For many years there has been speculation about Dutch settlements in Australia that pre-date English settlement. One article in particular has been responsible
for a great deal of talk about the possibility.
Following is a transcribed copy of the article exactly (including errors) as it appeared in the Leeds Mercury in 1834. A discussion of the merits of this article
is given further down on this page.
DISCOVERY OF A WHITE COLONY ON THE NORTHERN SHORE OF NEW HOLLAND
A correspondent living near Halifax has favoured us with the following interesting communication
TO THE EDITOR OF THE LEEDS MERCURY.
A friend of mine, lately arrived from Singapore, via India overland, having been one of a party who landed at Raffles Bay, on the north coast of New Holland, on 10
April 1832, and made a two-month excursion into the interior, has permitted me to copy the following extract out of his private journal, which I think contains some
particulars of a highly interesting nature, and not generally known. The exploring party was promoted by a scientific Society at Singapore, aided and patronised by
the Local government and its object was both commercial and geographical; but it was got up with the greatest secrecy, and remained secret to all except the
parties concerned. (for what good purpose it is impossible to conceive): Extract from an unpublished manuscript journal of an exploring party in Northern
Australia by Lt. Nixon.
May 15th, 1832. On reaching the summit of the hill, no words can express the astonishment, delight and wonder I felt at the magical change of scenery, after
having travelled for so many days over nothing but barren hills and rocks, and sands and parching plains, without seeing a single tribe of aborigines excepting
those on the sea coast and having to dig for water every day.
Looking to thc southwards I saw below me at the distance of about three or four miles, a low and level country, laid out as it were in plantations, with straight
rows of trees, through which a broad sheet of smooth water extended in nearly a direct line from east to west, as far as the eye could reach to the westward,
but apparently sweeping to the southward at its eastern extremity like a river; and near its banks, at one particular spot on the south side there appeared to
bc a group of habitations embossomed in a grove of tall trees like palms.
The water I guessed to be about half a mile wide, and although the stream was clearly open for two thirds of the distance from the southern bank, the
remainder of it was studded by thousands of little islands stretching along its northern shores: and what fixed me to the spot with indescribable sensations
of rapture and admiration was the number of small boats or canoes with one or two persons in each gliding along the narrow channels [sic] between the
islands in every direction, some of which appeared to be fishing or drawing nets. None of them had a sail, but one was floating down thc body of the stream
without wind, which seemed to denote a current ran from east to west. It seemed as if enchantment had brought me to a civilised country, and I could
scarcely resolve to leave the spot I stood upon, had it not been for the overpowering rays of a mid day sun affecting my bowels, as it frequently had done,
during all the journey.
On reaching the bottom of the hill in my return to our party at the tents, I was just turning round a low rock, when I came suddenly upon a human being
whose face was so fair and dress so white, that I was for a moment staggered with terror, and thought I was looking at an apparition. I had naturally
expected to meet an Indian as black or as brown as the rest of the natives, and not a white man in these unexplored regions. Still quaking with doubts
about the integrity of my eyes I proceeded on, and saw the apparition advancing upon me with the most perfect indifference: in another minute he was
quite near, and I now perceived that he had not yet seen me, for he was walking slowly and pensively with his eyes fixed on the ground and he appeared
to be a young man of handsome and interesting countenance. We were got within four paces of each other when he heaved a deep and tremulous sigh,
raised his eyes, and in an instant uttered a loud exclamation and fell insensible to the ground. My fears had now given place to sympathy, and I hastened
to assist the unknown, who I felt convinced, had been struck with the idea of seeing a supernatural being.
It was a considerable time before he recovered and was assured of my mortality; and from a few expressions in old Dutch, which he uttered I was
luckily enabled to hold some conversation with him; for I had been at school in Holland in my youth and had not quite forgotten the language. Badly
as he spoke Dutch, yet I gathered from him a few particulars of a most extraordinary nature; namely, that he belonged to a small community, all as
white as himself, he said about three hundred; that they lived in houses enclosed all together within a great wall to defend them from black men;
that their fathers came there about one hundred and seventy years ago, as they said, from a distant land across the great sea; and that their ship
broke, and eighty men and ten of their sisters (female passengers?) with many things were saved on shore.
I prevailed on him to accompany me to my party, who I knew would be glad to be introduced to his friends before we set out on our return to our
ship at Port Raffles, from which place we were now dista The latitude of this mountain was eighteen degrees thirty minutes fourteen secs south.:
and the longitude one hundred and thirty two degrees twenty five minutes thirty seconds east. It was christened Mount Singapore, after the name
and in honour of the settlement to which the expedition belonged.
A subsequent part of the journal states further: That on our party visiting the white village, the joy of the simple inhabitants was quite extravagant.
The descendant of an officer is looked up to as chief, and with him (whose name is Van Baerle,) the party remained eight days. Their traditional
history is, that their fathers were compelled by famine, after the loss of their great vessel, to travel towards the rising sun, carrying with them as
much of the stores as they could during which many died; and by the wise advice of their ten sisters they crossed a ridge of land, and meeting
with a rivulet on the other side, followed its course and were led to the spot they now inhabit, where they have continued ever since. They have
no animals of the domestic kind, either cows, sheep, pigs or anything else: Their plantations consist only of maize and yams, and these with
fresh and dried fish constitute their principal food which is changed occasionally for Kangaroo and other game; but it appears that they frequently
experience a scarcity and shortage of provisions, most probably owing to ignorance and mismanagement; and had little or nothing to offer us now
except skins. They are nominal Christians: their marriages are performed without any ceremony: and all the elders sit in council to manage their
affairs; all the young, from ten up to a certain age are considered a standing militia, and are armed with long pikes; they have no books or paper,
nor any schools; they retain a certain observance of the Sabbath by refraining from their daily labours, and perform a short superstitious ceremony
on that day all together; and they may be considered almost a new race of beings. "
For and against.
On the negative side:
1) One of the major problems with researching these claims is the fact that the person submitting the article did so anonymously and Lt. Nixon never has his
first name revealed. A suggestion has been made that the article was submitted by T. J. Maslen, an ex-lieutenant who was at the time he submitted the article, retired.
2) The article states that Nixon was in Singapore and the only possible contender we found in the records shows a Marmaduke Nixon serving in the 'East Indies'
as an Ensign in April 1831 but he did not become a Lieutenant until March 1833 and was apparently in NSW in 1832. (39th Dorsetshire Regiment of Foot).
While it is possible he was referred to as a Lieutenant in the article (submitted in 1834 after he had been promoted) and was an Ensign at the time of the
exploration, he just doesn't seem to be in the right place at the right time.
3) The expedition is said to have been most secret but why? At the time the expedition was mounted there was no hint that a Dutch settlement existed and
expeditions of this nature were generally heralded with much fanfare.
4) The position given for the site puts it at the centre of a vast waterless desert with no hills anywhere in sight. Even allowing for the inaccuracies of navigation
at the time, there is no likely contender for a site such as that described within hundreds of kilometres.
5) In the first place the Dutch settlers would have faced almost insurmountable obstacles to get so far inland over waterless wastes. People naturally tend to
hug coastlines where food and water are more readily obtainable.
6) If it had been established, a settlement of some 300 people that had existed for over 100 years would have left a lot of traces behind. Despite extensive
searches over the years, nothing has ever been found to indicate that such a settlement existed.
7) The river referred to in the article is said to be half a mile wide, there are few if any inland rivers not in full flood at the height of the wet season that
would be anything like this width. The Finke River at Palm Springs does not even come close and this on its own should rule out Palm Valley as a possible
site. In May the Finke would not be in full flood, and if it was there would not be people in canoes drifting about on it.
8) We are expected to believe that within the mere space of 170 years, the Dutch people in the settlement had almost forgotten how to speak their mother
tongue correctly. Highly unlikely.
