into a virtual reality simulation which is what you can explore and experience - see “Beacon Virtua”.


Images: Left - Mass grave on Beacon Island and, Right - Fishermans Houses on Beacon Island (WA Museum)


MA Slug