The ‘Closing in on the Fortuyn Project’ is a joint initiative between partners the Australian not-for-profit group Wreckcheck Inc., the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE) and the Netherlands Embassy.
In 1616, the Dutch skipper Dirk Hartog, with members of his crew, became the first European to make landfall in Western Australia. A new find of a Dutch shipwreck in Australian waters during the year commemorating 400 years since Hartog’s discoveries would be of great ongoing interest to both Australia and the Netherlands.
As part of the lead up to the 2016 celebrations of Hartog’s landing, the Centre for International Heritage Studies, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Western Australian Museum organised an Australia-Dutch Heritage Day debate. The Embassy invited proposals for initiatives in the field of Dutch-Australian heritage, to be initiated in the lead up to and during the Dirk Hartog year in 2016. There was considerable interest in a project to search the Abrolhos Islands for the 1726 wreck of the Aagtekerke. Several Australians attending the day felt that a broader geographical area closer to Indonesia should be searched (the Australian Indian Ocean Territories of Christmas Island and the Cocos-Keeling Islands) and that the lost outward-bound Dutch Eastindiamen Fortuyn (1724) and Ridderschap van Holland (1694) should be included in the search. A project proposal for evaluation of archival sources was developed and researchers Graeme Henderson, Andrew Viduka, Alex Moss and James Parkinson formed Wreckcheck Inc.
The thinking was that a staged project might lead to new discoveries and have additional benefits lasting well beyond the 2016 Hartog commemoration, including a greater public awareness and understanding of the activities of the Dutch traders in the waters of Australia and Indonesia. The logic was that if realistic search targets could be established, the group could push on to a second phase—remote sensing at Christmas Island and Cocos. The archival work was progressed with the collaboration of Dutch archivist Pablo Boorsma and Martijn Manders with the Dutch Maritime Program in the Netherlands.
The Archival Research
With Pablo Boorsma’s help the team gathered evidence for a Dutch vessel or vessels having been wrecked on Christmas Island:
• The French hydrographer Jean-Baptiste d’Après de Mannevillette’s 1745 atlas titled Neptune Oriental referred to a Dutch ship wrecked at Christmas Island.
• The skipper of the ’s-Graveland (in the same fleet as the Fortuyn) reported seeing floating wreckage from the Fortuyn at 13⁰20’S, 124⁰51’E, the coordinates indicating a position some 265 kilometres south of Christmas Island.
• The ‘s-Graveland was sailing only approximately 2 weeks behind the Fortuyn so wreckage couldn’t have floated far from where it struck. Christmas Island is the only obstruction in the vicinity. All the other shipping hazards along the standard Dutch shipping route were much further away—St Paul Island is over 2,000 kilometres away, Cocos over 1,000 kilometres, Sumatra over 1,290 kilometres, and islands along the Australian coast over 1,600 kilometres.
• The ‘s-Graveland skipper was experienced, with 4 previous voyages on the route to Batavia, so the longitude recorded could be regarded as comparatively reliable.
• The Windhond, sent from Batavia to investigate the Fortuyn’s and another vessel’s non-arrival, was driven south by ocean currents, fitting with the idea that Fortuyn wreckage floated south from Christmas Island.
• Between October and March, the north-west monsoon blew to the south of the equator so ships finding themselves too far to the east of Sunda Strait had to resort to elaborate tacking. So Dutch shipping during the 18th century passed Christmas Island heading in a north-east direction. If such vessels struck Christmas Island while on course, it would most likely be on the south-west side.
• In 1697 Willem de Vlamingh visited Christmas Island (as well as a number of other places) during his Indian Ocean search for the missing Ridderschap van Holland.
The Wreckcheck team also found information possibly indicating that a Dutch vessel had been wrecked on the Cocos Islands:
• In 1982 a Cocos resident, Mr Dekker, wrote to the Museum of North Tropical Queensland to report his finding of an elephant tusk on the south-west side of West Island. The Aagtekerke is known to have carried ivory. The tusk has not been sighted by Wreckcheck members.
• The Cocos Islands, like Christmas Island, lie astride the October to March route that the Aagtekerke can be expected to have followed.
• The Windhond, sent to investigate the Fortuyn’s non-arrival, visited the Cocos Islands.
The team considered that there was sufficient information to conduct remote sensing on Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands.
2015 Fieldwork Season – 21 January to 9 February
The team conducted a magnetometer survey of Christmas Island (2 weeks) and the main Cocos Atoll (1 week). The perimeter of Christmas Island is approximately 100 kilometres. Vertical cliffs line almost the entire coastline, and beyond the narrow coral fringe there is a rapid seabed drop-off to depths of more than 30 metres. One magnetometer run was completed around the entire island, and further runs conducted in priority areas. Post fieldwork analysis of the magnetometer data has revealed 29 anomalies that require further investigations on Christmas Island, particularly those on the south-west and south-east coasts. These anomalies, particularly one on the west side of South Point, fit with the identified wrecking profile, and require ground-truthing to ascertain whether the signal variations were caused by cultural features or geology.
The perimeter of the main Cocos Atoll is approximately 80 kilometres, with low-lying coral islands and similar rapid seabed drop-offs. A magnetometer run was carried out around all but approximately 10 kilometres, with extra runs on the south-west. Analysis has revealed a number of anomalies on The Cocos (Keeling) Islands that require further investigation. Extending the search out to North Keeling Island is desirable because it lies across the same trade route. The report ‘Closing in on the Fortuyn—2015 Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) Islands Survey’, details the work carried out.
The partners—Wreckcheck, RCE and the Netherlands Embassy, are currently planning a second visit to Christmas and the Cocos Islands during February-March 2016 to continue the remote sensing and commence ground truthing.