9) The statement is made that the expedition had to hurry back to the ship before the change of the monsoon but in mid May this would have been many
months away. A longer stay would have indeed been possible.
10) The Dutch villagers are said to be short of supplies but there is never a hint of them wanting to go back to the ship with the explorers.
11) The leader of the Dutch village is quoted as being Van Baerle and research done by one researcher reveals that a Constantijn Van Baerle went
missing with the ship Concordia but this was not until 1708, some 40+ years later than the time period we are looking for. The Concordia was a large ship
with 130 plus people on board but the time frame just doesn't fit.
12) People who use Van Baerle as an example of a 'fact' in the original article often try to diminish the discrepancy the years as being due to a loss of
knowledge over the years as the settlers did not need to know what year it was. Actually one of the most basic of all human society's needs is the need
to know what time of year it is. This gives us the ability to pre-plan our crops, to know when the rains are due, to know when the hot weather starts, etc.
The Aborigines, who had no means of reading and writing, were always able to tell the time of year, it was as essential to them as it would have been
to any Dutch settlers. It is not a skill that you could lose and continue to survive without.
13) The latitude and longitude given in the article place the location of the Dutch village too far away from Raffles Bay for an exploration to get there
and back in just two months, this has been one of the reasons touted for selecting Palm Valley as a likely site. A trip of 1660 kilometres at an average
rate of 32 kilometres a day (bearing in mind the article states 8 days were spent at the village) was just not on in that sort of hostile terrain.
On the positive side:
1) The date given for the start of the expedition is April 10th 1832. This is certainly an appropriate time for an expedition at the end of the wet season when rivers
and billabongs would be (or should be) at reasonably high levels.
2) A reference to trees like palms is of some interest as small isolated groves of palm trees are found in the Kimberley and in the Northern Territory. This is probably
why so many people have jumped to the assumption that Palm Valley was the site discovered.
The conspiracy theory.
One theory put forward is that because a Dutch settlement in the middle of Australia would have all sorts of unfortunate consequences regarding the ownership of
the land, that Governor Stirling sent out a secret expedition to remove all evidence of the settlement. The theory goes that the expedition landed on the south
coast (in the vicinity of Fowlers Bay - thus encroaching on another state's turf) and that they trekked north to the settlement and then set about wiping it off the
face of the Earth.
Ensign Robert Dale is touted as the likely leader of this expedition.
Even a casual review of this particular theory makes it laughable. We have to assume that:
1) A small party of explorers could reach the Dutch settlement and then manage to wipe out 300 people.
2) Erase every trace of a settlement that had been in existence for well over 100 years.
3) Manage to do this in complete secrecy and never leave a detail about it anywhere in their various journals.
The conspiracy theory can be completely dismissed as impractical. Sawn River was struggling to survive at the time and people were leaving in their droves. There were not the resources to mount such an expedition and even if there were it would have been totally impossible to maintain absolute secrecy.
Another less drastic but equally improbable conspiracy theory is that Stirling put together a secret expedition headed by Ensign Robert Dale that landed on the south coast at Fowlers Bay, trekked inland looking for the inland sea, or wheat or something vague like that, found a bunch of Dutch foreigners living in the middle of nowhere, and then Stirling rushes off to England to tell the authorities about it. In this version Dale goes back to England and bumps into his old mate Maslen who then writes the article in order to embarrass the British Government who he has 'issues' with. Oh and Nixon is really Dale because of some similarities in phrases used in the article in the Mercury and in Dale's own journals.
These theories simply don't make any sense at all.
A far more likely scenario is that Stirling or one of his close assistants (possibly even Dale) manufactured the article at a time when Stirling was back in London seeking support for the struggling colony. What better way to prod the authorities in London into action than to suddenly have a town full of foreign nationals appear in the middle of Australia? Notice that in the article there isn't much threat posed by these other settlers because of their 'ignorance and mismanagement' but if they can live in this inland paradise, then a true Englishman should be able to prosper there!
