Full Record

Houtman's Abrolhos : their history with notes on their zoology.
Record no:
25 March 1890
Kept:Press clippings book 1, p. 21
[Contributed to the late Congress of "The Australasians Association for
the Advancement of Science" held at Melbourne, and taken as read.]

PART I (History).
Terra Australis Incognita was first visited by a Portuguese named Menezes

in the year 1527, when he touched on the west coast and gave the name of
Abrolhos to a group of islets which lie off Champion Bay.  So runs the
Year Book.  Then Australia was known only 35 years after Columbus
discovered America.

In the year 1598 Frederick Houtman, a Dutchman who projected the Dutch
East India Company, coming upon the Abrolhos, bestowed his own name upon
them instead of that of the brave Portuguese who discovered them.

In 1629 Francis Pelsart and his company were shipwrecked upon Houtman's
Abrolhos.  Of this historic and may I add romantic wreck a few words may
be said in passing.  The East India Company, animated by the return of
five ships richly laden, under Carpenter, caused to be equipped for a
similar voyage eleven other vessels, which sailed out of Texel on the 28th
October, 1628, Captain Pelsart in command.  His vessel, the Batavia,
carried about 250 souls, of them about 150 were intending colonists, the
rest sailors, soldiers, &c. On the 21st May following, when in the South
Indian Ocean, a great storm overtook the fleet.  The Batavia alone
survived.  The other ten vessels disappeared and were never heard of more.
 Pelsart pursued his lonely course till the Batavia, the night between the
4th and 5th June, struck heavily on a coral reef near the South extremity
of a long islet in the Southern groups of the Abrolhos.  This particular
islet now bears Pelsart's name, likewise the group in which it is
situated.  With one or two exceptions the wrecked company all reached

At the earnest request of the people, Pelsart fitted up a boat and
went in search of water.  On the 9th June he reached the mainland, but not
obtaining the needed element he coasted northward.  After 100 miles had
been placed between himself and the scene of the wreck and still without
the necessary supply of water, Pelsart deemed it advisable to push on to
Java for relief, and reached that island about the end of the month
(June).  The Governor gave Pelsart command of the Saardam.  He departed on
the 15th July to rescue the survivors of the ill-fated Batavia, if happily
any remained alive.  During Pelsart's enforced absence, the scenes of
bloodshed and treachery which were enacted amongst the castaways upon the
Abrolhos whereof the most revolting nature and beyond description.  The
supercargo — one Jerome Cornelis — turned out to be an arch-fiend
incarnate.  He was on convert to hear wreck about nine weeks before it
finally broke up, and eventually came ashore after floating about two days
upon a spar.  Cornelis determined to capture any relief vessel that might
arrive, convert her into a privateer and decamp with the Batavia's
treasure of silver.  In the first place, by clever scheming, he was
elected "Captain General" of the island and created laws to suit his own

One Weybhays, with 45 men, was sent out to look for water, which
was found on Middle Island by digging two wells.  On his return he found
that Cornelis had butchered between 30 and 40 of his opponents, while
others had despersed themselves to the adjacent islands.  Cornelis on his
bloody career determined to follow the fugitives, and then to attack
Weybhays, who had taken up a position on Square Island.  On the nearest
island (probably a portion of Pelsart, because there are evidences of it
having been divided in those days) all the weakest were killed except five
women (retained as mistresses for Cornelis and his officers) and seven
children.  The total murdered now numbered about 125, one scoundrel, John
Bremen, having slaughtered, or assisted to slaughter, no less than twenty-
seven persons.  After several futile attacks upon Weybhays’s (?) position
(?), Cornelis was himself captured and made prisoner.  

When Cornelis's followers were about to make a final swoop upon Weybhays to rescue their "Captain General," the Saardam, with Pelsart on board, arrived.  Weybhays, with some of his party unobserved by the mutineers was the first on board, and informed his master of the dreadful state of affairs.  The mutineers, supposing to surprise the ship, followed armed to the teeth, and dressed
in splendid red uniforms broached from the Batavia's cargo.  But when they recognized Pelsart's voice commanding them to throw their arms overboard, they obeyed, fear-stricken, and were soon court marshalled and strung up at the yard-arm with the rest of the traitors that remained on the island, including "Captain-General" Jerome Cornelis.  The loyal survivors were then rescued, and after recovering jewels and fishing from the wreck five out of the six chests of silver, Pelsart finally quitted the Abrolhos on the 28th September, 1629.

Captain Daniel, in the London, of the Honourable the British East India
Company, reported he saw the Abrolhos shoals June, 1681, while eleven
years subsequently the celebrated British navigator, Captain William
Dampier, on his second voyage to new Holland, in a vessel called the
Roebuck, struck a reef on the northern group.

Then about 1727 the Dutch man-of-war Zeewyck came to grief at a spot not
far from the scene of Pelsart's disaster.  The crew repaired to a small
island, where they were able to build a boat from the fragments of the
wreck, whereby they reached Java in safety.  The small island was
subsequently called Gun Island, on account of Captain Wickham, R.N., when
surveying, having found a small brass four-pounder thereon as well as
other articles of Dutch manufacture.  At the Perth museum, I saw some old-
fashioned dark green schnapps bottles supposed to be from the same
historic wreck.  They resembled squat hock bottles, but are of irregular
shape and much sand-blown after their exposure for over 150 years.  The
Hon John Forrest, C.M.G., the President of the Anthropological section of
the current Congress of this Association, on visiting Gun Island in 1882,
found two coins bearing dates 1720 and 1722 respectively.

Captain Wickham, R.N., in H.M.S. Beagle, surveyed Houtman’s Abrolhos in
1840, having on board Gilbert, the naturalist and able coadjutor of Gould.

