Chapter 2 [A Short History of Australia, by Ernest Scott]

[Editor: This is a chapter from A Short History of Australia (6th edition, 1936) by Ernest Scott (1867-1939).]

Chapter II

The Dutch and New Holland

Spain and the Netherlands — Cornelius Houtman’s voyage to the East Indies — The Dutch settled at Java — The Duyfken in the Gulf of Carpentaria — Brouwer’s new route to the Indies — Dirk Hartog in Shark’s Bay — Discovery of Nuytsland — Leeuwin’s Land discovered — Wreck of the English ship Trial — Tasman’s voyages — New Holland.

The entrance of the Dutch into the East as explorers, colonists, and merchants was connected with European events of very great importance. The Reformation was principally an affair of churches and forms of religious belief, but it also had far-reaching consequences touching politics, commerce, and all the manifold interests of mankind. Its influence extended throughout the known world, and led to the discovery of regions hitherto unknown.

During the third quarter of the sixteenth century Philip II of Spain was engaged in a bitter, bloody struggle with his subjects in the Netherlands. Thousands of them broke away from the ancient Church of which he was a devoted champion. Philip, loathing heresy, set himself to ‘exterminate the root and ground of this pest,’ and his ruthless Spanish soldiery carried out their master’s injunctions with such pitiless ferocity that their effort to crush the revolt stands as one of the most awful phases of modern history. For over thirty years the Spanish sword was wet with the blood of the people of the Netherlands. In the southern provinces, Brabant and Flanders, Protestantism was suppressed; but the north, Holland and Zealand, successfully defied the gloomy, conscientious fanatic who issued his edicts of persecution from Madrid.

The Dutch people at the time of the revolt did the largest sea-carrying trade in Europe. Their mercantile marine was numerous, and was manned by bold and skilful sailors. A very considerable part of their commerce consisted in fetching from Lisbon goods brought by the Portuguese from the East, and distributing them throughout the continent. It was a very profitable business, and it quite suited the Dutch that the Portuguese should enjoy a monopoly in oriental trade as long as they themselves kept the major part of the European carrying trade. They grew rich and increased their shipping, and the growth of their wealth and sea-power enabled them the better to defy Philip II.

Failing, therefore, to subjugate the Dutch by sword and cannon, Philip resolved to humble them by stifling their trade. In 1580 the throne of Portugal had fallen vacant, and a Spanish army which crossed the frontier had forced the Portuguese to accept Philip as king. For sixty years to come — until the Portuguese regained their independence in 1640 — the gallant little country which had achieved such glorious pre-eminence in commerce and discovery remained in ‘captivity’ to Spain. The control thus secured by Philip over the colonies and the shipping of Portugal enabled him to strike the desired blow at the Dutch. In 1584 he commanded that Lisbon should be closed to their ships. Barring against the heretic rebels the port whither came the goods from which they had derived such abundant gains, he thought he could chastise them for their disobedience by the ruin of their commerce.

But Philip wholly underestimated the spirit and enterprise of the Dutch people. They had baffled the best of his generals, beaten the choicest of his troops, and captured his ships upon the sea. They were now prepared to scorn his new menace by fetching direct the commodities which they had hitherto obtained from Lisbon. First they tried to find a new route to the East by a passage north of Europe, but were blocked by the ice of the Arctic Sea. If they were to succeed they must force their way into the trade by the Portuguese route in the teeth of Spanish opposition.

Many Dutch sailors had served on Portuguese vessels. Though the Portuguese tried to keep their sailing routes secret, and had never published maps, they had often had to avail themselves of the services of Dutch mariners; and these men knew the way. One of them, Cornelius Houtman, had actually been a pilot in the oriental trade. Another Dutchman, John Linschoten, had lived for fourteen years in the East Indies, and upon his return published at Amsterdam (1595) a remarkable book called Itinerario, wherein he told all he knew. Several Englishmen had also wandered about the seas and lands of Asia, often having painful experiences, and their adventures had been described in Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, Voyages, And Discoveries, published in 1589. So that in various ways the Dutch already knew more about the Indies than King Philip supposed, and they were ready to act boldly in putting their knowledge to practical uses.

A company of Amsterdam merchants fitted out a fleet of four ships, placed them under Cornelius Houtman’s direction, and sent them on a voyage to the spice islands. They were over two years away, from April 1595 to July 1597, but they did great things for Holland. They were the first Dutch ships to round the Cape of Good Hope and to visit Madagascar, Goa, Java, and the Moluccas. Cornelius Houtman and his brother Frederick were important pioneers of Dutch energy in the East. We have the name of the latter on the map of Australia at Houtman’s Abrolhos, the long shoal off the west coast of the continent. Abrolhos, in Portuguese, means literally ‘open eyes,’ and was given because this was part of a coast where it was needful to keep a sharp look-out. The use of the word by Dutchmen is in itself interesting, as indicating that, in consequence of the service in which they acquired their experience, the employment of a Portuguese sea-term seemed most convenient to them.

