Zuytdorp History

The Wreck of the Zuytdorp

Model of the Zuytdorp

A model of the Zuytdorp built by Jim de Heer.
Image courtesy of the Western Australian Museum.
The Zuytdorp (“South Village”) was a Dutch East India Company merchant ship smashed against Shark Bay’s coastal cliffs in June 1712 whilst voyaging to Batavia (Jakarta, Indonesia). Aboard the Zuytdorp were about 200 passengers and crew and a rich cargo, including 248,000 silver coins. The precise circumstances of the wreck remain a mystery, because no survivors reached Batavia to tell the tale. Some did live for a time in Shark Bay, however, where they were helped by local Aboriginal people. This contact with Europeans was probably the first ever made by Australia’s indigenous people.
Although 33 m long and as tall as a three-storey building, the three-masted Zuytdorp was helpless as a gale flung her onto the rocks. Visit the cliffs that claimed the Zuytdorp here.

Protecting the wreck

The Zuytdorp wreck site is about 65 km north of Kalbarri. See where the ship lies here. Timbers, guns, anchors and a carpet of silver coins have been found strewn across the sea floor. In 1986 divers from the Western Australian Maritime Museum raised artefacts from the Zuytdorp.

But the waves, cliffs and currents that claimed the Zuytdorp are still dangerous today. Diving on the wreck is treacherous – and illegal. The wreck site and artefacts and the coast adjacent to the wreck are protected under Commonwealth and Western Australian law. A 500-m radius protection zone encircles the wreck, and permission is required from the Western Australian Maritime Museum to enter the area.

Route of the Zuytdorp

Map of the likely route taken by the Zuytdorp 1712
It was a long and arduous 11 month journey from Amsterdam before the Zuytdorp became shipwrecked near Shark Bay. The Dutch were at war with the French and Spanish at the time, necessitating a route to the north of Scotland to avoid these countries. Further south the ship was diverted to Sao Tome to take on supplies because of delays caused by light winds and a longer route. A high death toll meant more crew were needed at the Cape of Good Hope before departing for Batavia. The favoured route across the Indian Ocean was to head south to pick up the strong westerly winds at that latitude. This made for a much quicker journey than the previous, more direct, north-easterly route. The problem with this new route lay in deciding when to alter course to head north and as a result many East Indies bound vessels found themselves in difficulties along the shores of Western Australia.

The mystery of the castaways

It is believed that there were numerous survivors of the Zuytdorp wreck. No-one knows exactly how many people came ashore, or what happened to them, but evidence of large fires and the discovery of artefacts on the cliffs and surrounding areas indicates that at least some survived for a period afterwards. Here are some other clues:

  • In 1927 stockman Tom Pepper found silver coins, bottles and other artefacts at an old camp site at the top of the cliffs. In 1954  geologist/historian Dr Phillip Playford exploring the area was shown the coins. He confirmed that they were from the Zuytdorp.
  • There are accounts of Aboriginal people living in Shark Bay in 1869 who had Dutch coins.
  • In 1834, Aborigines in Perth told the story of the Shark Bay ‘Wayl men’ who knew of a wreck strewn with coins. About 50 km north of the wreck site is a fresh water soak called Wale Well, a major Aboriginal camp site. In 1990 researchers visiting Wale Well found a brass tobacco tin inscribed with the name ‘Lyden’ (the present Dutch city of Leiden) which closely matched one from the 1727 wreck of another Dutch ship, Zeewijk. (The Zeewijk was wrecked on the Houtman Abrolhos Islands, south of Shark Bay.) There can be little doubt that the brass tin came from the Zuytdorp, and was carried to the well by either a survivor or an Aborigine.

First contact?

It is now probable that the wreck of the Zuytdorp was the first known contact between Europeans and Australians. Fresh water is scarce along the coast, and without knowledge of soaks further inland the Dutch would have perished in the hot dry summer. But is it possible the two peoples lived together, and even had children?

  • Researchers are currently investigating the possibility of a genetic link between Zuytdorp survivors and local people. The relatively high frequency of an otherwise rare inherited condition, Ellis-van Creveld Syndrome, in Aboriginal people in Western Australia is thought to be connected to the Dutch castaways, since the condition was rife in Holland at the time of the shipwreck.
  • There are also published accounts from early European settlers, an explorer and an ethnographer of some local Aboriginal people having relatively light-coloured skin and ‘European’ features.

The story of the Zuytdorp, its survivors and the people who helped them will continue to intrigue for years to come.

Discover more about Shark Bay’s shipwrecks at the Shark Bay World Heritage Discovery Centre in Denham.

For more detailed information of the Zuytdorp and the search by the WA Maritime Museum to find its secrets (as reported in the newspapers of the day) please refer to the Mysteries of the Zuytdorp wreck – The Search Continues



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