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The Dutch

By the early 17th century European naval supremacy in Europe had passed to the Dutch during a century of Dutch pre-eminence in European art, science, commerce and political power in a century referred to as the Dutch Golden Age. Spanish and Portuguese maritime ports were siezed as the Dutch developed their own trading empire by seizing and extending the holdings of their imperial predecessors, the first Dutch merchant fleet arriving in the East Indies in 1596.

It is easy to assume that the earliest official sightings of Australia begin with the British but of the first 40 fully documented European sightings and landings of New Holland[4] between 1606 and 1760 almost all were merchant ships of the Dutch East India Company.[1] It is from Dutchmen like Jansz, Hartog, Tasman, and Vlamingh that we obtain the first European impressions of Australia.

Major maritime exploration was completed by Abel Tasman with natural history observations and collections made by Dirk Hartog and Willem de Vlamingh.

Shark Bay Pewter Plate
In 1616 Dirk Hartog, captain of the vessel Eendracht nailed a pewter plate to a post at what is now Inscription Point, Dirk Hartog Island Shark Bay. In 1697 Willem de Vlamingh replaced this with a new pewter plate recording both Dirk Hartog’s and his own visits. The original pewter plate left by Dirk Hartog is now in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. The post on which Vlamingh nailed is probably the earliest botanical specimen collected by Europeans in Australia and it now resides in the Western Australian Maritime Museum.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Adam Carr – Accessed 13 August 2018

Dutch East India Company (VOC)

The early foundations of our global economy and modern capitalism were laid by European merchant navies trading into the Americas and Asia.

The Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) was formed by the amalgamation of several rival Dutch trading companies in 1602. Trading in this company in the Amsterdam bourse was the forerunner to our modern stock exchanges. These European companies were the first powerful multinational corporations and the VOC controlled 150 ships, 50,000 employees with a private army of around 10,000 soldiers, even minting its own coins bearing the VOC logo. Though other European countries had East India companies the British concentrated their attention on India and the VOC dominated all other trade at this time. Vast profits could be made by capturing strategically located trading hubs rather than by invasion and appropriation of large areas of land.

The VOCs base in the East Indies was Batavia, similar in design to Amsterdam, and built in 1619 over the former city of Jayakarta on the northwest coast of Java in Indonesia. The name ‘Batavi’ is a reference to a Germanic tribe then considered the ancestors of the Dutch people. The name of the city reverted to Jakarta after Indonesian independence in 1949.

The Brouwer route

In 1610 Dutch Admiral Hendrik Brouwer (1581– 1643) sailing for the Dutch East India Company from Europe followed a route from South Africa (the VOC established a provisioning post here in 1652) to Java which reduced the time of the voyage from a year to about 6 months by taking advantage of the westerly ‘roaring forty’ winds between 40° and 50° south rather than the former Portuguese sea route via the coast of Africa, Mauritius and Ceylon. This sea lane became known as the Brouwer Route and by 1617 was used by all Dutch East India ships. Between 1616 and 1640 a number of Dutch ships, sometimes blown off course or struggling with their estimation of longitude, had made landfall on the west coast as they made their way from the Cape of Good Hope using trade winds to reach New Holland before sailing north along its west coast to Batavia (Jakarta), the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company.

Brouwer Route
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Commercial shipping followed the Brouwer route from Capetown to Batavia (modern Jakarta) by heading east from Capetown (a Dutch outpost) on the roaring forties before heading due north, sometimes misjudging their longitude to be wrecked on the west coast of New Holland or occasionally the southern coast. An impressive collection of artefacts recovered from some of these wrecks can be viewed at the Western Australian Maritime Museum. Landfalls were also made by ships searching for survivors from these wrecks.

Apart from any commercial interests the Dutch had, the regularity of incidents like these prompted a demand for improved coastal navigation charts.[2]

Willem Jansz & Jan Carstensz

The first undisputed sighting of Australia by a European was made in 1606 by Dutch captain Willem Jansz (also written as Janszoon) in the yacht[8] Duyfken (Little Dove) which had sailed from Bantam in Java on 18 November 1605. In March 1606 the ship made landfall in the vicinity of the Pennefather River which flows into the sea just north of today’s Weipa on the Cape York Peninsula of far north Queensland. This is also the first official record of Europeans setting foot on Australia.

