We might have been Dutch

I WAS stepping back 400 years in time the other day when I boarded the Dutch trading ship which made the first European landfall in Australia.

Well, it wasn’t the actual craft: it was a full-size replica, but one which has sailed the perilous journey from Australia to Holland and from Indonesia to Australia, tracing the amazing seafaring feats of the Dutch East Indies company ships which carried spices to Europe in the 17th century.

Willem Janszoon was captain of the original Duyfken in 1606 when he made what is accepted as the first European landfall on the southland continent, in north eastern Australia. It was another ten years before the first European landfall on the other side of the continent and a replica Duyfken is the star of the 400 year anniversary celebrations in Western Australia.

Captain Dirk Hartog was blown off course when he sailed into a little island 800km north of Perth and he wasn’t that impressed with what he saw. Instead of planting a flag, he left only an inscribed pewter dish to mark the date: 25 October 1616.

Shipwrecks and place names mark the continuing interest of the Dutch, and the French, over the next 200 years. But it was the British who laid claim to the western third of the Australian continent in 1827.

The Zwaanenrivier named by Willem de Vlamingh because of the black swans is now known as the Swan River. Rottnest Island was known in Dutch as Rottenest Eijland because of the native quokkas, which appeared to be rats, hence ‘rats’ nest’. The French legacy includes Cape Naturaliste and St Alouarn Islands, near Cape Leeuwin which is the most south-westerly point of mainland Australia.

The King and Queen of The Netherlands dropped into Perth the other day to reflect on the day 400 years ago when our destiny might have been Dutch instead of British. The royals unveiled a restored Hartog pewter plate while the replica Duyfken sailed into Dirk Hartog island for local commemorations.

The little 24m ship was on its way north when it called in at Hillarys Marina near where I live in Perth. Together with hundreds of others, my wife and I stepped on board to duck the low beams and traverse carefully down the ladders to the cozy but cramped sleeping and storage quarters below deck.

A faithful reproduction, the sails are handmade with flax and all the rigging is hemp rope. Duyfken is believed to be the only ship operating in the world using a traditional Dutch whipstaff or ‘kolderstok’ for steering. There’s even a couple of cannon on deck, as there would have been in the 17th century.

And that’s how we became British instead of Dutch.

Len Horne

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