ON THE CASTAWAY CONTINENT, 1727

From the Log of Adriaan van de Graaf …
 

Secunda Etas Mundi (Second Age of the World) Nuremberg Chronicle,1493, by Hartmann Schedel

On Monday, April 26, 1728 the Council of the Netherlands Indies in Batavia received a desperate letter:

My High Excellency, together with the Council of the Netherlandish India, I pray of you most urgently to send me help and assistance against these robbers of the money and the goods of the wreck Zeewyk, who have divided the money and goods among themselves. I am stark naked; they have taken everything from me. 0, my God! They have behaved like wild beasts to me, and everyone is master. Worse than beasts do they live; it is impossible that on board a pirate ship things can be worse than here, because everyone thinks that he is rich, from the highest to the lowest of my subordinates. They say among themselves, “Let us drink a glass to your health, ye old ducats!” I am ill and prostrate from scurvey.

Jan Steyns, the skipper, and Jan Nebbens (Nobbens, Nibbens) the under-merchant had been wrecked with their crew when the near-280 ton Zeewijk went aground on the treacherous reefs off Western Australia now known as the Houtman Abrolhos. On her maiden voyage from Flushing in Zeeland, Zeewijk’s passage to Capetown was marked by sickness, twenty-six deaths and a close shave with pirates. Reprovisioned and with her crew strengthened to over two hundred, she left Capetown for Batavia on 21 April. Another eleven men died on this leg of the voyage. In defiance of his VOC orders and over the protest of his steersman, Steyns set a course straight towards the western coast of the southland, or the Land of Eendracht as the Dutch were generally calling it at this time. The ship’s master also entered a false note in the ship’s log to the effect that the decision of the ship’s council to sail ENE was ‘decided unanimously.’ It was not, and this act would eventually ruin Steyns.


Half Moon Reef

It was during the first watch of the evening of June 9. The lookout on the ship’s foreyard noticed white flecks on the sea before the ship. He watched them for half an hour or so and decided that they were reflections of the moon. But around 7.30pm the Zeewijk struck and foundered in heavy surf around a reef shaped like a half-moon. The under steersman, Adriaan van de Graaf described the disaster:

At dusk, therefore, we were running under small sail, i.e. foresail and both topsails double- reefed, but at about 7.30 in the evening Jan Steyns, the master, together with the under-merchant Jan Nebbens came up on to the quarterdeck from the master’s cabin and asked the third mate Joris Forkson who had the watch at the time ‘What was that which could be seen ahead?’ answering himself at the same time ‘My God, it is surf, lay your helm to starboard!’ and called the first and second mates who were in the former’s cabin setting out the course on the charts. The under merchant came to warn us, coming to meet us from the awning. We had heard the shout in the cabin and jumped into the waist to the sheets and braces, but before the foresails had been braced to the wind, the ship crashed with a great shock into the cliff on her starboard side and turning her head in the wind round the SW knocked her rudder out of the helm port.

Hearing and heeding the master’s orders

I, Adriaen v.d. Graeff, second mate, made my way to the steerage and found there to be 8 feet of water in the ship, whereupon our main mast fell overboard. We then decided to cut away our fore and mizzenmasts and found our ship to be lying in 10 to 11 feet of water, so that we prayed the Almighty for a propitious outcome. While terrible waves washed over us constantly we attempted to cut away the top hamper. A seaman named Yuriaen Roelofsen was washed overboard together with the fore mast and bowsprit, so that we looked at one another sorrowfully and prayed for surcease from the terrible punishment which the Almighty was sending us. We asked the lookout who had been sitting on the foreyard whose name was Pieter de Klerck van Apel, whether he had not seen the surf; he confessed at once that he had seen it for at least half an hour, but had imagined that it was caused by the sky or the moon.

The men of the Zeewijk were trapped aboard. ‘We could see nothing but surf, which washed over the ship in an awful way’, recollected van der Graeff. Attempts to get off were dashed by the sea and they soon found their craft was beginning to come apart. They began making life rafts and, on a Black Friday, only just saved the life of a crewman who volunteered to swim ashore with a rope. Next day some of the men began breaking into the stores and rampaging drunkenly through the wreck. The officers, soldiers and many of the crew swore an ‘oath to God to be loyal to one another and to be faithful to the authorities and to punish together, be it even with death, all evildoers and malignant.’