Here, then, was another step on the way to the discovery of Australia — the forcing of an entry into the eastern trade by the Dutch.

Houtman having shown the road, others were quick to follow. Before the end of the sixteenth century the Dutch had established themselves at Java (1598) and seven companies had been formed to make profits from the eastern trade. Fleet after fleet sailed forth from Holland. They were well armed and efficiently manned; they were quite prepared to fight their way against the Spaniards and the Portuguese. This they successfully did, both in the East, where at Malacca in 1606 they destroyed a fleet of their rivals, and in European waters, where at Gibraltar Bay in 1607 a large Spanish fleet was annihilated by a small Dutch squadron commanded by Jacob van Heemskerk. With wonderful rapidity the new-comers supplanted the Portuguese as the principal European power in eastern seas.

In the first half century of their activity a spirit of investigation accompanied their commercial enterprise. They explored, charted, and published. A series of most beautiful maps was produced by Hollanders, adding to the world’s geographical knowledge. Partly accidentally, partly as the result of explorations, they pieced together an outline of the northern and western coasts of the continent which lay to the south of the spice islands.

The first Dutch vessel known to have visited part of the Australian coast was the Duyfken (i.e. the Little Dove), despatched to examine the coasts and islands of New Guinea. This yacht, which was commanded by Willem Jansz, was actually in Torres Strait in March 1606, a few weeks before Torres sailed through it. But provisions ran short, and nine of the crew were murdered by natives, who were found to be ‘wild, cruel, black savages’; so that the Duyfken did not penetrate beyond Cape Keer-weer (i.e. Cape Turn-again), on the west side of the Cape York Peninsula. Her captain returned in the belief that the south coast of New Guinea was joined to the land along which he coasted, and Dutch maps reproduced this error for many years to come.

A knowledge of the west coast was gradually gained through a series of accidents, happy and otherwise. Naturally, when the Dutch first sailed into these seas they followed the route which the Portuguese had always pursued. After rounding the Cape of Good Hope they ran along the coast of Africa north-east as far as Madagascar, and then struck across the Indian Ocean. But this route was painfully long. A ship would often find herself becalmed for weeks together in the tropics. The heat was intensely oppressive, the crews suffered severely from scurvy and dysentery, and it was no uncommon circumstance for a ship to lose 60 per cent. of her people on the voyage. The cargo frequently deteriorated, and the vessels became foul and gaping at the seams. A voyage would sometimes last over a year; the minimum time was nine months. An Englishman who visited the Portuguese settlements in 1584 noted that ships which missed the July monsoons were generally unable to cross the Indian Ocean, but had to return to St. Helena; ‘albeit,’ he recorded as a marvellous thing, ‘in the year of our Lord 1580 there arrived the ship called the Lorenzo, being wonderful sore sea-beaten, the eighth of October, which was accounted as a miracle for that the like had not been seen before.’ A route thus full of impediments to safe and speedy navigation was so inconvenient that the Dutch realized the importance of finding a better one. The Dutch map illustrating the voyage of Van Neck’s fleet in 1598-1600, indicates the route followed.

In 1611 Hendrik Brouwer, a commander of marked ability who subsequently became Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, made a discovery. He found that if, after leaving the Cape, he steered due east for about three thousand miles, and then set a course north for Java, he had the benefit of favourable winds, which enabled him to finish the voyage in much less time than the old route required. Brouwer wrote to the directors of the Dutch East India Company pointing out that he had sailed from Holland to Java in seven months, and recommending that ships’ captains should be instructed to take the same course in future. The directors followed his advice; and from the year 1613 all Dutch commanders were under instructions to follow Brouwer’s route.

The bearing of this change on the discovery of the west coast of Australia will be immediately apparent to any one who glances at a map of the southern Indian Ocean. The distance from the Cape of Good Hope to Cape Leeuwin is about 4,300 miles. A vessel running eastward with a free wind, and anxious to make the most of it before changing her course northward, would be very likely to sight the Australian coast.