Following the east coast of New Guinea[9] Janz crossed the Arafura Sea and continued for several hundred kilometers down the western side of Cape York in the Gulf of Carpentaria. He explored a little south before charting the coastline all the way to the tip of Cape York, one of his crew being speared by the first European encounter with Aboriginals while exploring the mouth of today’s Wenlock River. His opinion of the land was characteristic of views expressed by voyagers up to the time of Cook, stating that ‘there was no good to be done there!’. However, this was just the first of many planned voyages of the VOC.

Unfortunately the sailors left no record of the vegetation (unless these are buried in the archives of the VOC) and so the honour of the first European plant observation in Australia goes to Spanish nobleman Diego de Prado on the ship San Pedro commanded by Luis de Torres (1565-?) which was on a South Seas Expedition in the (now) Torres Strait. Two manuscripts record that on 21st September 1606 on the Isla de Vulcan (probably Sassie Island) de Prado observed Nicaraguan plum trees (Ximeria americana) which also occur in tropical America. It is a pantropical hemiparasitic scrambling shrub now known as Yellow Plum.[10]

In 1623 Jan Carstensz was sent by the Dutch East India Company to reconnoitre the southern coast of New Guinea and land to its south, the ships Pera and Arnhem sailing along the south coast of New Guinea before heading to Cape York Peninsula and the Gulf of Carpentaria, describing the west coast of Cape York as ‘arid and barren’ with ‘no large trees anywhere on this coast’ and on encountering Aboriginals, in a phrase that was to be oft-repeated by later visitors, described them as ‘poor and miserable looking people’ with ‘no knowledge of precious metals or spices’. Later, travelling alone, the Aernem crossed the Gulf of Carpentaria, sighting the east coast of what we now call Arnhem Land.

A Complete map of the Southern Continent survey’d by Capt. Abel Tasman & depicted by order of the East India Company in Holland in the Stadt House at Amsterdam; E. Bowen.
Published in 1744
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Accessed 7 December 2019

Dirk Hartog

In 1616 Dirk Hartog in the vessel Eendracht made several landfalls on the west coast including an island that now bears his name and also Shark Bay where he left a pewter plate on a post to mark his stay (site now known as Inscription Point), this being later replaced in 1696 by a subsequent Dutch explorer, Willem de Vlamingh who was seeking survivors from a shipwreck. However, the plate was not found by Dampier who visited the area in 1699. Dirk Hartog charted northwards to North West Cape, this section of the coast known for decades as Eendrachtsland. He considered the land dry and worthless.

Between 1623 and 1636 the north coast was mapped. On a voyage of the Leeuwin in 1622 Cape Leeuwin (later named by Flinders) was established as the most south-westerly point of the land mass, and much of the south coast was navigated by Pieter Nuyts and Francois Thijssen in 1627 in the Gulden Zeepaert (Golden Seahorse). After being blown too far south, he roughly charted 1500 km of coast from Point Nuyts, near Walpole in Western Australia, to the Nuyts Archipelago off Ceduna in South Australia, demonstrating that there were no land connections to the south.[3] But again, there were no known plant collections.

The Batavia

Most famous of the Dutch sea wrecks was the Batavia, built in 1628 as a flagship of the VOC. Weighing 650 tons and 57 m long it was a truly magnificent vessel which, on its maiden voyage in 1629 carrying a cargo of silver, ran aground on Beacon Island in the Houtman Abrolhos islands (about 60 km off the coast of today’s Geraldton) with 314 crew and passengers, including families intending to settle in the East Indies. About 240 survived the wreck on nearby islands. The captain sailed north to Batavia in a small sailing vessel, returning after two months with a rescue party but there were only 64 survivors. Many had died as a result of a killing spree by subordinate officer Jeronimus Cornelius a physician-pharmacist of dubious background attempting to control the supplies of food and water.