The following epitaph is the only record of a wreck that took place in the
early "fifties": — "Here lieth the body of John Williams, who died April,
1851, on the wreck of the schooner Venus, aged 41," which is nearly
illegible now, and inscribed on a rough board upon Middle Island, Pelsart

Again the islands remained undisturbed, except by occasional hunting
parties from Champion Bay and the wreck (without loss of life) of the
Benledi, an iron barque, bound from Melbourne to Calcutta about 1879, till
1880, when the enterprising firm of Messrs. Broadhurst & McNeil determined
to test the quality and quantity of their guano deposits.  They planted
their depot on Rat Island, in the central group, and, since, and other
upon Pelsart Island.  The results of the last four seasons' export in
phosphatic guano, of excellent commercial quality, is no less than 24 ship
loads, or 18,000 tons, valued at about £80,000, and upon which the West
Australian Government has reached the handsome royalty of £7500, and, like
the Peruvians of old, with the expenditure of little or no revenue.

I shall now, as briefly as possible, describe Houtman's Abrolhos, with
occasional reference to Captain Wickham, Admiralty surveyor, and others.

The Abrolhos are separated from the mainland by the Geelvink channel, from
30 to 45 miles wide.  There are naturally three distinct groups of islets,
rocks, etc., extending N.N.W.and S.S.E. about 50 miles, varying from 10 to
13 miles across.  

1st — Wallaby Group, so named on account of a species of
marsupial being found on the two largest islands.  Zoologically and
botanically, perhaps, the Wallaby Group is the most interesting.  I
regretted I was unable to visit it.  The existence of Wallaby, which are
numerous, is very curious.  Large snakes of the carpet variety, and
therefore non-venemous, are equally plentiful.  The highest part of the
islands is on East Wallaby, about 50 feet above sea level.  Upon this
island Messrs. Broadhurst and MacNeil [sic] turned out several goats in

2nd, Easter Group, this is the most central, being separated on
the north from Middle Channel, 9 miles wide, and on the south from Pelsart
by Zeewyek Channel, four miles across in narrowest part.  Rat Isle, ¾ mile
long by 1/3 broad, the largest of the Easter Group, is a place of close
limestone formation with a summit of only 13 feet.  Its surface descends
to overhanging cream-coloured limestone cliff, 6 or 7 feet high.  The soil
is wholly composed of phosphatic guano which sustains saltbush (Atriplex),
Nitraria, &c.  The usual coral reef surrounds that isle, together with
other islets and rocks near, notably Wooded Island with a small lagoon and
mangroves.  The harbour at Rat Isle is Good Friday Bay.  According to the
Admiralty guide, Good Friday Bay (the guano station) "is a secure harbour
affording anchorage for a large number of vessels of any draught," while
all captains of vessels who have loaded there report most favourably of
the port.  

3rd, Pelsart Group is something like Easter.  Pelsart or Long
Island is a narrow ridge of coral and limestone, about 200 yards to half-a-
mile broad extending between 11 and 12 miles in length.  About midway are
swamps sustaining clumps of mangroves in some places 15 feet high.  Upon
this island there are recent evidences of silting up, especially of the
dead coral ridges, and as previously mentioned no doubt the land was
divided in Pelsart's day — over two and a half centuries ago.
W. J. Gordon's pleasant story of the "Captain General," and more matter-of-fact
accounts of the wreck point to the fact in Over-the-Way Island.  Square
Island, where Weybhays held out, is six miles from the nearest part of
Pelsart.  The next two largest islands of this group our Gun and Middle
Islets, about 2 1/2 miles in extent each.  Drinkable water from Wells is
obtainable upon the latter.  At the guano depot, at the southern end of
Pelsart Island, a jarrah pier is in course of construction in a secure and
splendid day, however, yet unnamed.  Charles Edward Harbour, now recorded
for the first time, has been suggested.  The name is very appropriate,
being the Christian names of an early pioneer of Victoria and senior
partner of the firm of Messrs. Broadhurst & McNeil.  The name, of course
will be submitted to the Admiralty and to be charted.

Generally speaking, the basis of all the islands, rocks and reefs of
Houtman's Abrolhos is formed of limestone, chiefly consisting of coral and
shells, all the islands on the east side of Easter and Pelsart being
merely ridges of the dead coral and shells, some of which present the
curious effect, when in the shining sun, of appearing like a limb of a
moon rising above the horizon, while the islets on the west side are flat
blocks of limestone, pushing themselves, like great mushrooms, about five
feet above the sea level and sustaining stunted and scant vegetation.
These islets, in turn, are protected by the outer or an extended barrier
reef over whose flat surface foaming spray-crested billows chase each
other in rapid succession with thundering roar in calm or tempestuous
weather.  No wonder such a terrific spectacle struck terror into the
hearts of mariners, especially if they found themselves on the weather
side.  When upon the serene islet at the guano station, often did I watch
the great orb of day sink into the Indian Ocean behind the long silvery
horizon of surf, and with the distant, sullen roar of the breakers
sounding in my ears, I found myself almost in an idolatrous mood,
repeating Billeter’s beautiful part song: —

"Farewell, oh Sun! thou goest in glory to repose;
And, gazing at thy splendour, my wistful eyes I close."  —

instead of lifting up my mind to Him who made the sun to rule by day and
the moon by night.  At such a time too curious thoughts crowded upon my
senses while contemplating the reality that I stood actually upon or near
to the earliest discovered heart of our great Austral heritage, and I
thought of those who had been here — the brave Menezes, 1527; the
egotistical Houtman, 1597; Francis Pelsart, 1629; the great, but badly-
treated Dampier, 1699; and the lamented naturalist, Gilbert, 1840.
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