They managed to get a line from the grinding wreck to the reef through the bravery of some of the crew who at first swam through the deadly surf and then managed to get ashore on a small catamaran they had roped together. There were now four men on the reef with the rest still stranded on the shifting wreck, unable to help them further. One seaman died aboard the wreck in the afternoon and at sunset they managed to drift some supplies to those on the reef. But that night the seas rose again and shifted the rapidly disintegrating ship from one side to the other, ‘so that now the surf assaulted the larboard side so much more that we thought we would be overturned with each sea. We therefore fell at the feet of the Almighty and prayed together for His help and succor.’ Their prayers were answered and the wind dropped. Next day various attempts were made to launch small boats with men and supplies. Eight men drowned and they lost more supplies but they managed to establish twenty-two survivors on the reef. Ominously, during these tragic events, those on the reef ‘found a filled hand-grenade, also old rope and ship’s skin, these belonging to a ship or ships which the same fate had struck here.’

The following day, the weather improved. Fresh water was found on an island near the reef and more men and provisions ferried over. By Wednesday, only three officers and sixty-nine crew remained on the wreck. The senior officer was van der Graeff. As he sat in the master’s ruined cabin that night, dutifully writing up the ship’s journal, a crewmember was discovered stealing knives and sharpening them for unknown purposes. The man, presumably addled from shock, was put in irons. But it was another gloomy hint of what was to come.

On Thursday, Van der Graeff planned to float the remaining survivors off the Zeewijk onto the reef. But many of the crew mutinied, refusing to leave the wreck and ‘we could not move the hardened hearts of many of the crew, since about half of those malignants would not help us, saying that they wanted to remain on the wreck, so that we found ourselves compelled to help one another of those who had decided to leave the wreck. Therefore we threw overboard the victuals which we had barrelled, lowered away our rafts and so floated to the reef at God’s mercy, which we reached with the help of God Almighty without any of us being lost.’

By Saturday the 21st, ninety-six survivors shivered together on the island, including the master, officers and a good number of petty officers, most of whom were tradesmen with useful skills. They also had meat, bread, butter, wine and brandy. These they began rationing and van der Graeff noted that there were plenty of seals on the island, together with enough scrub to build cooking fires.

On Monday they were able to revisit the reef, secure one of their boats, find some more supplies and pick up a few stragglers. One, a boy, refused to go back to the island in the longboat. On Wednesday, survivors began dying. On Thursday the carpenter began to improvise a mast for the longboat’s voyage to Batavia. ‘I am hoping for the rescue of us all’, van de Graeff wrote. On Saturday one of the soldiers died at dawn. Next day a seaman died in the morning. The survivors on the island could see two others walking round on the reef but ‘we could not help them.’

It was Monday again and another week of misery and death had passed. They took the longboat to the reef ‘with great difficulty.’ There they found the reluctant boy still alive. The men left aboard the wreck had floated some supplies to him. They waved and signaled to the wreck for more supplies, including sailcloth. Some wine, brandy and butter were delivered, together with a sail they could fit to the newly built mast of the longboat.

Next morning at 7 the tent in which the officers were sheltering on the island was invaded by ‘all petty officers and the common hands, most of whom were drunk.’

The men walked into our tent with a great deal of clamour and confusion of argument and counter-argument, all shouting at the same time, telling the master that they wanted the long boat to sail to Batavia and that they wish to appoint as her chief the 1st officer Pieter Langeweg and no one else, and 10 of the best seamen with him whom we are to select. They would hear of no further counsel, saying that they will carry on their affairs and that they have collected some good seamen whom they deem to be capable of handling a long boat and have made them draw lots and have appointed 10 of them according to the lots drawn to sail in the boat…

No more is heard about this incident and its aftermath but van der Graeff’s journal goes on to describe negotiations with those still on the wreck. They now wanted to be taken off with the longboat. But the conditions were so bad that this was impossible. However, they had lost most of the remaining supplies needed by those on the island. A deal was done and some more alcohol, butter and kegs of salted fish were floated across on Thursday the 3rd of July. That day, the sail maker also began to make the sails for the longboat.