Dirk Hartog and Shark Bay
This map was created from OpenStreetMap project data, collected by the community.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Abel Tasman & the first written record of Australian vegetation

First voyage to New Holland

Finally, in 1642, the Dutch East India Company decided to assess the commercial potential of the land to its south and, by sailing below latitude 50oS, solve once-and-for-all the riddle of the Great Southern Land while at the same time locating a Pacific route to South America. The commander they chose for the task was the experienced Abel Tasman who made two voyages, one in 1642-3 followed immediately by another in 1644.

On his first voyage he commanded the jacht Heemskerck and fluyt (cargo vessel) Zeehaen the cargo including metals, spices and trinkets to barter with the natives: sailing from Holland to Mauritius they set a course south of Cape Leeuwin until eventually, on 24 November 1642, his crew were the first recorded Europeans to sight the west coast of present-day Tasmania which he claimed for the Netherlands, naming it Van Diemen’s Land in commemoration of the commissioner of his voyage Anthonie van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies based in Batavia. A single landing was made in the south-east at Blackmans Bay.

Tasman’s journal notes the presence of tall trees on the land and samples of gum were brought back to his ship, this probably being the first physical European record of vegetation (presumably eucalypts) on present-day Australia. However it seems that no plants were collected.

On the way back to Batavia Tasman sailed north, stumbling across the South Island of New Zealand (claiming legal ownership of the island for Holland and naming it Staten Landt), also Fiji and New Guinea.

Most significantly, he had shown that New Holland was not part of a vast Antarctic southern continent.

Second voyage to New Holland

Remarkable though this voyage was for its circumnavigation of New Holland and the pushing of Terra Australis further south, it had left several questions unanswered and so he was immediately dispatched again in 1644 to determine what land connections existed between the major places he had visited on the first trip: New Guinea, New Holland, Van Diemen’s Land and Staten Landt (which he thought might be a promontory of Terra Australia): he was also to map the north coast of New Holland to the west of Cape York.

Now In the Limmen, Zeemeeuw and Bracq he sailed to the Banda and Aru islands, around the south coast of New Guinea, through Torres Strait and around the whole of the Gulf of Carpentaria almost to North West Cape thus surveying most of the coast of the north and north-west of the continent. It is possible that plants were collected on these and other Dutch voyages but charts and journals of the second voyage were lost. It was on this second expedition that Tasman named New Holland (Nova Hollandia) a name that would remain in use for over 180 years until the publication of Flinders’s maps in 1814 and the formal naming of Australia in 1827. No records or log books remain from this second voyage although charts remain to indicate where he went.

Overall Abel Tasman assessed New Holland as of little interest or economic potential and on his recommendation the council of the Dutch East India Company decided to look elsewhere for their future enterprises.

Tasman’s two voyages
Courtesy Andre Engels, Wikimedia Commons

Willem de Vlamingh

First Australian native plants given scientific names

Among the last of the major Dutch achievements was that of Willem de Vlamingh (1640-?1698) who sailed with three ships in 1696-7 on a rescue mission to look for survivors of the Ridderschap van Holland that was missing on the west coast two years earlier after leaving the Cape of Good Hope in February 1694 on the way to Batavia.

Vlamingh’s expedition was well equipped, its emphasis on natural history presaging the Enlightenment voyages of scientific exploration to follow. While on this unsuccessful mission he charted a major part of the west coast. On 29 December 1696 he landed on Rottnest island (assuming the native marsupial quokkas were large rats he named the island Rat’s Nest (Rattennest in Dutch); in January 1697 a party of 89 men was sent ashore at Cottesloe to explore inland just north of the Swan River and a few days later another party penetrated the Swan River estuary itself.

On 4 January an armed party had landed at Cockburn Sound observing how a tree had been ‘notched’ by the Aborigines to assist climbing and with signs of zamia nut cooking the crew decided to try the nuts themselves, only making themselves extremely ill.

On 4 February 1697, Vlamingh landed at Dirk Hartog Island, Western Australia where he replaced the pewter plate left by Dirk Hartog on a post in 1616. The new plate carried an inscription recording both Dutch visits and the original Dirk Hartog plate was returned to Holland where it is now preserved in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. A report of the expedition notes that there was ‘a small chest containing shells collected on the beaches, fruits, plants, etc. . . . ’ returned to Holland as well as eleven drawings executed by Victor Victorsz on the voyage. The precise fate of this collection has not been determined but it indicates that the first recorded botanical collections may have been made by the de Vlamingh expedition in 1697.

Vlamingh’s own account of events was first published in 1998 (in French) and Mabberley[10] reports his observation of quokkas, black swans , the Rottnest Island Cypress (Callitris preissii) as ‘the finest wood in the world, from which the whole land was filled with a fine pleasant smell’, a tea tree (Melaleuca lanceolata) as well as ‘gum’ trees. He also mentions the illness caused by eating the cycad (Macrozamia riedlei) fruit. Mabberley also reports that a log of Callitris was used for a pewter plate recording his 4 February 1697 visit to Cape Inscription on Dirk Hartog Island in Shark Bay, this log being now held in the Western Australian Maritime Museum where it constitutes the oldest documented botanical specimen collected by Europeans in Australia.[10] However, there appears to be some confusion in the historical record as to whether the log was installed by Vlaminghs expedition or was the same log used for Dirk Hartog’s pewter plate left in 1616.

On the mainland they found trees ‘dripping with gum’, possibly species of Acacia, and probably in what is now Kings Park a Eucalyptus tree with a trunk diameter of 5 metres.[10]

Herbarium specimens

An entry in the Vlamingh record for January 1697 indicated that unusual plants were sometimes returned to the ship. One such specimen, presumed to be collected this way, remains in the Conservatoire at Jardin Botaniques in Geneva as one of the first of two species restricted to Australia and given a formal Linnaean binomial.

The two plants, now known as Acacia truncata and Synaphea spinulosa, remained undescribed in the herbarium at Geneva for about 70 years and were eventually the First Australian native plants to be given Linnaean binomials by Dutch botanist Nikolaas Burman in 1768 in the publication Flora Indica where they were both named and illustrated. Mabberley[11] states that at least one of the pair had come from surgeon-botanist Christiaan Kleijnhoff (d. 1777) who is notable for establishing the first tropical botanical garden which was situated in Jakarta, Indonesia. However, there is some doubt about the collector, date of collection, and collection site of these specimens so it may be William Dampier’s Western Australian collections (see under William Dampier) made two years later in 1699 that were the first, even though they were not the first to be given binomials.[5]

Dutch charting

In 1644, more than 120 years before Cook’s visit to New Holland, the Dutch had roughly charted all but the east coast, including Van Diemens Land and a portion of New Zealand. Certainly Dutch interest in New Holland was more commercial than scientific but this phase of Australian history has left a Dutch botanical legacy: the first description of Australian vegetation (Tasman 1642), the first scientifically named Australian plants (Burman 1768), and the first indubitable record of seeds of Australian plants reaching Europe (Vlamingh 1698),[6] all this together with a cartographic framework vital for the botanical and scientific exploration that would follow.

Visits to New Holland by Englishman William Dampier in the period 1688 to 1699 stirred the Dutch East India company into renewed navigational forays to the north coast but most of these met unfortunate endings and by 1756 Dutch interest in the region was over.

(With three ships he charted in detail the southern coast previously covered by Thijssen in 1627, from Cape Leeuwin (discovered by the Dutch ship Leeuwin five years before) all the way to Nuyts Archipelago, some 1800 km to the east, including a landing on Rottnest Island.)

French publication of the map of New Holland in 1644
Based on a map by the Dutch cartographer Joan Blaeu. Creator Melchisédech Thévenot; Thevenot’s Relations de divers voyages curieux, Paris.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Influence on the British

When Britain’s political fortunes changed and its global influence increased in the 18th century, there was the opportunity to learn from the colonial experiences of Spain, Portugal and Holland. Cook and Banks, when sailing on HMS Endeavour, had called for provisions in the Dutch port at Cape Town. Though the land around Table Mountain and the harbour was barren the 28-year-old Banks was deeply impressed:

