On 7 November 1726, the VOC Zeeland ship Zeewijk left the Netherlands on her maiden voyage bound for Batavia with a complement of 208 seamen and soldiers. The ship, which was 133 feet (41 metres) long with a draught of 18 feet (c. 5.5 m) in the stern and 16 feet (c. 5 m) forward was 140 lasten (278 tonnes) and was armed with 36 cannon and six small, breech loading swivel guns. Zeewijk carried a cargo of heavy ironwork, bricks and specie in ten chests with a value of 315,837 guilders. Despite the protests of the steersman (helmsman) during the voyage, Captain Steyns made what was to prove a most unfortunate decision, as recorded in ship’s log of 21 May 1727: ‘It was decided unanimously to steer ENE, if there [was] an opportunity, in order to, if feasible, call at the land of Eendracht [Western Australia].’ This decision contravened the strict sailing orders of the Directorate of the Dutch East India Company. As a result, at 7.30 in the evening on 9 June 1727, with the small sail and foresail set, and both topsails double-reefed, Zeewijk ran aground on the northern edge of Half Moon Reef, opposite Gun Island, in the Houtman Abrolhos.
The ship remained virtually intact on the reef platform for a number of months enabling survivors to get ashore, camp on what was later named Gun Island and recover a great deal of material from the wreck, including timber. A rescue group of 11 of the fittest survivors and First Mate set off for Batavia in the longboat on 10 July, but were never heard of again. In December 1727 two boys were found guilty of having committed sodomy together. They were sentenced to death and marooned (each boy on a separate island). After eventually giving up all hope of being rescued, the survivors built a new vessel, which they named Sloepie, from timbers of the wreck and parts of mangrove trees found on nearby islands. She was the first European ship to be built in Australian waters.
After a month-long journey from the Abrolhos, the survivors arrived in Batavia on 30 April 1778, almost eleven months later. Only 88 of the original complement of 208 soldiers, seamen and officers survived. In 1840, officers and crew of the British survey ship HMS Beagle landed on Gun Island where the marooned sailors from Zeewijk had camped. There they found numerous relics, which they believed to be from Batavia, confusing later searches for this wreck and resulting in the incorrect naming of features. Subsequent colonial visitors and guano miners also located artefacts left by the survivors, including: bottles, coins, wine glasses, jars, pots, spoons, knives, musket and cannon balls, tobacco and pipes. Subsequently, the owner of the guano company involved, F. C. Broadhurst, made a catalogue of the finds and the collection was presented to the state. In the 1950s and 1960s, visitors continued to discover material on the island and in the shallows. In March 1968, divers searching the outside of the reef for the wreck found the main site consisting of anchors, cannon and a large mound of conglomerate (items concreted together).
The Western Australian Museum subsequently conducted several expeditions to survey the site and to recover artefacts, the most notable in 1976 by Catharina Ingleman-Sundberg, who also completed a catalogue of all the finds from the site.
Ingleman-Sundberg, C., 1977, The VOC Ship Zeewijk Lost in 1727: A Preliminary Report on the 1977 Survey of the Site. Report - Department of
Maritime Archaeology, Western Australian Maritime Museum, No.6.
Hugh Edwards, The Wreck on the Half Moon Reef.
Green, J.N. 2012, ‘Zeewijk (1727)’, in Shipwrecks of Australia’s West Coast, McCarthy, M. (ed), Western Australian Museum.