The ship's officers remaining on Gun Island found it impossible to maintain shipboard standards of discipline, and there was an ever-present threat of mutiny among the crew. Fortunately, they had sufficient food from the ship's cargo and from the surrounding sea and islands, in the form of seals, fish and birds. Kegs of food were periodically obtained from the wreck, some of them floating to the reef crest. But water was soon a problem. Although it had been found on the island when they arrived there in june, the well had become salty by August, and drinking supplies were then dependent on periodic rainfall. Fortunately, this shortage was alleviated at the end of September when a good supply was found in a shallow well on a nearby island.

The survivors managed to salvage all ten money chests from the wreck, taking them to Gun Island. This was a remarkable feat, given the disintegrating state of the wreck and the fact that the total weight of the chests was more than 3 tonnes.

By the end of October, the ZEEWIJK castaways concluded that the longboat could not have reached Batavia, as otherwise a relief ship would have appeared before then. They made the courageous decision to construct a small ship from the wreckage of the ZEEWIJK, with the objective of sailing it to Batavia. The keel of this new vessel, which they named the SLOEPIE (Little Sloop), was laid on 7 November. It had to be large enough to carry eighty-eight men, over 3 tonnes of coinage, and several tonnes of water and provisions, as well as being sufficiently seaworthy to make the voyage from the Houtman Abrolhos to Batavia.

The carpenter and his mates worked hard in their little shipyard on Gun Island, using materials recovered from the wreck of the ZEEWIJK plus timber from mangroves on one of the larger islands. Skipper Steyns's drawing of the vessel, on his map of the area, shows that it had a single mast, with two square sails and a jib, and flags flying bravely from the mast, bow and stern. The Sloepie was completed in a little over four months, an amazing achievement, considering the extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

This little vessel deserves fame as the first ocean-going ship to be built in Australia, and it testifies to the remarkable courage, perseverance and resourcefulness of the VOC seamen of that time. Of the 208 men who had departed from the Netherlands on the ZEEWIJK, and the 158 who had left the Cape, 88 remained alive to sail from the Houtman Abrolhos on the Sloepie. Stores and money chests were loaded, and the little sloop set sail on 26 March 1728, some 10 months after the ZEEWIJK had been wrecked.

It completed a speedy voyage to Sunda Strait, arriving there on 21 April, and reaching Batavia on 30 April with 82 survivors.

In 1952, Lieutenant Commander M.R. Bromell of the Royal Australian Navy learned, during a visit to the Houtman Abrolhos, that a crayfisherman had discovered a number of cannon on Half Moon Reef. During a subsequent visit, as commander of HMAS Mildura, he reported finding six guns, three cylindrical pieces of iron, and two bundles of iron bars at this location. There are also some masses of nails, now welded together by rust in the shape of the barrels that originally contained them, at the site. Three of the cannon, one 12- pounder and two 8-pounders, were later raised by crews of the Mildura and the Fremantle and transported to Perth.

It is clear that these relics found on top of the reef were derived from the wreck of the ZEEWIJK, as the remains of the ship were subsequently located nearby the position of the cannon, as quoted by Bromell, is 28°52.6' south, 113°49.7' east. The uppersteersman's position of the ZEEWIJK wreck quoted in the ship's journal is 28°50' south, 128°19' east, which gives a measure of the accuracy of navigation at that time.

The longitude measurement given in the journal needs to be adjusted to take account of the fact that the prime meridian (0°) used at that time is not the same as that of today. Indeed, the Dutch prime meridian in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries varied from map to map. Most navigators used either Tenerife or Ferro (Hierro) in the Canary Islands, but others used Corvo, Flores or Sao Miguel in the Azores, Boa Vista in the Cape Verde Islands, Fuerteventura in

the Canary Islands, or Cape Verde.

However, it is clear from the logs of the BELVLIET in 1711-12 and the ZEEWIJK in 1726-27 that they had adopted the peak of Tenerife (Pico de Teide) as the prime meridian. This peak rises to an elevation of 3.718 metres, and seamen at that time commonly thought of it as the highest mountain in the world. Its longitude today, in relation to the prime meridian of Greenwich, is 16°39' west. Thus, the longitude of the ZEEWIJK wreck given in the ship's journal should be corrected to 111°40', for comparison with present-day coordinates. This means that the wreck's position as determined by the ship's navigators was only 2.6' (about 5 kilometres) too far north, but a massive 2°10' (about 208 kilometres) too far west.

The first persons to locate the main part of the ZEEWIJK wreck were Hugh Edwards, Tom Brady, Harry Bingham, Max Cramer and Neil McLaughlan, in March 1968. Edwards first recognized that he was at the wrecksite when he discerned the curved shape of an elephant tusk among coral on the sea-floor. The 1994 Select Committee on Ancient Shipwrecks recommended that Hugh Edwards, Tom Brady and Harry Bingham be recognized as primary discoverers of the ZEEWIJK, and that Max Cramer, Neil McLaughlan and Colin Jack-Hinton be regarded as secondary discoverers.

Several expeditions have investigated the archaeology of Gun Island and the ZEEWIJK wreck. Most have been sponsored by the WA Museum and the WA Maritime Museum, and have returned rich collections of artefacts. Several skeletons of persons from the ZEEWIJK who perished during their sojourn on the island have also been exhumed.

The ZEEWIJK was the last VOC vessel to be wrecked on the Western Australian coast. Even though hundreds of company ships sailed past that coast during the rest of the eighteenth century, none are known to have been lost there, and no new observations or maps of the area have been reported from company records of that period.

The wreck of the ZEEWIJK and the voyage of the SLOEPIE brought to an end the remarkable era of Dutch discovery and shipwreck on the Western Australian coast, which had begun more than a century before, with Dirk Hartog and the EENDRACHT.


Bibliography and Sources:

Bruijn, J.R., Gaastra, F.S., Schöffer, I. Dutch- Asiatic Shipping In The 17th and 18th Centuries (3 Vols). The Hague, 1979, 1987

Edwards, Hugh. The Wreck on the Half-Moon Reef: the True Story of the Wreck of the Dutch East India Ship Zeewyk. New York, 1970

Playford, Phillip. Carpet of Silver, the Wreck of the Zuytdorp. Perth, 1996

Sigmond, J.P., Zuiderbaan, L.H. Nederlanders ontdekken Australië. Scheepsarcheologische vondsten op het Zuidland. Bussum, 1976

Wilson, Derek. The World Atlas of Treasure. London, 1981

Muckelroy, Keith. Archaeology under Water. An Atlas of the World's Submerged Sites. New York, 1980         

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