ABROLHOS ISLANDS

 

 

GPS 28 36 43 S 113 45 28 E

 

 

 

 

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The Abrolhos Islands is the informal name given to the Houtman Abrolhos which is a chain of 122 islands * approxmately 80 kilometres off the west coast of Australia.

The Island chain is made up of three main groups, Wallabi (northern), Easter (central) and Pelsaert (southern).

The first known European sighing of the islands was in 1619 when the Dutch ships Dordrecht and Amsterdam were passing through the area.

Captain-General of the Dordrecht was Frederick de Houtman and he is the man credited with the discovery and his name forever associated with the islands.

The name Abrolhos is said to be of Portugease origin and for a long time was thought to mean, 'keep your eyes open'. It is now believed that the meaning was 'spiked obstructions'. Either meaning would certainly apply to the small low lying islands that were such a danger to early ships.

Guano was mined on the islands and in 1884, Charles Broadhurst was granted a license to mine rock phosphate. The enterprise ran until 1896 and shipped 48,000 tonnes.

Most of the islands have been set aside for conservation but there is a seasonal influx of fishermen who work in the western rock lobster (crayfish) industry from March to June.

The islands are home to at least 26 species of reptile including the specially protected carpet python. There are two native mammal species, the tamar wallaby and the southern bush rat.

The presence of these animals is fairly conclusive proof that the island groups were part of the mainland when sea levels were much lower than today.

The islands are also the largest seabird breeding colony in the eastern Indian Ocean. Pelseart Island alone accounts for 18 different species and hosts some 400,000 nesting sites.

Unfortunately on Rat Island, the seabird colonies were almost wiped out when black rats were introduced by ships. Cats were released to deal with the rats but they too preyed on the birds. By 1991 the rats had finally been eradicated.

Marine life around the islands is no less significant and a careful balance has to be maintained between human use and the needs of the natural environment. The profusion of marine life is a result of the southward flowing Leeuwin Current whichs sweeps warm water south.

Visitor numbers to the islands are kept low and permission must be sought from The Department of Fisheries before visiting via private boat.

Fisherman's shacks on the islands are private property and they and the land they stand on must not be entered without prior approval.

The only public jetty on the island is on East Wallabi Island. All other jetties are private property.

The most common way to visit the islands is via a chartered boat or aircraft tour from the mainland.

Less well known than the marine life is the interesting flora of the islands. There are mangroves and even stands of dwarf eucalypts that few are aware of.

Human interference (even if well intentioned) has led to some unfortunate outcomes.

Wallabies were introduced to the north island from the Wallabi group in 1985 but that led directly to large scale destruction of flora and almost wiped out the population of painted button quail. A program of removal of the wallabies was undertaken to allow the vegetation to regenerate.

1629 : The Batavia

The story of the Batavia is quite well known but as one of the landmark events in the history of Western Australia we feel bound to include it in this guide.

The Batavia with the Dordrecht and Assendelft were sailing for the East Indies when they became separated. The Batavia sailed too far east and on the morning of June 4th 1629 struck Morning Reef near the Abrolhos Islands. The passengers, crew and some cargo was landed on two islands some distance from the ship. The Skipper (Ariaen Jacobsz) was responsible for the navigation of the ship but the man in charge of the cargo (the single most important thing on Dutch ships) was Francois Pelsaert, so he was technically in charge of the expedition.

During the voyage some of the crew planned to mutiny, seize the ship and kill everyone else aboard. The Batavia was deliberately separated from the other ships as part of the plot.

Pelsaert and the Skipper had a major falling out while the ship was at Cape Town and trouble had been brewing ever since. Most of the problems concerned a woman - Lucretia Jansz - who Jacobsz had tried to force his attentions on. When he was unsuccessful, he took up with Lucretia's maid and (on 14 May 1629) during a drunken rampage on board Lucretia was assaulted. Pelsaert was apparently too ill at the time to intervene.

After striking Morning Reef there was no immediate danger of the ship breaking up but some 180 passengers and crew were taken off and deposited on two islands. About 70 men remained aboard for some time until the ship seemed to be in grave danger. There was a great deal of drunkenness as discipline broke down.

Some cargo was brought to the islands but much food and drinking water was lost due to the drunken behaviour of many soldiers and crew.

Meanwhile Pelsaert took the ships boat and a number of crew along the coast searching for water.

No significant water was found and the party stopped overnight near Point Cloates. It is thought that this may have been the first time that any European spent the night on the mainland of the west coast - most explorers returning to their ships at night.

Pelsaert continued north to Batavia (Jakarta) arriving on the 5th of July. His actions in leaving the rest of the survivors stranded would later be greatly criticised.

After 4 days without water, people left on the islands began to die. Luckily for those who did survive there was a rainstorm and the empty water barrels were soon filled. Food in the form of fish, sea birds, eggs and seals was obtained from the island and shelters were constructed from sails washed ashore.

When the ship began to break up, the remaining sailors on board had to swim to the island. As many could not swim about 40 drowned while making the attempt.

Jeronymus Cornelisz (the supercargo captain) and his supporters started a reign of terror and murder that was to claim the lives of 125 men, women and children. The mutineers planned to take over the rescue ship when it arrived and become pirates.

The biggest problem for the mutineers was the soldiers and a plot was hatched to send them to another island in search of water and to abandon them there to die of thirst.

The soldiers were led by Webbye Hayes who soon located a good source of water.

On the other island the murders had started but some people escaped by paddling across to Hayes on improvised rafts.

These survivors warned Hayes of the danger and he organised a defensive structure and had his men improvise some weapons. Hayes' fortification is the first known European structure built in W.A.

Hayes and his men were outnumbered and out-gunned but they beat off no less than 4 attacks and even managed to capture Cornelisz in the process.

When Pelsaert returned on the Sardam on August 17th, there was a race between Hayes and the mutineers to reach him first The mutineers planned to board the rscue ship and take over. Hayes' men won the race and as the mutineers approached the ship they were faced with a line of primed muskets.

Pelsaert dealt out swift and bloody justice to the murderers - chopping off the hands of some before hanging them - but two men were spared.

After 3 months of terror on the Abrolhos Islands, Wauter Loos nan Mastricht and Jan Pillegran De Bye van Brommel were marooned near the Hutt River mouth and although they had been party to the murders on the islands off shore, they were well provisioned and even left a boat. Although nothing more was ever heard from them there are indications that they may have survived and been taken in by local Aboriginal tribes.

On October 12 1629 the skipper of the Sardam and 4 others took a ships boat to search one of the islands for cargo from the Batavia but they were never seen again. The skipper was Jacop Jacopszoon and was accompanied by Pieter Pietersz, Ariaan Theuwissen and Cornelis Pieterszoon.

The small boat they were in was caught in a storm and is thought to have been carried out to sea. A search was mounted but no trace of them was found.

Years later there were persistent reports of Aborigines in the area with blue eyes and fair hair so it is at least possible that the first unwilling settlers had in fact survived.

(Note: Pelsaert signed his name as 'Franco Pelsartt'.)

The Batavia was not the only ship to meet its end on the jagged reefs of teh Abrolhos.

In 1727 the Zeewijk struck Half Moon Reef at night on June 9th. The ship did not break too much and the survivors were able to fashion a second vessel from parts of the original ship.

82 survivors reached Batavia in April the following year.

HMS Beagle visited the islands in 1840 and Captain Stokes and his crew discovered artefacts from the Zeewijk but the wreck site was not discovered until 1968.

* - One source quotes the number of islands as 192 (Landscope Winter 2010 pp34)

 

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