Wouter Looes and Jans Pelgrom: A Dutch Stake in ‘Australia Day’

Television advertisements in the lead up to Australia Day on 26 January 2017 have been telling the Australian people to celebrate the day “how you want to”. It is an interesting message from the Australian government. A typical Australian reaction to it might be to ask, if now we are to celebrate it how we want to, what was the prescribed method beforehand? Another broad section of the community might wonder whether the day has ever been celebrated at all – isn’t it just another public holiday? But, taking it in good faith, clearly this message is intended as an open and friendly acknowledgement of the fact that, for many of the people of Australia in 2017, Australia Day is not what it once was. Although the Queen of England remains our constitutional head of state, in today’s multi-cultural, multi-faith community the observance of Australia Day as a celebration of its anniversary is becoming more marginalised every year. The fact is that, quite apart from the ancient claim of the aboriginal people, many countries and cultures can say they have had a part in the creation of modern Australia. Some have done so during the 20th and 21st centuries with contributions to culture, cuisine or the arts. Others have done so by virtue of a particular historical incident.

Australia Day logo from http://www.australiaday.org.au/

Here is a story of the latter kind. It is a little-known historical incident that gives one particular country – Holland – a small but meaningful stake in Australian history. Most Australians know that the first British settlement arrived on 26 January 1788. Many Australians are also familiar with the fact that there were previous European landings, such as by Willem Janszoon in 1606 and William Dampier in 1688. But few Australians know that the first Europeans to actually live permanently in Australia were the two Dutchmen, Wouter Looes and Jans Pelgrom, from 1629.

Looes and Pelgrom were among the 341 people who sailed from Holland for the East Indies in early 1629 on a ship called the Batavia, which was also the name of the Dutch settlement in Java at the time (now known as Djakarta). They were part of a fleet of six ships which met with problems from the beginning. After hitting storms, the ships were dispersed and the Batavia only had sight of two others, then with further storms after rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the Batavia found itself on its own. Worse was to come on 4 June 1629 when, due to the drunkenness of the helmsman, the Batavia was ship-wrecked on Morning Reef off the coast of Western Australia. There followed, over the next few months, scenes of mutiny, murder, rape and massacre amongst the survivors. They made camp on an island near the reef, but with drinking water and other provisions in short supply the commander- a Francisco Pelsaert, along with a chosen crew, left on a yacht in an effort to sail to the town of Batavia in the hope of arranging a larger ship to return to rescue them all. In the absence of their commander, and sensing anyway that they were all being left to die, Jeronimus Cornelisz and a group of followers, that included Wouter Looes and Jans Pelgrom, asserted themselves over the others, in this way staging a ‘mutiny’. Cornelisz was a believer in the philosophy of the controversial artist of the time, Torrentius, whose philosophy, essentially, was that because God put us on this earth for a short time only, his intention was for us to use the little time we have to pursue earthly pleasures. Accordingly, Cornelisz and his followers embarked on a campaign of murdering all who opposed them, preserving only a selection of the women and girls. Some people managed to escape to neighbouring islands but otherwise Cornelisz and his followers were largely successful in imposing their will. After three months of this ‘mutiny’, however, Pelsaert returned on a larger ship and restored his command. Cornelisz and his most senior accomplices were executed on the islands and several others were put on the ship to be taken back to Batavia, to face execution in that town. But Wouter Looes and Jan Pelgrom were given a different punishment. Found by Pelsaert to be the least criminal of the mutineers, they were left to be marooned on the Australian mainland.

Montanus, Arnoldus. De nieuwe en onbekende weereld, of, Beschryving van America en ‘t
Zuid-land, vervaetende d’oorsprong der Americaenen en Zuid-landers, gedenkwaerdige
togten derwaerds, gelegenheid der vaste kusten, eilanden, steden, sterkten, dorpen,
tempels, bergen, fonteinen, stroomen, huisen, de natuur van beesten, boomen, planten en
vreemde gewasschen, gods-dienst en zeden, wonderlijke voorvallen, vereeuwde en
nieuwe oorlogen, verciert met afbeeldsels na ‘t leven in America gemaekt: en
beschreeven door Arnoldus Montanus. By Jacob Meurs, Boek-verkooper en plaetsnyder
…, 1671. Brazilian and Portuguese History and Culture, tinyurl.galegroup.com/
tinyurl/4DxuN7. Accessed 16 Jan. 2017.

What a plight. The knowledge that they were making history by becoming the first Europeans to make Australia their home must have been little comfort at the time. Before departing from them Pelsaert showed some compassion. He left them with a rowboat and provisions to last them at least a while. He wished God’s care upon them and, as his surviving journal reveals, Looes and Pelgrom sat in their rowboat watching his departing ship until it disappeared from view. From that point Looes and Pelgrom can only have turned inward to the Australian landscape. Pelsaert had recommended to them that they try to live with the natives, which for that region of Western Australia was a tribe that later became known as the Murchison aboriginals, who were gentle by nature. Whether Looes and Pelgrom had any success in this is not known. If they did, and if they bred with the aboriginals, Dutch blood would in this way have merged with that of the original Australians as early as 1629. Indeed, European visitors later in the century reported sightings of aboriginal people of lighter skin, and more recently it has been established that some indigenous people of this area have a blood type specific to Leiden, Holland. But no ties between the Dutchmen and the aboriginals can be proven. If nothing else, Looes and Pelgrom were the first Europeans to be imprisoned on the continent of Australia – more than 150 years ahead of the British experiment. They were the first Europeans to make a life in Australia. They were the first Europeans to die on the Australian mainland.

The story of the Batavia has received little attention from writers throughout the four centuries since the events occurred. The wreck of the ship was discovered accidentally by divers in 1963, and a book relating the events and discussing the evidence, Islands of Angry Ghosts, was subsequently written by one of the divers, Hugh Edwards, and published in 1966. The story might also soon make its way into cinemas given that Russell Crowe bought the movie rights in 2016. But few accounts of the story were written prior to 1966.

Amongst the Gale Primary Sources Collections, there is just one account, and fittingly, it is found in the course of a book, De Nieuwe en Onbekende Weereld: of Beschryving van America en ‘tZuid-Land…, published in Amsterdam in 1671, a copy of which was later collected by the Brazilian diplomat and journalist, Oliveira Lima. This book is written not in Dutch, but Old Dutch (and thanks to Monique Schutterop for helping translate it).

So, on Thursday 26 January 2017, when Australians are given a public holiday in recognition of the national day, people of Dutch heritage might want to raise a toast to Wouter Looes and Jans Pelgrom. But they are under no obligation to, of course. This year they can celebrate Australia Day however they please.

About the Author

Craig Pett is a Gale Sales Representative based in Melbourne. Craig promotes Gale resources to University and State Libraries in Victoria, Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory. In addition, he sells Gale databases to public libraries and schools in the same states. Craig is also an independent researcher in his own right, with a specialty on Jonathan Swift and eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish affairs.