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Ships and shipwrecks

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The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were notable for the wrecking of numerous Dutch East India Company ships, including the Batavia in 1629, and the Zuytdorp in 1710. The Batavia’s story is especially compelling: the ship set sail from Amsterdam in 1628 for the Dutch East Indies, laden with silver and other goodies to trade for precious spices on arrival. During the journey, merchants Adriaene Jacobsz and Jeronimus Cornelisz hatched a plan to hijack the ship and effect a mutiny, allowing them to steal the booty on board and start a new life somewhere. After Jacobsz deliberately steered the ship off course, the Batavia struck a reef close to the Houtman Abrolhos Islands. Most passengers managed to get ashore, but on finding no fresh water Captain François Pelsaert, Jacobsz and other crew members set off to find help, eventually arriving at Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) 33 days later. Pelsaert was given a new ship with which to rescue those left on the island, but on his return found that Cornelisz had unleashed a bloody mutiny, killing 125 survivors. The wreck of the Batavia was salvaged in the 1970s, with many of the items on board now displayed in museums in Geraldton and Fremantle.

In the 1920s the remains of a castaway’s camp were discovered on the clifftops between Kalbarri and Shark Bay, subsequently named the Zuytdorp Cliffs. The fate of the Zuytdorp survivors had been a 300-year-old mystery until a rare disease endemic among seventeenth-century Afrikaaners (ships en route to the Dutch East Indies routinely stopped in South Africa to stock up on provisions) was discovered in local Aborigines, which suggests that some of the castaways survived long enough to pass the gene on. Recent research has discredited this idea, but controversy surrounding the wreck remains, with various locals claiming its discovery between the 1920s and 1960s, and accusations of looting rife.

In modern times, the ship that has most interested WA is the HMAS Sydney, whose success in the early years of World War II was the source of much national pride. It was sunk in mysterious circumstances off the West Australian coast in 1941, after a confrontation with the Kormoran, a German merchant trader disguised as a Dutch ship. After decades of searching (and a bill of some $3.5 million), the ship was found 200km off Steep Point near Shark Bay on 16 March, 2008, 22km away from the Kormoran. It made front-page news in Australia and finally granted some peace to the families of the 645-strong crew who were lost.

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