‘. . . the more he looked at the energy of the Dutch and their servants and slaves, and the cargoes of fresh food and wine which they sold to ships calling in for supplies, the more he marvelled that a few patches of fertile soil could produce such wealth. The buxom Dutch housewives with their rosy skin and big petticoats, and broods of children and appetising dinner tables, seemed to be one of the secrets of Cape Town’s success. ‘Had I been inclined for a wife I think this is the place of all others I have seen where I could have best suited myself’[7]

Key Dutch voyages mapping the Australian coast

1606 – Willem JanszDuyfken – Cape York, Qld Gulf of Carpentaria
1616 – Dirk HartogEendracht – Shark Bay to NW Cape WA
1619 – Frederick von Houtman & Jacob d’EdelAmsterdam & Dordrecht -Rottnest Id, Houtman Abrolhos Isds WA
1622 – UnknownLeeuwin – Cape Leeuwin WA
1623 – Jan CartenszPera – Cape York, Gulf of Carpentaria
1623 – Willem Joosten van Colsteerdt – Aernem – Gulf of Carpentaria, Ernhem Land Qld, NT
1627 – Pieter Nuyts & Francois ThijssenGulden Zeepard – King George Sound to Ceduna, WA, SA
1628 – Gerrit Fredericksz de Witt – Vianen – Pilbara Coast NW Cape, WA
1629 – Francois Pelsaert & Adriaen JabobszBatavia & Sardam – Houtman Abrolhos to NW Cape WA
1636 – Pieter Piertsz Klein Amsterdam & Wessel – Melville Island, north coast & Gulf of Carpentaria, NT & Qld
1642 – Abel TasmanHeemskerck & Zeehaen – Tasmania, New Zealand
1644 – Abel TasmanLimmen, Zeemeeuw & Bracq – Gulf of Carpentaria to NW Cape
1658 – Jacob Pietsz PereboomElburg – Cape Lechenault to Geographe Bay

Map showing the first charting of Australia’s continental boundary,
followed by the more detailed process of exploration

Chart created by Roger Spencer

Commentary

We do not think of the Dutch as contributing to Australian history and yet they made the first undisputed sighting of Australia . . .

Abel Tasman travelled further south than any other seafarer before and was the European discoverer of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), Staten Landt (New Zealand), and Fiji. His charts, when combined with those of his fellow countrymen, provided the first broad outline of Australia’s northern, western and southern coasts. With his dismal impression of New Holland, interest in the new land waned for more than 50 years until visited again, this time by an educated English pirate, William Dampier. Tasman’s names New Holland and Van Diemen’s Land have not survived in time but bear witness to his discoveries.

The French and English would subsequently engage fully with the flora of Australia but already the Dutch had begun the process of European ‘ownership’  of these strange and fascinating plants by drawing them into their own conventions of nomenclature and classification which, with Linnaeus, would burst into a full-blown European, western, then global, system of scientific plant inventory.

