The story of the wrecking of the Zeewijck in 1727, although not as dramatic as that of the Batavia nor as fascinating as that of the Vergulde Draeck, is nevertheless, one of the most remarkable sagas in the annals of maritime history.
At about 7.30 in the evening of 9 June the VOC ship Zeewijck, with a crew of 212, ran violently onto Half Moon Reef, which skirts the western side of the Pelsaert Group, the southernmost reefs and islands of the Houtman Abrolhos off the coast of Western Australia.
The sailor on lookout had sighted the surf breaking a full half-hour earlier, but thought it to be a reflection from the moon. Following the wrecking the crew accused the skipper of going too close to the coastline, not listening to the steersmen and disobeying orders from The Company.
Using the ship’s long boat Captain Jan Steijns ferried 96 survivors to nearby Gun Island. However, 30 people chose to remain on the wreck that somehow was able to hold together on the reef. They remained there for nearly five months. From Gun and surrounding islands, the critical commodity of fresh water was available, as well as vegetables, birds and seals that were combined with the ship's goods to sustain the survivors. On these islands the survivors found wells dug by human hands, edible vegetables and parts of a wreck of a Dutch ship.
On the 10th July, 12 men, including Pieter Langeweg, the ship's uppersteersman, sailed to Batavia in the Zeewijck's long boat but were never seen again. Possibly, they too might have become marooned on the mainland.
By the end of October, the Zeewijck castaways concluded that the longboat could not have reached Batavia, as otherwise a relief ship would have appeared before then. Left with very few options they made the courageous decision to construct a small ship from the wreckage.
They set to work and a smaller vessel which they called Sloepje was completed in a little over four months, an amazing achievement, considering the extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
On 26 March 1728 Sloepje, with 88 survivors on board, set sail for Batavia. Although six died during the month long voyage, 82 survivors made it back to Batavia reaching it on 30 April 1728.
They had been marooned for nine months!
The survivors managed to salvage all ten money chests from the wreck, taking them to Gun Island in the first instance and then onto Sloepje.
This was a remarkable feat, given the disintegrating state of the wreck and the fact that the total weight of the chests was more than 3 tonnes.