Amsterdam Elsewhere: Proof of First Visit
Proof of First Visit
At the beginning of the 17th century, Australia was still terra incognita for Europeans. In 1616, the Amsterdammer Dirck Hartogsz was the first to explore its west coast. He is especially famous in Australia, where he is known as Dirk Hartog.
by MARIËLLE HAGEMAN
‘The ship the Eendracht of Amsterdam arrived here on 25 October 1616,’ scratched the sailors onto a plate with a sharp nail. It was an ordinary pewter dish, one that they had used during their months-long voyage at sea, but Dirk Hartog told them to hammer it flat in order to plant it in the vacant land as proof that they had been there. The name of Captain Dirk Hartog was written on the plate, as well as that of the supercargo, Gillis Miebais, and those of the deputy supercargo and the first mate. They were the first Europeans to leave a token of themselves behind in the mysterious ‘Southern Land’, or Terra Australis, which every sailor had heard of, but none had ever gone to before.
Dirk Hartog was baptized on 30 October 1580 in the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam. His father was a captain and Dirk became a seafarer too. For years, he sailed on the Baltic and the Mediterranean. In 1616, he was working for the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Dirk Hartog was made captain of the Eendracht, a brand-new ship built the year before at the VOC’s shipyard in Amsterdam. On 23 January 1616, the Eendracht set off in a fleet of six ships from Texel to Bantam, a town on Java’s west coast, by way of the Cape of Good Hope.
Along the way, the Eendracht lost sight of the other ships. So Dirk Hartog decided to take a recently discovered, quicker route to Java. Instead of hugging the coastline, the ship headed east from the Cape of Good Hope for some seven thousand kilometres. At about the 40th parallel, there was always a strong westerly wind that would drive a ship speedily ahead. That would spare the crew months of heat, hardship and scurvy. In order to end up at Java, however, the ship did have to head north in a timely fashion. And on the high seas, it was difficult to determine exactly where you were.
When, after a month or two at sea, Dirk Hartog saw a couple of islands looming up ahead, and behind them what looked like the coast of a vast land, he knew that he had gone too far. He dropped anchor at the most westerly island and went on land. Nowhere did he see people, only steep cliffs rising up from the sea, sand dunes and bushes. After two days, he decided to sail onward. In a crevice on the top of a cliff he placed a pole, to which he nailed a pewter plate containing the message that the Eendracht had arrived there on 25 October 1616 and continued on its way toward Bantam on 17 October.
Dirk Hartog sailed along the coast to the north, carefully charting this unknown coastline between the 26th and 22nd southern latitudes. He named the land that he had discovered after his ship: ‘the Land of the Eendracht’, or ‘Eendrachtsland’. Only after he had finished charting the coast did he sail on to Bantam, arriving months later than had been planned. The directors of the Dutch East India Company were none too happy about the Eendracht’s detour. Dirk Hartog returned to Amsterdam and would never sail for the VOC again. Instead, he could be found back on the Mediterranean and the Baltic. He died in 1621, at the age of 40, and was buried in Amsterdam’s Nieuwe Kerk.
In late January 1697, more than 80 years after the Eendracht’s arrival in ‘Terra Australis’, Captain Willem de Vlamingh landed with his ship the Geelvinck of Amsterdam on the western coast of Australia. There, lying in the sand, Supercargo Michiel Bloem found the plate that Dirk Hartog had left behind. The pole was still there too, but it had mostly rotted away. Willem de Vlamingh copied the text onto a new plate and added the details of his own voyage. He nailed it to a pole, placed it on the same spot and took Dirk Hartog’s plate with him. It is now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. De Vlamingh’s plate was rediscovered in the 19th century and nowadays can be seen in the Western Australian Maritime Museum in Fremantle.
Dirk Hartog was the second European to reach Australia. Another Dutchman, Willem Jansz, had already stumbled upon the northern coast of Australia 10 years earlier. But Dirk Hartog was the first to leave a mark of his presence behind. His plate contains Australia’s oldest written text.
The island on which Dirk Hartog landed, in Shark Bay in West Australia, is still called Dirk Hartog Island. At Cape Inscription, the spot where he left his pewter plate, there is a lighthouse with a commemorative plaque. Two poles represent the signposts of Dirk Hartog and Willem de Vlamingh. This spot is on the Australian National Heritage List. In 2016, the Netherlands and Australia are celebrating the 400th anniversary of Dirk Hartog’s setting foot on land in West Australia.
This article is made available by Dutch newspaper Het Parool. “Amsterdam Elsewhere” is the translated version of the newspaper’s article series called “”. The series shows how Amsterdammers, with their wanderlust and mercantile spirit, have spread the cultural heritage of Amsterdam across the globe throughout the centuries.
This project has been realized with the support of the Shared Cultural Heritage Programme.
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