The Mystery Ship of Walga Rock

The drawing of a sailing ship at Walga Rock, 350km from the Western Australian coast. Photo: C.J. Ison

Tucked away at one end of an Aboriginal art gallery at Walga Rock is a clear depiction of a European sailing vessel. What makes this truly extraordinary is that Walga Rock lies more than 350 km (220 miles) inland from the nearest place where the rolling waves of the Indian Ocean crash against the Western Australian coast.

The picture has intrigued travellers and academics for the past century, ever since its existence became known outside the Wajarri people on whose land Walga Rock is found.  

The painting is stylistically very different to everything else in the extensive gallery.   It looks to be a depiction of a specific vessel and there is what could be Arabic verse in the same white ochre below it.    

A section of the art gallery. Note the style and subject matter is substantially different to the ship drawing. Photo: C.J. Ison.

 Several theories have emerged as to its origin.    

Some people believe the picture is of one of the long-lost Dutch ships which came to grief off Western Australia’s rugged coast in the 17th Century.    The VOC ships Batavia and Zuytdorp head the list.   

The Batavia was wrecked off the Abrolhos Islands in 1629 and while the captain sailed a longboat to Batavia (Jakarta) to get help, a bloody mutiny unfolded among the remaining survivors.   When rescuers finally arrived most of the mutineers were rounded up and hanged but two were put ashore near present-day Kalbarri at the mouth of the Murchison River.    It is possible these men may have been taken in by local Aborigines and followed the Murchison River inland to the Wajarri people’s land and made the painting.

Dutch ship Zuytdorp, 1712.

The Zuytdorp sailed from Holland in 1711 bound for Batavia but never arrived.   The remains of a shipwreck were discovered 40km north of Kalbarri in 1927 but it was not until 1954 that it was identified as the missing Zuytdorp.   It was speculated that survivors may have been adopted by the local people and, over time, moved inland along the Murchison River.   Dutch silver coins, part of the ship’s cargo, have been found at water holes far inland, giving some strength to this theory.

Others have speculated that in the late 19th Century, a Wajarri man may have travelled to Port Gregory or Geraldton on the coast and returned to make the illustration of a sailing ship he had seen.

Another theory is that an Indonesian pearl fisherman named Sammy Hassan made the depiction early in the 20th Century.  It is thought that he was brought to Shark Bay to work in the pearling industry with 140 other boys on the steamer Xanthos in 1872.   Forty-five years later, aged about 60 he was reported to be living among the Wajarri people by early settlers and soon after, the picture was first noticed in the rock art cavern.   Unfortunately, there is also a report that a “Sammy” had died as a result of a shark attack back at Shark Bay.

So, if it was not Sammy who made the picture?   It may have been one of the other boys, also named Sammy, brought out from Malaya and Indonesia to work as pearl divers.

Top: The Dutch ship Zuytdorp; Middle: the Walga Rock drawing; Bottom: The steamer Xanthos. The Walga Rock drawing bears a stronger resemblance to the bottom image.

The strongest evidence for the last theory is the drawing itself. It bears a striking resemblance to the Xanthos, which only plied Western Australian waters in 1872 before it sank at Port Gregory. The two masts and funnel and the painted faux gun ports match the Xanthos as does the flat deck. The Dutch ships Batavia and Zuytdorp both had three masts and a high stern, making the Xanthos a stronger contender.

The upper-Murchison River and country around Walga Rock was explored and prospected from the 1850s onward.    But I could find no mention of the painting of a European ship on the gallery wall prior to the early 20th Century which is the era fitting the Sammy / Xanthos theory.  

Walga Rock art gallery. Photo: C.J. Ison.

Regardless of the drawing’s origin, Walga Rock is a fascinating place to visit and the image opens a window on several aspects of Australia’s colonial and maritime past.

I would like to thank the Wajarri elders and community for allowing the public to visit the Walga Rock art gallery.

For more interesting stories from Australia’s maritime past check out  A Treacherous Coast: Ten Tales of Shipwreck and Survival from Queensland Waters, available now as a Kindle eBook or paperback through Amazon.

© Copyright C.J. Ison. / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2020.

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