On the night of the 28th of April 1656 the VOC ship Vergulde Draeck (also known as Gilt Dragon) under the command of Pieter Albertszoon ran onto a reef off the coast of Western Australia about mid-way between what are now the towns of Seabird and Ledge Point. The site is about 100 kms north of Perth.
The ship had a complement of 193 crew and passengers on board. Only 75 of them made it on to the shore of the mainland.
A crew of 7 sailed to Batavia (now Jakarta in Indonesia) in a small sailing boat to report the wreck and to get help for the survivors. The journey took 6 weeks. Including the Captain, 68 survivors stayed behind to survive as best they could in pre-colonial Western Australia. . . . . . .
On 4 October 1655 the VOC (Dutch East Indies Company) ship Vergulde Draeck of the Amsterdam Chamber sailed from Texel in the Netherlands on her second voyage bound for the East Indies (now Indonesia). She was carrying, apart from passengers and crew, cargo, trade goods and silver coins worth 185,000 guilders. She reached the Cape of Good Hope on 9 March 1656 and four days later set sail for Batavia. She never reached her destination. . . . . . . Having adopted the Brouwer route, ie. followed the Roaring Forties east from the Cape, but obviously miscalculating his easting and possibly the latitude, Captain Pieter Albertszoon drove her onto a reef off the western coast of the Southland between the present day towns of Seabird and Ledge Point in Western Australia on 28 April 1656.
On striking the reef the Vergulde Draeck burst open and only a few provisions were saved. When the 75 survivors had gathered ashore Albertszoon decided to send a party of sailors to Batavia, in the one schuyt (small boat) which had been saved from the wreck, to report the tragedy and ask for a rescue vessel to be sent. Albertszoon decided to stay with the survivors and to appoint his under steersman (second officer) Abraham Leeman to lead the party of 7. He was probably influenced in his decision by the events following the wrecking of the Batavia on the Abrolhos Islands some 27 years earlier. On that occasion senior officers abandoned the survivors to sail to Batavia, leaving many survivors to be killed by mutineers. (See Batavia's Graveyard)
The experiences of the rescue ships with inclement weather along the coast of the Southland, convinced Governor-General Maetsuijker (see picture right) in Batavia, that June and July were not the best months for rescue missions. Still concerned about the fate of the survivors, the next expedition was mounted during the summer.
On New Year's Day 1658 the fluit Waeckende Boei and the galjoort Emmeloort, under the command of Captains Samuel Volkersen and Aucke Pieters Jonck respectively, left Batavia in search of survivors of the Vergulde Draeck and the lost 11 crew from the Goede Hoop. They were instructed to rescue survivors and to salvage as much merchandise - especially coins - as possible and to chart the coast carefully. Furthermore, they were to find out if the land was inhabited and, if so, to try and establish trade with the inhabitants. They were also instructed to take formal possession of all the places they discovered.
Volkerson and Jonck were unequal to the task. Not long into the voyage Volkerson complained that the Emmeloort was too slow and he was having difficulty keeping the vessels together. On February 14 they separated and acted independently although they met up on several occasions on the coast of the Southland.
The Emmeloort sighted the Southland on 24 February 1658 at 33° 12' S - at about Bunbury - and then sailed north charting the coast. On March 8 at about 30° 25' S fires were seen on the shore. Next day a boat was sent ashore late in the day to discover that the fires had been extinguished. Next day another search party was dispatched and they met up with a group of aborigines who had been responsible for the fires. The party also reported seeing crops of grain growing and land under cultivation. However, no traces of survivors and wreckage of ships was found. The Emmeloort slowly sailed north and reached Batavia on 18 March 1658.
Volkerson sighted the Southland at 31° 40' S (near present-day Two Rocks) on 23 February 1658. Sailing past Rottnest Island and noting the submerged reefs between it and the mainland Volkerson lowered a boat which sailed between it and the mainland. The following day they saw fires and a party was sent to investigate. When they returned after two days - due to bad weather - they reported that the beach was littered with wreckage from the Vergulde Draeck. There were also signs that survivors had been there as they found a circle of planks with their ends planted in the sand. Some sort of signal perhaps?
Sailing north Volkerson made further landings at 31° 14' S and 30° 40' S but no wreckage was sighted. After fifteen days of bad weather during which time the Waeckende Boei stayed well out to sea, they returned and anchored at the north-east corner of Rottnest Island. A party was sent ashore and upon its return the helmsman had reported that navigation and landing was difficult due to the abundance of stone reefs. The island was well wooded, it was reported, and the party had seen two seals, and a 'wild cat'. That information did not encourage Volkerson to explore the island again.
Volkerson did not name Rottnest Island nor did he take formal possession of it as instructed.
In a truly epic journey, Leeman and his crew reached Batavia on 7 June 1656 - 6 weeks later. A most remarkable and impressive feat of
seamanship and endurance!
Meanwhile, 68 people had to survive in this foreign land . . .