The seal population was now disappearing. By Monday the 7th they were down to a pitifully small list of victuals

 8 barrels of bread
4 aums of wine
3 ½ aums of brandy
4 aums of sweet oil
1 aum of wine
7 kegs of butter
6 kegs of anchovy
9 cheeses
4 sides of bacon
3 hams

That day another man died on the island. By Wednesday they were stocking the longboat for its arduous trip and at sunset the next day, it set sail with ‘12 souls in all.’ Peter Langweig was in command, as the men had demanded earlier. There was a probably unofficial distribution of wine and their remaining boat, the scow, came back from a hunting trip to the other islands around the reef with 24 seals ‘at which we rejoiced greatly.’

There were now eighty-six men on the island and an unknown but probably significant number still on the wreck or otherwise unaccounted for. They were within sight of the mainland though had no desire or need to attempt to reach it. Instead, the survivors began fighting among themselves. Under the stress of the situation, excess alcohol and fear, men began to draw knives against each other and some began to act irrationally, throwing scarce victuals into fires and threatening their fellows. The council had four manacled and marooned on another island ‘as we fear that, staying here, they will persist in their recalcitrant behaviour, which they had affirmed incessantly to me and to several other people during the past night while they were in irons…’

On Sunday 13th the scow went to the reef and came back with another frightened boy and a small amount of ham and wet bread. Over the following days, the wine ration was finished up but edible vegetation began to sprout on the island, making a welcome addition to the sparse diet. The survivors established a routine of taking the scow to the reef to bargain for supplies with those still in the wreck. They also used the little boat for seal hunting and transport between the islands. On Wednesday 23rd, the four men marooned on one of these were flogged ‘and at the intercession and request of the common hands they were permitted to remain here in the island, upon their promise to lead henceforth a Christian life.’

The following day saw the second mate and eight men float off the wreck on a small scow they had fashioned. Now there were eighty-five souls on the island. It was August and becoming colder. On Monday 4th they discovered that their freshwater supply had dried up. They prayed for rain, cleaning out the small wellspring to find seven live crabs in it, a certain sign that any water that might bubble from it would be undrinkable. Next day five men took one of the scows without permission and rowed to another island about two miles away. On the 7th, while most of the officers were away fishing, the ‘hands’ and petty officers took away to their own tents the water previously held by the officers on behalf of all. The authority of the officers was now under serious challenge from the crew. From now on, the ‘hands’ and petty officers doled out the water to the master and other officials rather than the other way around. The men also insisted on maintaining the daily ration of half a loaf of bread a day, rather than accept the master’s recommendation that they cut it to a quarter loaf. Fortunately, it rained the next day and further supplies were obtained from the wreck, together with some seals from the surrounding islands.

The days dragged by with much the same routine, punctuated by occasional acts of disobedience and hoarding of supplies. The occasional additional man also arrived on the island having forsaken the wreck. On the 22nd another man died. There were now ninety-five on the island.

The situation was severe enough for the survivors to send out an expedition to the mainland in search of possible future supplies. Six men left for the southland on the 24th of August, returning at sunrise three days later. What they had taken to be the mainland was in fact an oblong island about 4 miles long by half-a-mile at its widest point. They had found another one of the Zeewijk’s boats that had become separated during the grounding. They had also come across ‘a piece of a ship or wreck, finding the figurehead lying under a cliff, of which they could discern that it had been the figure of a woman.’

Two more men died on 29th. There were now ninety-three survivors on the island. There was a dwindling but significant number aboard the wreck controlling the supply of food and drink, other than that available naturally, mainly the declining seals and flocks of dark birds the size of a small duck.

There was alarm among the men when the master proposed taking both scows to explore the other nearby islands. He placated them by promising he would return as quickly as possible and bring more seals. He and eighteen others were allowed to leave. They returned as promised four days later, together with the gig that had escaped the wreck, a valuable addition to their chances of survival. Steyns, apparently in confidence, also told van der Graeff that they had found another wreck, along with other items washed there from the stricken Zeewijk.

