Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Horror on the High Seas: The Lost Dragon

In 1655 the Dutch East India Company was a thriving commodity. Running ships from Holland around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean to what is now Indonesia and back again was old hat, so to say. Doubtless, however, no one took it for granted. The ocean, then as now, was a vast and powerful thing that could swallow whole ships, their cargoes, crews and passengers alive. Never being heard from again was a very real possibility.

Surely Captain Pieter Albertszoon knew that the worst could happen as his ship, Vergulde Draeck, left port for the East Indies in October of that year. A leader cannot dwell on the potential for failure, however, and it is a certainty that Albertszoon intended to reach what was then known as Batavia safely. His ship, whose name translates as Golden or Gilt Dragon, carried trade goods for Company use, eight chests of silver coins, provisions for one year and 193 souls including crew and passengers. All signs seemed favorable and Vergulde Draeck rounded the Cape in March of 1656.

Almost exactly one month later, Albertszoon was lost thought he probably did not know it. He was closer to the western shore of Australia than to India when his ship hit a reef that quite literally shattered her hull north of the modern city of Perth. Panic ensued as the roaring ocean around the reef sucked people, goods and finally the ship down to the murky depths. Of the 193 souls in Albertszoon’s charge, 75 managed to make the beach. There can be no doubt that they gathered together, half drown and dripping wet, to watch dumbfounded as their wooden world was swallowed by the sea.

Albertszoon kept his head, however, and began to organize the living immediately. He had the good fortune of a sturdy and fast-thinking First Lieutenant named Abraham Leeman who had managed to salvage a few provisions as well as Vergulde Draeck’s only boat. The situation was perhaps more dire than it would have been at another time of year. With winter on its way, storms would batter the coast and ships passing by – if any – would probably not steer close enough to shore to see signal fires or other markers left by the stranded. It was quickly decided that Leeman would need to hand-pick a small crew, gather what provisions he had salvaged and take the longboat out on the treacherous journey toward Batavia. Albertszoon would stay with the remaining survivors who would doubtless move inland to find water, food and shelter.

Leeman and seven crewmen set out for Batavia perhaps only a day or two after the wreck of their ship. They reached their destination in remarkably good condition on June 6th. The Company’s response was almost immediate; two ships, Goede Hope and Witte Valk, were dispatched to the coast of Australia to search for survivors. In an unfortunately hapless adventure, both ships were battered by relentless weather and high seas. Upon sighting land in the general area where Vergulde Draeck was thought to have gone down, Goede Hope sent in a boat. When the boat and its eleven-man crew did not return, another boat with eight men aboard was sent after them. This was dashed to bits on the rocky shore with a loss of all hands. With still no word from or sighting of either the rescue party or the Vergulde Draeck survivors, Goede Hope and Witte Valk turned back to Batavia. They arrived in mid-October.

Other ships on their way home to Holland were instructed to call on the fatal coast and check for any signs of life. Repeatedly, they found nothing, although just how thorough their searches were remains unknown. Finally, the ships Waeckende Boei and Emmeloort were dispatched on the 1st of January, 1658 with specific orders to make a sweep of the treacherous Australian coast. The captains of the two ships had a falling out on their way, and they separated. Both were off the coast by February but it was Captain Volkersen of Waeckende Boei who sent a party – led by none other than Abraham Leeman, First Lieutenant – ashore. The men found signs of human encampments, including planking possibly from the wrecked ship, but there was no sign of survivors. Leeman and his search party went back ashore but foul weather prevented them from returning to their ship. Despite the sighting of more than one signal fire, Volkersen concluded that his men had been lost on the reefs and turned for home.

Leeman was left with no choice but to once again make the almost impossible journey to Batavia in an open boat. He and his fourteen-man crew set out on April 8th; they arrived at their destination a month later. This crossing had not been as successful as the last. Only five men, including Leeman, survived and all were starving, dehydrated and horribly sunburned. Rumors of possible cannibalism aboard the boat were quashed immediately by the Company.

No further search parties were sent to find the lost victims of wreck and marooning. What became of them remains a mystery to this day. The only tantalizing hint was a chance find, made by a young boy inland from Cape Leschenault, of silver coins dating from between 1619 and 1655. These were found in 1931. It is probably reasonable to imagine that the survivors of both Vergulde Draeck and their would-be rescue party from Goede Hope succumbed to injuries, disease, starvation and exposure. Most of all, it can be imagined, they would have given in to the hopelessness of being lost in an unfamiliar wilderness with no reasonable way out.

The Vergulde Draeck wreck was rediscovered by spear fishermen in 1963 and, despite unfortunate poaching by treasure hunters, many of the artifacts are now on display in the Western Australia Museum in Fremantle. As a curious aside, a rather conspiratorial theory of the collapse of our modern economy via the U.S. dollar is known as the Vergulde Draeck Omen or, yet more ominously, the Vergulde Draeck Triple Witching Condition. Find that delightful scenario here and read more about the Vergulde Draeck disaster at VOC Historical Society.

Header: “Beard Jars” and silver coins from Vergulde Draeck via Heritage Aritcles


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! That is a pretty sad tale. Abraham Leeman was one extremly lucky dude (or unlucky, depending on your perspective, I guess).

I also like the part in the VOC Historical Society link about how they are investigating the possible existence of a genetic link between VOC shipwreck survivors and current members of the coastal Aboriginal communities. That would be interesting if it's proven to be true.

Pauline said...

Very much so for Leeman; lucky and unlucky. And the Aboriginal connection here reminds me very much of the Roanoke debate here in our own country.

Le Loup said...

Great post, thank you Pauline. Very interesting. One would have thought that natives would have found them.
Regards, Keith.

Pauline said...

It is certainly one of the modern theories that some of the survivors may have become part of the local Aboriginal society. At any rate, the East India Company never heard from them again.

Steve said...

You can read more about the Vergulde Draeck at: