The Mystery of the Zuydorp

Illustration of the Dutch ship Zuytdorp, 1712. Western Australian Shipwreck Museum.

In August 1711 the Zuydorp sailed from the Netherlands bound for Batavia (Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).   However, after rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the ship vanished without a trace.    For more than 200 years the fate of the ship and all those on board her remained a mystery. 

The Zuydorp was a large merchant ship around 30 to 50 metres long carrying 200 or more people and cargo including a large quantity of freshly minted silver coins.   Unlike other ships to come to grief on New Holland’s dangerous coast, no survivors made it to Batavia to tell what happened.

It was not until 1927 when the head stockman at Tamala Station, Tom Pepper and his family discovered relics from the long-lost ship about 60kms north of Kalbarri on the Murchison River.   Some of the artefacts were silver coins minted in 1711 which helped identify the wreck.   By 1954 the site where the survivors had landed was examined in more detail, and a decade later divers finally found the wreck site and its trove of silver coins.

Looking north from the mouth of the Murchison River towards the rugged coast where the Zuydorp was wrecked. Photo CJ Ison.

At the time the Zuydorp was on her way to Batavia, ships were using the “Roaring Forties” to push them across the southern Indian Ocean before bearing north following the coast of New Holland to reach the East Indies.    It seems the captain misjudged his position and the Zuydorp struck the reef at the base of cliffs that now bear the ship’s name.

The accident probably happened at night, the captain unaware of how close he was to land.   The archaeological evidence suggests that an unknown number of people survived the wreck and managed to get ashore.   The remains of what may have been signaling fires have been found on top of the cliffs but apart from a scattering of other artefact nothing remains to hint at what befell the survivors.    The place is devoid of fresh water for much of the year and no one could have lived long without the help of the local Nhanta people who inhabit that stretch of coast.    

Interestingly in 1834, an Aboriginal man told settlers in Perth that there had been a ship wrecked far to the north of Perth.   From his description, it was thought to be somewhere in the vicinity of Shark Bay, a bit further north than where the Zuydorp was ultimately discovered, but they also thought the wreck he was referring to was recent.   A search party was dispatched to investigate but no wreck or survivors were found.   It is quite likely he was drawing on oral history passed down the generations which had recorded the loss of the Dutch ship.

Courtesy Google Maps.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2022.

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