We arrived at the Sunset Beach Caravan Park in the early afternoon after our trip down from Kalbarri. Geraldton was the biggest urban centre we had visited since leaving Perth a few weeks previously. It is a port city that services the mining, fishing, farming and tourism industries in the broad area of the Mid-Western region of the state. Our holiday park was in an outer suburb of Geraldton at Sunset Beach and our touring destinations were all centred around the heart of Geraldton, 15 minutes south. The map to the right shows the route of our drive and walk around the centre of town. We found a car-park near the Geraldton Art Gallery which also served as a tourist information office so it was a good place to start our exploration. It was also the city’s old Town Hall from 1907 and so it was a local heritage building.
After we picked up our map of Geraldton, we were intercepted by a charming lady who suggested we would be foolish not to have a look at one of the art displays upstairs called “A Sorrowful Act: The Wreck of the Zeewijk” by Drew Pettifer. It was a multi-format art exhibition that consisted of photos and a long movie of the artist’s camera slowly approaching one of the Abrolhos Islands off the coast of Geraldton. The exhibition told the story of two boys who were caught engaging in the “the gruesome sin of Sodom and Gomorrah” after their ship had collided with Half-Moon Reef in 1727 on the way to Batavia in the East Indies. In the first European trial on the Australian continent, they were found guilty, condemned to death and abandoned without food and water on islands that were part of the Abrolhos. It was not the happiest story to start our time in Geraldton but it began our recognition that the tragedies consequential of Dutch boats heading to the East Indies and failing to take the left hand turn earlier enough were highly significant events in the past of places like Geraldton and Kalbarri.
In the list of places tourists are encouraged to visit near Geraldton, the Abrolhos Islands, 80 Kms off the coast from Geraldton, takes the number one spot. Today these 122 islands and reefs are a National Park and it is described as the world’s most important seabird breeding site. It also houses Western Australia’s largest rock lobster fishery; its lucky for the seabirds that they are not as tasty as lobsters. I am not sure if locals suspect there is something haunted about these islands as their other main claim to fame is that they are they the site of two famous Australian ship wrecks, the Batavia and the Zeewijk, and the associated death and destruction of some of the sailors and passengers on board. The Batavia sunk off Beacon Island in 1629 in the Wallabi group and the Zeewijk wreck is to be found off Gun Island in the Pelsaert Group of Abrolhos Islands, wrecked in 1727. In 1840, a British Admiralty ship, the HMS Beagle, was surveying these islands and landed on Gun Island and found a large gun and other materials belonging to the survivors of the Zeewijk wreck. The name of this 19th century ship is remembered by many as it was the ship that took Charles Darwin in the 1830s to the Galapagos Islands and other out of the way places that sparked his theories about the evolution of species.
From the Art Gallery we headed down towards the Indian Ocean, admired the Freemasons Hotel on the corner and crossed over to inspect the prominent Statue on the corner of Foreshore Drive. We were immediately back to the history of the Abrolhos Islands, it being a statue of Wiebbe Hayes, hero of the Batavia who, after the wreck of their ship, was one of the soldiers left behind to suffer under the sociopath, Jeronimous Cornelisz, who had taken control of the 200 survivors marooned on Beacon Island. Under Cornelisz’s control, the time on Beacon Island was all about terror and murder. Perhaps with similar thinking involved in the execution of the two boys by desertion on an island in the Pelisaert Group 98 years later, Wiebbe Hayes and twenty other rebels were isolated on West Wallaby Island (see map below) where they were expected to die. They didn’t and Cornelisz attacked the group a number of times before the rebels actually captured him. To finish the great job he was doing, Hayes was also able to warn the Commander returning from Java that the rest of the mutineers on Beacon Island were going to overwhelm the rescue ship. Notice on the map below that boat-tours today take visitors to have a look at what is left of Wiebbe Hayes’ defensive position on West Wallaby.
Over the road from Wiebbe Hayes’s statue is the beach and a totally upgraded foreshore park that was completed in 2018. The project was necessary to stop the erosion that was taking place in this area of the Bay.
