The greatest maritime achievement of the 15th Century was the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus.
In the 16th Century it was the circumnavigation of the world by the Portuguese seaman Ferdinand Magellan.
And in the 17th Century….?
It was the discovery of the last continent, Australia, by the Dutch mariner Willem Janszoon, in 1606. His ship was the Duyfken.
Willem Janszoon......AUSTRALIA’S COLUMBUS!
But what do we know of this man, Willem Janszoon? Why was it that he was chosen for this difficult assignment? How do we know that this was a planned voyage of discovery and not a discovery by accident?
This account will answer these questions and cover the events leading up to Janszoon’s discovery, focusing on the man himself and his life at sea with the burgeoning Dutch United East Indies Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC).
Formed in 1602 in Amsterdam this Company unified all southern sea going trade to and from Holland. It ultimately became a national force in competition with the other sea-powers of the day, Spain, Portugal and England. By establishing large fleets of merchantmen and warships, these sea-powers plied the long and arduous trading routes from Europe to Africa and on to the lucrative trading destinations of the East Indies – the fiercely contested region in the Molluccas referred to as the Spice Islands. It is with this backdrop that Willem Janszoon fast-tracked his career as a successful naval officer and respected navigator.
Born in 1570, Willem Janszoon was raised and educated in Amsterdam at a time when Dutch provinces were still in the process of becoming a nation. As a youth he had a strong desire to go to sea as an officer so studied diligently at mathematics and navigation. At just 16, he joined his first ship as an officer cadet, and sailed the seas of Europe honing his skills in seamanship. In 1588, whilst on duty in the English Channel, young Janszoon and his fellow shipmates witnessed the destruction of the great Spanish Armada by the English navy thwarting the Spanish invasion of England. In the year 1598 Officer Janszoon, at 28, sailed from Amsterdam on his first voyage to the distant East Indies. And so began the man’s love and connection with this sometimes violent, but intoxicating, foreign world of spice trading, sea battles and exploration.
In 1603, Willem Janszoon was given command of his first ship, Duyfken. At 50 tons, it was small but solidly built, armed with 2 heavy canon, 3 smaller canons and various muskets and swords. As Commander, Janszoon equipped himself well in matters of trade and battle. His successful exploits eventually brought him to the attention of Admiral of the Fleet, Steven van der Haghen.
In 1605 orders were sent from the VOC headquarters in Amsterdam to Frederick de Houtmann, Governor of the Spice Islands.
‘There must be more charting, mapping and exploring of the lands further east of the Spice Islands and a renewed search for a passage through to the Pacific Ocean’
This exploration will require a man of courage and determination and Admiral van der Haghen had no hesitation in recommending Captain Janszoon to the Governor. Janszoon, a natural leader and skilled navigator, was chosen for the hazardous voyage to the unknown. It was also thought that the small Duyfken, with its shallow beam, would be ideal for exploring the coastlines in uncharted shallow waters.
Janszoon handpicked his small crew including good friend, Jan Rosengeyn, as the ship’s administrator. An administrator, or supercargo, was in charge of overseeing and controlling all new trading opportunities and financial operations of any given trip. Provisioning the Duyfken with food and water for a journey of indeterminate time and unknown distance required that every available space on the small ship was utilised.
On November 18th 1605, Janszoon and Rosengeyn acknowledged the friends gathered to wave them farewell as the ship slipped out of the trading base of Bantam on the island of Java. They were on their way!
An English East Indies Company representative, Captain John Saris, noted their departure in his journal and pondered the question his superiors will ponder. Is it secret deposits of gold that Janszoon has been asked to search for? For many years it had been speculated that the fabled gold mines of King Solomon lay in unknown lands to the east of the Spice Islands. Would this be the voyage that makes that discovery? He would try and extract as much information regarding Janszoon’s orders. He would certainly be waiting if, or when, the Duyfken returns to have these questions answered.
Sailing through the Spice Islands Janszoon stopped to replenish food and water stocks. However, once they left the most easterly island of Aru, Janszoon and his crew knew they are now entirely on their own - heading for unchartered waters and uncertainty.
Weeks into the journey and a new land appeared on the horizon. Janszoon trained his telescope on the unfriendly coastline, heavy and dark with trees. Gliding into a bay they dropped anchor for the night. There was no sign of human life but the night watch is doubled for safety. For the next few days they sailed southeast charting the lush but seemingly deserted landscape.
One night, the sound of pounding drums was heard so the following day Janszoon and Rosengeyn decided to dispatch a boat crew to try and make contact with the unseen inhabitants. Drumming recommenced as the boat came to a halt on the muddy shoreline and the 12 men struggled through a mangrove swamp to a clearing. The drumming abruptly stopped - it was an uneasy silence for the men.
Suddenly, and without warning, the forest erupted into a frenzy and before the men could lift their muskets to fire, dozens of fearsome natives fired a hail of arrows - 8 of the men lay dead or dying. The 4 remaining sailors were quick to fire their muskets but, panic-stricken, staggered back towards the boat. Still loading and firing, they freed the boat from the muddy shoreline and rowed furiously back to their ship. The crew were stunned by the suddenness of the tragedy.
Janszoon discussed their predicament with his remaining officers. Eight crew members lost – but he has his orders. He knew he must take the risk and press on. Distressed but in control, he sailed away from the coastline, heading further south in search of an open passage through to the Pacific. It was dangerous work as the area is a maze of small islands, outcrops and reefs.
Finally the channel appeared between the mainland and islands. He attempted to chart and sail through the opening but the current was flowing with such violence that he was unable to make headway. He contented himself by swinging south again, passing an island he charts as Frederick Hendrick Island.
As dawn breaks on the new year of 1606, the landscape had changed dramatically - it was now barren and grey. Janszoon raised his telescope to look at this foreboding land – could it be part of Terra Australis - the Great South Land that scholars speculated upon?
Janszoon believed it was as he commenced to chart his discovery. He sailed and charted nearly 300 miles of shoreline however with provisions running drastically low, he turned about at a point he charts as Cape Keerweer – Cape Turnaround. They sailed back up the charted coast, past their original landfall, eventually coming to a river mouth Janszoon named Batavia River.
It was at this river that Janszoon made the decision to accompany a longboat crew who rowed up the estuary in search of a desperately needed food source. As Janszoon and crew were negotiating the narrowing river, ominous black tribesmen seemingly appeared from nowhere. Fearful of another massacre, the crew started firing into the gathering tribe, wounding some of the startled natives. They immediately retaliated by propelling their long spears towards the boat, fatally wounding one of the oarsmen. Willem shouted frantically to his men to turn about as he fired off his pistols. With all speed they made it back to the Duyfken.
With nine dead and two wounded, Janszoon had less than half of his crew to man the ship. He drew on all his skills as a leader to convince his tired and hungry crew that they must find the strength to sail the Duyfken to the nearest port, Aru.
Many weeks later, the little ship with its depleted crew, miraculously arrived in Aru. But by July, it triumphantly returned to Bantam to an official recognition of Janszoon’s charted discovery. It was the beginning of the mapping of Terra Australis by Europeans and, as an educated man, Willem Janszoon would have understood its significance to the world in 1606.
Duyken replica at 400th celebrations of Janszoon's discovery of Australia in 1606
Part of the map showing Janszoon's charting of the west coast of Cape York Peninsula
Image depicting Janszoon landing at the Dulce-Dulhunty River North of Weipa. This is the first recorded death of a European on Australian soil.
Image depicting Janszoon's first landing in Australia - Pennefather River - January 1606