The Search for the Vergulde Draeck
Almost immediately after hearing the news of the wrecking from Abraham Leeman, the Commander of the Council of the VOC dispatched the yacht Goede Hope and the flute Witte Valk to the Southland to search for the wreck and survivors. Both ships failed miserably. The Witte Valk could not approach land due to furious storms and rough seas. The Goede Hoop was more persistent and managed to land a search party at the appropriate latitude. Three members of the party got lost in the bush whilst going inland and were never seen again. Subsequently, a longboat with 8 searchers was smashed on inshore reefs by pounding surf and were also never seen again. The Goede Hoop returned to Batavia soon after this event leaving the 11 men, possibly stranded and marooned, having found no trace of the Vergulde Draeck or its survivors. She reached Batavia on 14 October 1656.
In April 1657 another vessel, the flute Vink, sailed from the Cape to Batavia with instructions to call at the Southland and search for survivors. Once again there was no success, primarily due to bad weather and high seas. The Vink reached Batavia on 27 June 1657.
Sailing north a search party made another landing at 31° 09' S on March 20 and found a beam from the Vergulde Draeck. A second landing was made and more wreckage was found.
Having been ashore many times and having found wreckage Leeman set out once again with thirteen other men only to return to the Waeckende Boei when he noticed the weather turning bad. On returning to the ship Volkerson disputed Leeman's concerns and send him back. By nightfall the storm had broken and the sea rissen so high that Leeman and his men were unable to land and were forced to ride out the storm in the darkness of night. The storm worsened the next day and the boat lost a rudder and steering had to be managed by using the oars. Eventually Leeman sighted a small inlet between two rocks and with little control over the boat made for the beach. They landed with considerable damage to the boat.
Meanwhile, the Waeckende Boei had headed out to sea to ride out the storm. After 4 days Volkerson returned to the site where the boat was last seen. He fired cannons but there was no response. He concluded that the boat and crew were lost, presumably drowned and decided to sail back to Batavia. However that evening, March 28, they saw a fire on the land. He discharged a cannon again and immediately another fire was seen close to the first. Not having another boat onboard and convinced that Leeman and his crew had perished, he could not go ashore to investigate. He decided to stay in the vicinity and wait for daybreak. By then the ship had drifted further north and although Volkerson records that he sailed past the shore and that he got close in to the coast, nothing further happened that prevented him from sailing north to Batavia, which he reached on 10 April 1658.
During the 4 days the Waeckende Boei was riding out the storm, Leeman and his crew were doing all they could to repair their damaged boat. Keeping a lookout for the Waeckende Boei they survived by killing seals and gulls and drinking brackish water found in the rocks. They returned to the mainland near where wreckage of the Vergulde Draeck littered the beach fearing that they would be stranded there. Then, on the 28th in the evening, sails were sighted and Leeman ordered a fire to be lit. Shortly afterwards, the Waeckende Boei reduced sail and fired a gun to which Leeman responded with a second fire. They could have sailed their boat to the ship but the sea was rough, it was getting dark and the surrounding reefs were of concern. Instead they decided to wait until morning.
But when dawn broke (29 March 1658) the Waeckende Boei was nowhere to be seen. They sailed their boat out to sea trying to find her, but to no avail. They were now marooned . . . . . . With their spirits low, Leeman had to work hard to convince his men that there was only one solution for their plight and that was to sail to Batavia. For a week they worked to outfit the boat for the long voyage on the open sea.
On the morning of the April 8, 1658 began one of the more heroic sea voyages of all time. In a remarkable feat of courage, seamanship and endurance, Leeman sailed a leaky craft with fourteen men on board, for 21 days along the barren Western Australian coast and across the Timor Sea to Java.
And incredibly, he was making this journey for the second time! Truly a remarkable man!
When Leeman finally reached Batavia and reported his experience to the Governor-General and his councillors, they decided not to mount anymore expeditions to search for the survivors of the Vergulde Draeck.
So, what happened to the 68 survivors of the Vergulde Draeck and possibly the 11 from the Goede Hoop?
Within about 3 months of the wrecking of the Vergulde Draeck 2 ships, the Witte Valk and the Goede Hoop, were on the scene to search for survivors, a truly remarkable rapid response. Yet, they reported no evidence of survivors, not even signal fires from the shore. One would have to assume that the survivors were not in a position to see any sails out to sea. Had they gone inland? That could have been the case as food and fresh water would have been their priority and that was more likely to be found going inland. But would Captain Albertszoon, having sent one of his senior officers to Batavia for help, not have set up a system of coast watches to keep an eye out for rescue ships? He would have known that Pelsaert had made it back to Batavia in an open boat after the wrecking of the Batavia and had returned to the wreck site!
Two years later Abraham Leeman found the wreck site and again no survivors.
How could such a large number of people, which by this time had possibly increased to 79 with the 11 from the Goede Hoop, just disappear? It is a mystery requiring a solution.
COMMEMORATION CEREMONY 2006
On the 28th of April 2006, the Society, in collaboration with the Shire of Gingin and the Seabird Progress Association held a ceremony in Seabird to commemorate the 350th Anniversary of the wrecking of the Vergulde Draeck.
Plinth at Seabird.