Stirling and his cohorts were well known for writing articles and letters and having them published anonymously in the press. In his book, Swan River letters, I. Berryman reveals a number of these occurrences and it seems quite probable that Stirling was behind the article that appeared in the Leeds Mercury. Stirling was a Scot, the next reprint of the article turns up in Scotland, then in Cape Town (after Stirling passes through on his way home) and then finally at Swan River after he arrives. This is all too much of a co-incidence.
Questions still to answer.
1) The yams (Dioscorea hastifolia) found growing in the south west of Western Australia were the only ones of that type found in the country. This kind of yam was a
popular cargo on Dutch ships, is it possible that the yams were introduced to the state by shipwreck survivors?
2) Researchers describe Dutch sounding words as part of the Aboriginal dialects along the west coast and nowhere else in Australia. Does this mean that Dutch
sailors lived long enough to teach the Aborigines some of their language?
3) If Dutch shipwreck survivors lived for some time on the west coast did they finally become part of the Aboriginal tribes and did they intermarry and have children?
4) Was there a large Dutch vessel lost near the West Australian coast around 1662?
The most likely answer to the first three questions is 'YES' but it is something we will probably only ever be able to speculate about.
There are a number of assumptions that can be readily made from all this:
That Dutch seafarers did indeed survive for some considerable time on the west coast after being stranded and in all probability intermixed with the local Aboriginal
That although these Dutch sailors became the first Europeans to live in Australia they can hardly be described as colonists. Their arrival here was accidental and
their stay was enforced by circumstances.
That the letter sent to the Leeds Mercury was instigated by Governor James Stirling or
someone very close to him. The article does two things very successfully. First it
plants the danger of foreign settlers in the minds of the authorities in London and secondly it suggests a fertile watered place in the centre of Australia that would
be suitable for British settlement. This was a common misconception at the time and the belief of an inland sea or at least a large river system was to persist for
quite some time. The article appears once Stirling is rebuffed by the authorities in London in his efforts to secure support for the struggling colony and is published
just 16 days prior to his return to W.A.
Thomas John Maslen, the man credited with being the author of the article, had written a book (The Friend of Australia) in 1830 and he had some rather fanciful
ideas about what lay in the interior. Maslen had even pencilled in the location of the Dutch colony on a map (several times in different places) in the book.
Maslen was a bit of an eccentric in any case who had no children and never married.
One more nail in the coffin of this story is the use of the name Port Raffles in the article instead of the proper name Raffles Bay. Port Raffles was the name known
to none other than Governor James Stirling who helped get the place started in 1827! It does seem a little coincidental that 39th Regiment of Foot was at Port
Raffles (or Raffles Bay) with Stirling an Ensign Marmaduke George Nixon served with the regiment at some stage.
The final but most telling thing of all, is the fact that no evidence of the Dutch settlement, that is supposed to have existed for well over 100 and possibly over 150
years, has ever been found. Until irrefutable evidence is produced, the story simply must be regarded as a fanciful one. Speaking on a purely personal level, I
would be delighted to be proved wrong.
(Side Note: Marmaduke George Nixon - 1814 - 1864. Eventually became a Colonel. He commanded colonial volunteer forces in New Zealand and was killed during
the Maori wars. Nixon Ave. in Auckland is named after him and a monument to his memory was erected at Otahuhu.)
Basically, people who want to believe in the story of the lost Dutch village have simply tried to force the facts to fit their version of the story. If the location given in
the article proves to be in the middle of nowhere with no hills anywhere in sight then just look for another likely location and say the location given was wrong, or
deliberately misleading, if no likely candidate for Lt. Nixon can be located in the records then say that he was made up or was a pseudonym, if the years passed
since the start of the village don't fit with the loss of an interesting looking ship with the right named person on board then come up with some reason the settlers
got the number of years wrong.
One of the greatest failings any researcher can have is to become so wedded to a good theory that they then stretch the facts to try and make the theory work.
One article in particular does this to an extraordinary degree, but the bottom line is, the simplest explanation is usually the correct explanation and since this is
the bottom line, now seems like a good time to end this story.