On the diagonally opposite corner of Foreshore Drive there is installation that is commemorating more contemporary issues than the Batavia Wreck. In the last twenty years in many parts of Australia there is a growing understanding that indigenous people have been handing down many stories about their understanding of the stars and the night sky and professional astronomers are starting to take notice. In Western Australia in 2009 there was a gathering of First People elders and artists with astronomers for a cultural exchange. This took place at Boolardy Station in the Murchison and became the basis of what was called the Ilgarijiri Project. This exchange has continued and resulted in the financing of this project on the Geraldton foreshore of indigenous art works inspired by the sharing of ideas and stories of indigenous astronomy. Inspired by the paintings of Margaret Whitehurst (The Emu in the Sky) and Barbara Merrit (The Seven Sisters and the Hunter), there are 8 halves of emu eggs made from copper and mosaic tiles scattered in this Geraldton Park. It is seen as a culmination of the coming together of Art and Science.
I remembered hearing the story of the Seven Sisters being chased across the night sky at Uluru years ago. The indigenous artists working in the cultural centre at Uluru knew the story of the seven sisters and it was a common theme in their paintings. I was also told that it was a common story amongst indigenous people in many parts of the desert country between Uluru and Kalbarri on the WA coast. In mainstream astronomy, the star cluster is called the Pleiades, in Ancient Greek Myths these are the seven daughters of the God Atlas. It is curious (and exciting) news for a non-indigenous Australian to hear local night-sky star-stories that could be older than the Greek Myths by perhaps more than 50000 years!
From the Ilgarijiri Emu eggs we strolled down the foreshore for a couple of blocks to the Geraldton Museum. On the left we passed the Batavia marina and an assemblage of reasonably new apartment blocks that were put up in the new millennium as part of the revitalisation of the Geraldton foreshore. The Museum building was clearly an important centre of this development built in 2000. The redevelopment had involved the removal of the old railway line and in May 2021, there was a large area of empty ground at the back of where the Marina is located, quietly waiting for the future development of this city centre. Parked in the marina to one side of the Museum is a traditional Dutch vessel and is a replica of the longboat used by Francisco Pelsaert and 47 others to sail in 1629 to Jakarta (Batavia). This was a voyage from the Abrolhos Islands of around 1500 nautical miles!
I have to admit that we were welcomed very cheerfully by the staff of the Geraldton Museum. I had already decided that I was looking forward to the shipwreck gallery that I knew was one of the main displays here, but our ‘welcomer’ suggested that we should have a look at a 3D film that was just about to start, ‘From Great depths’. It was a film from a 2015 survey expedition of the wrecks of HMAS Sydney and HSK Kormoran, both sunk in 1941, lying today some 2500m deep in the Indian ocean. The technology of the film was stunning as to how they obtained such amazingly clear images of the wrecks on the sea floor, but it also dealt sensitively with the tragedy that was the accidental encounter of two warships and the loss of life that eventuated. This story was just another example of how the coastal community of Western Australia is surrounded by the tragic stories created by their position on the Indian Ocean frontage of Australia. At Denham earlier in our tour we had looked at a significant memorial to the lost sailors of HMAS Sydney and on our next day in Geraldton we would visit a memorial park on top of the hill overlooking Geraldton dedicated to the loss of HMAS Sydney.
After recovering from our viewing of the HMAS Sydney film, I made it to the Shipwrecks Gallery. For a shipwreck fan, this was Nirvana, a collection of the “archaeological riches” of four Dutch shipwrecks, the Batavia, Gilt Dragon, Zuytdorp and Zeewijk. The most famous wreck is of course the Batavia, particularly as it hit a reef off the coast of Geraldton on the Abrolhos Islands. Two displays caught my eye on this subject, one was a canon rescued from the Batavia and the other was a collection of sandstone blocks that made up the ballast of the doomed ship. These stones lay on the ocean floor for more than 350 years before it was realised that they were destined to become a gateway for the Dutch citadel that was the home of the Dutch East India Company on Java. Luckily for Geraldton, marine archaeologists rescued these stones from the wreck and they were put together here in the museum, long past their ‘use-by’ date in Java.