That is precisely what occurred to the ship Eendracht (i.e. Concord). Her captain, Dirk Hartog, ran farther eastward than Brouwer had advised, reaching Shark’s Bay and landing on the island which to this day bears his name. He erected there a post, and nailed to it a metal plate upon which was engraved the record that on October 25, 1616, the ship Eendracht from Amsterdam had arrived there, and had sailed for Bantam on the 27th. The plate is now preserved in the National Museum at Amsterdam. It is no more than a seaman’s pewter dinner plate hammered flat; but is precious because it is the earliest memorial of the contact of Europeans with Australia. Dirk Hartog’s plate was found by Captain Vlaming, of the Dutch ship Geelvink, eighty years later. The post had decayed, but the plate itself was ‘unaffected by rain, air, or sun.’ Vlaming sent it to Amsterdam as an interesting memorial of discovery, and erected another post and plate in place of it; and Vlaming’s plate in turn remained until 1817, when Captain Louis de Freycinet, the commander of a French exploring expedition, took it away with him to Paris.

Dirk Hartog’s discovery was recognized by the seamen of his nation as one which conduced to safer navigation. Brouwer’s sailing direction had left it indefinite at what point the turn northward should be commenced. But now there was a landmark, and amended instructions were issued to Dutch mariners that they should sail from the Cape between the latitudes of thirty and forty degrees for about four thousand miles until the ‘New Southland of the Eendracht’ was sighted. ‘The land of the Eendracht’ — ‘T’Landt van de Eendracht’ — that was the first name given by the Dutch to this country; and it so appears upon several early maps of the world published at Amsterdam.

In this way the western coasts of Australia were brought within sight of the regular sailing track of vessels from Europe; and as soon as that occurred the finding of other portions of the coast was only a matter of time. Of course all the captains did not reach the coast at the same spot. Violent winds would sometimes blow a vessel hundreds of miles out of her planned course. Both going to and coming from the East Indies ships would discover fresh pieces of coastline in quite a chance manner. Thus, De Wit sailing homeward from Batavia in 1628 in the Vyanen was by headwinds driven aground upon the north-west coast, and had to throw overboard a quantity of pepper and copper, ‘upon which through God’s mercy she got off again without further damage.’ That bit of coast was named ‘De Wit’s Land.’ In 1627 the Gulden Seepaart, having on board a high official, Pieter Nuyts, discovered a portion of the southern coast, as far as the islands of St. Peter and St. Francis at the head of the Great Australian Bight, from the south-west corner, which was already named Leeuwin’s Land because a ship of that name (Leeuwin, meaning the Lioness) discovered that particular portion in 1623.

It was during the same period that the first English ship of which there is any record in connexion with Australia appeared off the coast and met with disaster. Upon a Dutch chart of 1627 is marked a reef north-west of Dirk Hartog’s Island, with the information that the English ship Trial was wrecked there in 1622. (‘Hier ist Engels Schip de Trial vergaen in Junius 1, 1622.’) She must have been a vessel of good size, since she carried a company of 133. Forty-six of them were saved in boats which made their way to Batavia, where their arrival on July 5 was reported by the Dutch Governor-General to the managers of the East India Company. ‘The said ship Trial,’ said the report, ‘ran on these rocks in the night time in fine weather, without having seen land, and the heavy swells caused the ship to run aground directly, so that it got filled with water. The forty-six persons afore-mentioned put off from her in the greatest disorder with the boat and pinnace each separately, leaving ninety-seven persons in the ship, whose fate is known to God alone.’ That was the unfortunate commencement of the acquaintance of the English with Australia — nearly a century and a half before Captain Cook sailed along the east coast.

In the history of Australian discovery the name of one Dutch navigator stands pre-eminent. It is that of Abel Tasman. Born in 1603, in a little village whose lush pastures were sheltered behind the dykes of Friesland, he grew up whilst the Hollanders were achieving their well-earned victory over the detested Spaniards. His countrymen were firmly established in the East Indies when he first saw the light; and the Company’s service offered excellent opportunities to a well-trained, intelligent young sailor such as he became. Tasman’s rise was very speedy. Commencing as an ordinary seaman, within two years he had become the captain of a vessel. There were no more capable men afloat at this time than were the Dutch, and the sharp merchants who directed the East India Company’s affairs would not have entrusted one of their ships to any but a first-class navigator. From the rapidity of Tasman’s promotion and the special class of work for which he was selected in the East, we may safely infer that he stood out as a keen, bold, trustworthy, and vigorous-minded commander.

