Collection Highlights | Updated 9 years ago

Image copyright of WA Museum
Illustration from WA Museum

The Dutch East India (VOC) ship Zuytdorp was lost without trace in the winter of 1712 en route from the Netherlands to Batavia (now Jakarta). The vessel was carrying a rich cargo and considerable silver bullion.

Of the seven VOC, English East India Company, Portuguese and American East India ships known to be lost off the coast of Western Australia, Zuytdorp is the only wreck from which survivors did not reach Batavia to tell the tale.

The site has proved one of the most difficult and dangerous wrecks to explore on the Australian coast. Following a series of land excavations by amateurs and dives by recreational and salvage-oriented divers, the Western Australian Museum became legislatively responsible for the site in 1963.

The WA Museum then began a series of salvage attempts aimed at removing the remaining silver bullion in order to deter looters.

Due to poor conditions that inhibited the normal archaeological techniques a full-time watch keeper was installed in quarters adjacent the wreck during the 1970s.

As a result of the difficulties working on the site and other pressures, work at the Zuytdorp was put in abeyance in the early 1980s. A local abalone fisherman was employed to act as part-time watch keeper and monitor the site.

In 1986, work recommenced on the site. Based on previous research, it was decided to work from the sea out of a 7 m work-boat, rather than work from land.

Given the dangers and difficulty of working the site, innovative recording and recovery strategies were also devised and applied. Plans of the wreck were produced using aerial photography and then rapid diver deployment and material recovery strategies proved successful to recover a well-preserved cannon, coins, lead ingots, exquisite glass-ware and a large anchor.

Since 1986, research has been focused on understanding what happened to the survivors. The possibility that they may have intermarried with Aborigines was also examined.

Historical archaeologists and other specialists were invited to join the project in order to broaden the study’s scope. Prehistorians, for example, examined shell middens found near the site, and identified them as Aboriginal, dating to around 4,000 BP.

Diving operations were again halted in 2000. Currently a study is underway to assess the amount of coins still on the site and the potential for recovery.

Maritime shipwrecks