Of the other three Dutch shipwrecks off the west coast of Australia, the main one I was interested in was the Zuytdorp. We encountered the story of the wreck of the Zuytdorp on the cliffs above Kalbarri. The site of the wreck is about 65 Kms north of Kalbarri and it was only officially located in 1964 although artifacts had been discovered both on the top of the Zuytdorp Cliffs and below the cliff edge along the shoreline for many years. One significant piece was a carved console of a female figure that was found in 1925 by Tom Pepper a boundary rider working on the sheep station in the area. An image of a copy of this artifact is found below, currently held in the Visitors Centre in Denham. When the Australian Post Office started printing stamps with an image of the Zuytdorp about to hit the reef at the bottom of coastal cliffs, you know the story is starting to achieve important status. The above stamp produced in 2017 is based on the Dutch-born artist Adriaan De Jong’s painting where he attempted to capture the moment just before it hit the reef; his image is certainly well researched, based on the work of many archaeologists. The silver coin on the stamp acknowledges that there were 248,000 guilders in newly minted coins on board the ship. Up on the headland there appears to be a group of first Australians gazing in wonder down at the inexplicable scene of a monster crashing onto their land.
There are a number of reasons why the story of the wreck of the Zuytdorp has captured the imagination of so many people. For a start, after the ship left the Cape of Good Hope, it was never heard from again and the close to 300 people on board disappeared from history. No word of what happened to them appeared until 1834 when aboriginal reports of a ship wreck near the Murchison River arrived in Perth. In the late 1920s, reports of artifact discoveries by a boundary rider in this region started to surface. The story of the stop/start search for the ship wreck continued until divers found it in 1964 and Phillip Playford’s research established the name of the ship whose wreckage lay scattered beneath the cliffs north of Kalbarri. Due to the nature of the site of the wreck, it was rarely possible to dive on it and so the story of the recovery of what was left of the Zuytdorp became a frustrating one. The silver coins on the floor of the Indian ocean around the wreckage were taken by illegal divers and many disappeared into private hands. However the larger issue is the question of what happened to the survivors. They disappeared into history but left behind tantalising clues that many of these people escaped off the wreck before it sank. Archaeologists have spent significant time combing the cliffs above the wreck site and have found remains of signal fires as well as artifacts that were obviously removed from the ship. The two photos below from the Geraldton Museum display show some of the fragmentary remains of materials brought off the ship and found on land. The fate of the survivors of the Zuytdorp is an important question as they must be the first Europeans to live out their lives on the continent of Australia, 76 years before the 1788 arrival of convict ships from England on the east coast. This issue is summarised in Parliamentary Report on ship-wrecks produced by the Western Australian Government in 1994
“A further complication arises from the increasingly substantial body of evidence that survivors from the Zuytdorp came ashore. It seems probable that one or more of the castaways fathered children with Aboriginal mothers, giving rise to a strong probability that oral traditions about the Zuytdorp survived among local Aboriginal communities.“
One curious piece of evidence that the survivors not only escaped the wreck but were able to travel significant distances looking for food and water, presumably with local indigenous people, was found at Wale Well, 55Kms north of the site in 1990. It was the lid of a Leydon Tobacco Tin. There is also a report of a silver coin being given to a station owner near Shark Bay in 1869, 40 Km north of the wreck site, perhaps a happy memorial of earlier times carried by a survivor traipsing through the heat of the Great South Land.
If the puzzle of the Zuytdorp needed to become more iconic, this occurred in 2020 when the Royal Australian Mint produced a silver triangular coin dedicated to the wreck of this Dutch trading ship. One side of the coin shows the Zuytdorp, built in 1701, in its heyday before its departure for the East Indies. The other side of the coin shows its final seaworthy moment before it broke into three pieces on the rocks below the cliffs south of Dirk Hartog Island.
We enjoyed our visit to the Geraldton Museum immensely and it was getting late in the afternoon when we discovered it was time to make our long walk back to our car. A rest was in order given we had another long Geraldton day tomorrow.