It was fortunate for the fame of Tasman that during his career in the Indies the direction of the government there was in the hands of Anthony van Diemen. This most distinguished of the Dutch Governor-Generals attained office in 1636, and held it till 1645. He ruled not only with a desire to promote the strength and profit of the Netherlands in the East, but also with the keenest anxiety to find out what was to be known about the undiscovered lands of the South Seas. The instructions which he issued to the officers whom he employed in this service were marked by ripe wisdom, shrewd business instincts, and a discerning application of such knowledge, as had been accumulated by previous investigators. He enjoined ‘great circumspection’ in the treatment of natives. ‘Slight misdemeanours on the part of such natives, such as petty thefts and the like, you will pass unnoticed, that by doing so you may draw them unto you, and not inspire them with aversion to our nation. Whoever aspires to discover unknown lands and tribes had need to be patient and longsuffering, noways quick to fly out, but always bent on ingratiating himself.’ At the same time he did not forget that the managers of the company in Holland looked to him to do more than expand the boundaries of human knowledge. They were commercial people, whose main concern was to make profit. So Van Diemen directed that, if gold and silver were found, and the natives did not understand the value of them, they were to be kept ignorant. ‘Appear as if you were not greedy for them, and if gold or silver is offered in any barter you must feign that you do not value those metals, showing them copper, zinc, and lead, as if those metals were of more value with us.’

By 1642, when Tasman was commissioned to command his first voyage of exploration, he had already had nearly ten years of service in the East, and had rendered distinguished service to his nation there. Van Diemen placed two ships under his command, the Heemskerk and the Zeehaen, and sent with him as pilot Franz Visscher, an experienced officer, who drew up the plan of the voyage. The object of it was to explore with the hope of opening up fresh avenues for trade and of finding a more convenient route to South America, where the Dutch were aiming at the extension of their commerce in defiance of Spain. Sailing from Batavia on August 14, 1642, Tasman’s ships made a wide circuit in the Indian Ocean, touching at Mauritius, and then running southward until they encountered tempestuous weather. They reached the high latitude of 49 degrees, when, upon Visscher’s advice, Tasman decided to move back again into warmer seas. In latitude 42 they scudded along before westerly gales until, on November 24, the look-out man gave warning of land ahead. They were, in fact, within sight of the country which its discoverer named Van Diemen’s Land, and which now bears the name of Tasman himself. His landfall is believed to have been near the entrance of Macquarie Harbour, on the west coast of the island, within sight of the two mountains which Flinders in 1798 named, after Tasman’s ships, Mounts Heemskerk and Zeehaen.

Coasting round the south of the island, Tasman planted the flag of Prince Frederick Henry, the Stadtholder of the Netherlands, as a symbol of taking possession; and on December 4 he sailed east. Nine days later he sighted the west coast of the south island of New Zealand and anchored in Massacre Bay — so called because three of his crew were killed there by Maoris. ‘This is the second land we have discovered,’ recorded Tasman in his journal; ‘it appears to be a very fine country.’ His name for it was Staten Land, in honour of the States-General of Holland. To the sea between Van Diemen’s Land and New Zealand the discoverer gave the name of Abel Tasman’s Passage, in the erroneous belief that New Zealand was part of the Great Southern Continent — the mysterious Terra Australis Incognita — and that this stretch of ocean was simply a strait between it and New Holland. In recent years the British Admiralty has, very appropriately, upon its charts, adopted the name of Tasman Sea for the waters between Australia and New Zealand.

After leaving New Zealand Tasman sailed into the Pacific, calling at the Friendly Islands, and thence made his way home round by the north coast of New Guinea, reaching Batavia on June 15, 1643, after a voyage of ten months, in which he had achieved discoveries of capital importance.

In a second voyage of 1644 Tasman set out to find a passage between New Guinea and the land to the southward of it, which the Dutch now fully understood to be of vast extent. They did not of course know that Torres had actually been through the passage thirty-eight years before: that was a fact of which they could not be aware. If Tasman could find a strait he was to sail through it, and travel as far as Van Diemen’s Land, thence making for the islands of St. Peter and St. Francis, and returning to Batavia by the coast of the Land of the Eendracht. It is evident that if Tasman had accomplished this task, he would have demonstrated Australia to be an island-continent, and the whole mystery about Terra Australis would have been cleared up. But for reasons which are not apparent (the journals of Tasman’s 1644 voyage are not extant, so that we do not know what his difficulties were), he did not find the passage, and returned to Batavia in August without penetrating to the Pacific by that route.

After Tasman’s voyages the Dutch commenced to use the name New Holland for the land which they believed to comprehend Van Diemen’s Land and the entire region north of De Wit’s Land; though they had never been upon the east coast.

The great period of Dutch exploration in Australasia ended with Tasman and Van Diemen. There are no names to compare with theirs for breadth of scope and splendour of accomplishment. But a very great piece of work had been done. The Dutch had, by accidental discoveries and by planned investigations, gained a knowledge of the coastline of Australia from the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Bight, and had added New Zealand and Van Diemen’s Land to the sphere. The map as Tasman left it in 1644 remained practically unaltered until after Cook’s voyage of 1770.

Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 13-26

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