Timeline of Dutch seafaring and botanising in Australia

c. 1580 to c. 1670 – THE DUTCH GOLDEN AGE


1587Hortus Botanicus Leiden established
1593 – Carolus Clusius (1526-1609) appointed professor to the University of Leiden
1596 – Dutch merchant fleet arrives in the East Indies
1602 – Establishment of the Dutch East India Company or VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie)
1606– March. Willem Jansz sights land and anchors at the Pennefeather River (near today’s Weipa). The first documented sighting of Australia
1606 – 21 September on the Isla de Vulcan (probably Sassie Island) Spanish nobleman Don Diego de Prado y Tovar observed Nicaraguan plum trees (Ximeria americana), a pantropical hemiparasitic scrambling shrub now known as Yellow Plum. This was on a South Seas Expedition in Torres Strait on the ship San Pedro commanded by Luis de Torres. This is the first European record of a specific plant growing in Australian territory
1616 – Dirk Hartog in Eendracht lands at today’s Inscription Point, Dirk Hartog Island, Shark Bay nailing to a pole a pewter plate that records his visit. The post used for the pewter plate by either Dirk Hartog (1616) or a new one used by Vlamingh (1696), and now in the Western Australian Maritime Museum, constitutes the first European-collected Australian botanical specimen
1617– All Dutch shipping now using the Brouwer Route
1619 – Building of Batavia (modern Jakarta) as the Dutch trading hub in the East Indies – using Amsterdam as the model
1623– Cartensz charts the west coast of the Cape York peninsula – this is extended by others in the period up to 1636
1627 – Much of the south coast mapped by Nuyts and Thijssen
1629 – The Bavaria is shipwrecked on Houtman Abrolhos Iss on maiden voyage
1696 – Willem van Vlamingh replaces pewter plate at Inscription Point with a new one recording the visits by both Dirk Hartog and himself
1699 – English pirate William Dampier searches unsuccessfully for Vlaminghs pewter plate
1642-3 – Abel Tasman’s first voyage to establish the commercial possibilities of land to the south of the East Indies and to solve the mystery of the predicted Great Southern Land
. . . 24 November 1642, his crew were the first recorded Europeans to sight the west coast of present-day Tasmania which he claimed for the Netherlands, naming it Van Diemen’s Land in commemoration of the commissioner of his voyage Anthonie van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies based in Batavia. A single landing was made in the south-east at Blackmans Bay
. . . Encounters todays New Zealand, claiming it for Holland and naming it Staten Landt, also ‘discovering’ Fiji and New Guinea
. . . Establishes that Australia is not part of a vast southern Antarctic continent
1644 – Tasman’s second voyage in Limmen, Zeemeeuw and Bracq he sailed to the Banda and Aru islands, then around the south coast of New Guinea, through Torres Strait and the Gulf of Carpentaria. It is possible that plants were collected on this (and other) Dutch voyages but charts, journals and specimens, if they existed, were lost. On this expedition Tasman named New Holland (Nova Hollandia) a name used for over 180 years until the publication of Flinders’s maps in 1814 and the formal naming of ‘Australia’ in 1827. No records or log books remain of this voyage although charts indicate where he went.
1653 – German-born George Rumpf (1627-1702) arrives in Batavia as employee of VOC seeking plants of commercial benefit, moving to Ambon Archipelago in 1654
1677 – Germans Andreas Cleyer and George Meister work in Java finding plants suitable for cultivation in Europe, sending them to the Cape botanical garden
1678-1693 – Publication of the 12-volume Hortus Indicus Malabaricus an early tropical flora of southwest India
1679-1706 – Dutch garden at the Cape a valuable source of plants for Amsterdam, Leiden and other botanic gardens
1680-1695 – Paul Hermann (1646-1695) Prof. Botany & garden director 1680-1695
1697 – Vlamingh expedition replaces Dirk Hartog’s pewter plate at Inscription Point, Dirk Hartog Island, Shark Bay, with one of his own. Plants collected on this expedition were probably the first Australian native plants to be collected and retained for posterity and certainly the first to be given binomials (by Nikolaas Burman in Flora Indica (1768))
1701 – Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738) appointed lecturer on the institute of medicine at Leiden, then in 1709 Professor of Botany and Medicine a major European figure in European medicine who added many plants to the Leiden garden
1722 – Johannes Burman (1707-1779) studied in Leiden under Herman Boerhaave to become doctor of medicine in 1728, then practicing in Amsterdam and becoming Professor of Botany in Amsterdam. Son Nikolaas Burman studied with Linnaeus in Uppsala. Johannes met Linnaeus (with a letter of recommendation from Boerhaave) in 1735 and offered him accommodation in Amsterdam, employing him to complete a flora of the plants of Ceylon and introducing him to wealthy banker (also one of the VOC directors) George Clifford III who employed Linnaeus to survey the gardens and menagerie at his property Hartekamp
1741-1755 – Publication of Rumpf’s years after his work in the region

Key points

  • The first undisputed sighting of Australia by a European was made in 1606 by Dutch captain Willem Jansz in the Duyfken
  • First time Europeans officially set foot on the continent. This was in the vicinity of the Pennefather River which flows into the sea just north of today’s Weipa on the Cape York Peninsula
  • First European encounter with Aboriginals while exploring the mouth of today’s Wenlock River
  • Dutch navigators accurately chart about two thirds of the Australian coastline in the 170 years between the first official charting by the yacht Duyfken in 1606 and the arrival of Englishman Cook in HMS Endeavour in 1770
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