Monday, 4 June 2012

abrolhos ~ keep your eyes open

If you are having trouble working out the picture, it's a screen grab off google earth. The white area is a southerly swell breaking on shallow coral reef. The pale blue area slightly off centre is a sand hole in the reef in about 5m of water.

The sand hole first started to form 382 years ago today, when on her maiden voyage the VOC ship, the Batavia,  ran aground on a moonlit night with little swell. The watchman mistook the surf for the moon's shimmer and the ship rammed into the reef under full sail. Half a mile either way and they would have sailed clean through the Houtman Abrolhos without ever realising. As it was, the pride of the Dutch fleet was doomed to break up on Morning Reef over the next week or so. The already mutinous crew and terrified passengers were either, ferried on the ship's longboat to nearly islands, which were sandy cays at best, or drowned trying to swim there. Some non swimmers stayed on the broken ship drinking the liquor and parading the deck drunkenly in the captain's finery, before belatedly drifting ashore some days later, with the rats, on the spars and rigging of the 600t ship.

After quick investigation of the islands, the ship's captain Pelsart, having found no water and little food struck out for the mainland with a small crew in the 30ft longboat. On hitting the inhospitable midwest coastal cliffs, later to claim amongst others, the Zuytdorp some 83 years later in 1712, they found little to inspire hope and struck out for Batavia (now modern day Jakarta) which they reached some 33 days later. They arranged to return in the Sardam to rescue the others, and I suspect mainly to retrieve the 12 chests of bullion on board when the ship went down.

In the meantime one of the bloodiest incidents in Australian history took place on the small island I called home for a couple of cray seasons. Well documented elsewhere, the massacre and subsequent trial which took place on Beacon and Long Island respectively, meant that by the time the survivors reached Batavia, only 68 of the 341 listed on board remained alive. Two of the mutineers, Woulter Loos and cabin boy Jan Pelgrom, whose crimes were deemed minor, were marooned on the mainland, possibly at Kalbarri with a dingy and supplies. They were also given beads, toys, knives, bells and mirrors along with instructions on communicating with the natives and when the best time of year to watch for passing ships would be. They were never heard from again.

As far as I know they were Australia's first European settlers.

That blue hole is where the Batavia lay for centuries until discovered in the 60's, the hull furrowing a channel into the reef under the weight of it's cannons and the pounding of the surf.

Several people took credit for the find, but those that would know reckon Black Knackers, who liked to go bush in the off season, set his pots on it for years, but never bothered to tell anyone about the cannon he saw on the millpond days. When they asked him about it he reckoned that he had never given it much thought past the value of the metal as scrap. Rumour has it he had a skull in his hut somewhere too.

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