On the 10 September, Steyns and a small crew of ten managed to get out to the wreck and establish a line to the reef, enabling the transfer of provisions. A week later they were able to bring off the five remaining chests of VOC money, the rest having apparently been salvaged earlier. By the 21stall ten of the money chests were together on the island. But supplies of food and water were again dwindling ‘so that we beseech the Almighty for rain from the sky.’ Three days later another sailor died, bringing the island group to ninety-two.

The next Saturday the regular expedition to the reef for further supplies from the ship results only in a letter thrown overboard in a container. It is from Jan Steyns the master and states that there will be no further supplies coming from the ship until someone rows across and gets them and, presumably, Steyns and the other men who had earlier accompanied him to the Zeewijk. The letter is taken to the under-Merchant who has command of the sailors on the island in the absence of the master. He pens a testy reply:

I under-merchant Jan Nebbens, after the boatswain and the boatswain’s mate have again returned without victuals, having read the letter brought from you and understanding there from that you wish to have us come aboard in spite of weather and violent surf on the reef, which was impossible as the men tell me, wish that you on board were here on the island to make the easy trip to the wreck, this we, the undersigned, declare together, and master Steyne and your men ought to know that we officers in the island were requested by the hands to issue the wine and the brandy as long as there was any left, the reason for which being, as you know, that so far it has not pleased the Good Lord to grant any rain, for it is as dry on the island as it has not been before, for the little water which is left in the well is not potable, it being as salty as seawater, and this is the cause that there is no longer any water in the tents, and we declare together that this is the truth, which we are ready to affirm on oath at all times…

The letter was co-signed by Van Der Graeff and over fifty others. The next day another sailor on the island died. He was probably not much lamented as his death meant there was one less mouth to feed from the dwindling supplies. Van Der Graeff went to the reef to ask those on the ship for victuals on the Monday 29thbut was refused. Instead, he was given a signal that Steyns wanted to leave the wreck. Fresh water had now become an urgent issue ‘for we are at our wits’ end with thirst.’ Fortunately, drinkable water was found on another island ‘so that now, God be thanked, we need not ration one another any longer.’ But it was too late for one of the boys and another sailor who died over the following few days. ‘We now number 89’ Van Der Grief recorded in his stoically non-committal way.

Even with reduced numbers, supplies were consumed quickly. There was further pressure from the men for larger rations and by the 6th they were down to a little bread, some groats, oil, butter, cheese and some tobacco. They were subsisting mostly on the small birds. That day the master and men returned from the wreck, having built a scow on board and floated across. Next day Steyns and van der Graeff took the new scow and gig to the reef. As usual, they hauled the craft over the corals hoping to launch into the sea beyond in order to reach the Zeewijk. They were unable to do this but some provisions were thrown into the sea for them by those still on board.

On Friday 10th, van der Graeff and the third mate managed to get across to the broken ship in the gig and to organise some substantial transshipments of food, tools and sailcloth. The good weather went on for days, during which a great deal of provisions were either rowed or floated to the reef. A few of those who had never left the Zeewijkwere also brought ashore. On the 21st one of the soldiers aboard the wreck died but the work continued unabated. Still the weather held. They now began to cannibalise the ship itself for all usable materials, even including the ship’s bell. Another sailor died on the 26th. Van der Graeff was relieved three days later and proudly recounted how much he had been able to send ashore. He also apologised for the alleged loss overboard of that part of his journal relating to his weeks back aboard the Zeewijk.

The survivors were now in the best situation since the wrecking. They had sufficient food, a supply of fresh water and enough timber and materials to build a new boat, a large scow. By the 30th of October, by now accepting that the boat that had left months earlier had not made it to Batavia, they resolved to build a new one and to rescue themselves. They laid the keel on November 7 and the stem the following day. In their journal Steins and Nebbens noted: ‘We called it the Sloepie, that is, the little sloop, made up from the wreck of the Zeewyck.’


You can read the rest of the story in The Savage Shore  

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