An Australian Tercentenary [by Professor Ernest Scott, 21 October 1916]

[Editor: An article regarding Dirk Hartog’s discovery of Australia, by Professor Ernest Scott. Published in The Argus, 21 October 1916.]

An Australian Tercentenary.

By Professor Scott.

On October 25, 1610, a ship belonging to the Dutch East India Company, on the voyage between the Cape of Good Hope and Batavia, made a discovery which added a new stretch of coastline to the map of the world. She was the Eendracht, from Amsterdam, a vessel, we may suppose, built according to the usual design of early seventeenth century Dutch craft for the Indies trade. Many of them are figured as decorations upon the beautiful maps for which the cosmographers of Holland became so justly famous. Tall, proud, stately looking ships they were, three-masted, high-pooped, carrying great sails which, as you see them on the old charts among the whales, dolphins, and mermaids, are always bulging full of wind.

Now the Eendracht ought not to have been upon this strange coast. But she had overshot her true appointed course, as vessels often did in those days; for skippers had no certain means of determining longitude, and it was nothing unusual for the dead reckoning to be out by a hundred miles or so on a long voyage. Five years before 1616, it would have been almost impossible for a Dutch ship to be on these western coasts at all. But in 1611 a very able captain in the service of the Dutch E. I. Company, Hendrik Brouwer — afterwards Governor-General at Batavia — made a somewhat important discovery. He found that if ships bound for Java from the Cape, instead of working up the east coast of Africa, and then creeping across the Indian Ocean in the tropics, would keep down south, in about latitude 36, they would get the benefit of good westerly winds. The old route was very slow. Vessels were often becalmed for weeks in the tropics, to the detriment of the cargo and the serious injury of the health of the crews. But by Brouwer’s route — which meant an easterly run in the latitude of Kangaroo Island — there would generally be a quick passage across the ocean, and then, when the captain reckoned that he had run far enough in that direction, he had to turn north and make for Java. Brouwer himself had proved the great gain in time made by the change of route, and on his recommendation, in 1613, the directors of the company issued instructions to their commanders to follow this course in future.

Dirk Hartogs, the captain of the Eendracht, was making for Batavia under those instructions three years later. But, as just explained, he had run farther east than Brouwer had recommended, and had brought his ship opposite a coast not hitherto charted. So, being a careful navigator, and a good servant of the company, he marked down upon his chart the piece of shoreline that he saw, and called it Eendracht’s Land — in Dutch, “Landt van d’Eendracht, antdaekt, 1616.” And that was the first name which Australia bore upon any map. It was called Eendracht’s Land until later navigators discovered other pieces of the coastline, and gave names to them — such as Edel’s Landt, Landt van Pieter Nuyts, de Wit’s Landt and so forth; and then the general name New Holland was used for the whole.

Towards the end of the seventeenth century, when the rare old English buccaneer, William Dampier, came down to these seas with his dubious companions in the Cygnet, the whole of the west coast of the continent was well known to the Dutch. But Dampier, who had a Dutch chart, was puzzled by this name of Eendracht’s Land upon it. What did that mean? When Dampier wanted to explain anything, his ingenuity was never at fault, if his knowledge often was. He had talked with Dutch sailors, and they had told him that “ships sailing from the Cape of Good Hope to New Holland find themselves there, and sometimes to their cost, running aground when they have thought themselves to be a great way off.” Then comes the explanation: “And it is from hence possibly that the Dutch call that part of this coast the land of indraught, as if it magnetically drew ships too fast to it.” And, mind you, that theory of Dampier was read by many navigators, and from it the west coast of Australia got quite a bad reputation as being so magnetic that if ships came too near it they might be drawn in, as the magnet draws a needle. Dampier was not the only sailor who made a queer mistake as to the meaning of a name on the map of Australia. The French captain, Baudin, in 1802, saw Waterhouse Island marked on his chart of Bass Strait. It was, of course, named after Captain Waterhouse, of H.M.S. Reliance. But Baudin, who called there in the hope of refilling his casks, wrote in his journal that “it does not seem to offer any appearance of water being discoverable there, and I am persuaded that it can have been named Water House only because the English visited it after heavy rains had fallen!”

The discovery made by Dirk Hartogs was really a very important one from the point of view of safe navigation. Hitherto, captains tailing on Brouwer’s route had to make a guess as to where they should turn north after their easterly run. But now, after Hartog had reported the finding of this new land, they had a definite point to make for. He erected on Dirk Hartog’s Island a tall post with a metal plate upon it, to serve as a signal, and fresh instructions were issued by the company to its captains that they were to sail east till they made the new Southland of the Eendracht, and then turn north for Java. And it was through making for that point that, by a series of accidents, the remainder of the western coast of Australia was discovered. Sometimes ships came upon fresh pieces of coast in comfortable circumstances; in other instances it was otherwise. An example of the latter kind is that of Captain Francis Pelsart in 1629. Bowling along with a good east wind bellying her sails, his ship suddenly ran on to Houtman’s Abrolhos, before the captain knew that he was near the coast. It was a bright moonlight night, and the steersman had mistaken the froth of the sea beating on the rocks for moonbeams whitening the water. Pelsart, who was lying in his cabin sick, rushed on deck, and blamed the officer of the watch for the loss of the ship. In what part of the world did he think they were? The officer replied “that God only knew that, but that the ship appeared to be on a bank hitherto undiscovered.” That was another case of over-shooting the mark.

The discovery of 1616 marked a turning point in the history of Australian exploration. It brought the west coast of the continent within the ken of the Dutch navigators, and evoked their curiosity as to what the nature of this far-extending land of the south might be, and how far it reached towards the Pole. It was not, of course, the first piece of Australia with which the Dutch became acquainted. The yacht Duyfken (the “Little Dove”) had nosed into the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1606, and Shakespeare’s eye rested on a little stretch of Australia, marked on the map which amused him while he was writing “Twelfth Night.” There were, he made Maria say, more lines on Malvolio’s smiling but puzzled face “than are in the new map with the augmentation of the Indies.” The small bit of Australia on that map was part of the “augmentation of the Indies.” But it was the incident of 1616 that opened the way to extensive discoveries, and that is why the tercentenary of the event is worthy to be held in remembrance.

The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.), 21 October 1916, p. 5

Editor’s notes:
Batavia = the former name of Jakarta (Indonesia) when it was governed by the Dutch

ken = knowledge, perception, understanding

tercentenary = an anniversary of 300 years; also known as a “tricentenary”

[Editor: Corrected “runing aground” to “running aground”.]

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