The first Europeans to have contact with Aboriginal Australia were the Dutch.
Between 1606 and 1756 Dutch explorers mapped and named many parts of the Australian coast. Captain Willem Janszoon (c1570-1630) made the first landfall in 1606 on the western side of Cape York in Queensland. He and those who followed were “dienaren” (servants) of the United East India Co, and their vessels had instructions to further company interests. In Dutch it was the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie and the VOC was the largest of the European trading companies in Asia, providing a successful model for the English East India Co. Between 1602 and 1795 the VOC sent 4785 ships to Asia bringing back 2.5 million tons of trade goods.
The Australian voyages were a small chapter of VOC’s story though Australia, New Guinea and New Zealand were mentioned in the founding charter of the trade zone which stretched from the Cape of Good Hope to the Straits of Magellan. The Dutch focussed their energies on the sea route from the Cape to Japan, but Australia and New Guinea were in their sphere of influence and several New Holland trips were responses to English voyages.
The year 1602 was a time of great change for the Dutch. The United Provinces of the Netherlands was fighting for independence from Spain, establishing itself as a major political and economic power. The VOC was a uniquely politico-commercial institution impossible elsewhere because the United Provinces was the world’s only federal republic. It was a collective of town governments committed to trade, industry and navigation and also wielded great military and naval power. Its origins were in the complex relationship of towns, feudal states and bishoprics known as Nederlanden (Low Countries). Part of the Habsburg Empire, the Low Countries were divided by language and religion with Protestantism gaining support in lower classes, lesser nobility and town leaders.
When Habsburg king Charles V abdicated in 1555, Charles’s son Philip became king of Spain and he inherited Nederlanden’s 17 provinces. Philip’s determination to stamp out Protestantism led to the Dutch revolt in 1568 followed by the 80 Years War. Seven Dutch speaking Protestant northern provinces formed the United Provinces. Their Calvinistic religion put a positive spin on the pursuit of economic gain and gave worldly activities spiritual and moral meaning. The Dutch Reformed Church followed its sailors across the world.
In 1594 the Dutch began Asian trade. Cornelis de Houtman brought back a cargo of pepper and a treaty with the Sultan of Banten. Over the next six years, eight Dutch trading companies sailed 65 ships in 15 fleets to Asia. In 1602 they merged into a combined VOC, whose charter granted monopoly of all Dutch trade in Asia, and turned it into a hybrid-state. Supreme command was with the admiral of the outgoing fleet but in 1609 the Dutch moved to the Portuguese model of central authority. Early VOC headquarters were in Ambon and in 1619 it moved to Batavia (Jakarta). The VOC contributed to the Dutch Golden Age and benefited from scientific and technological advancements in astronomy and cartography while their dockyards were the most efficient in Europe.
For 150 years the VOC led European knowledge about the great south land. Nineteen vessels were sent to Australia on eight expeditions of discovery. They mapped the northern, western and southern coasts but never saw the east coast or Bass Strait. The Roaring Forties was the quickest route from Africa to Asia and it brought Dutch sailors within sight of the west coast. They met Aborigines and Dutch journals had the first brief descriptions of Aboriginal food, body painting, fire sticks, huts, canoes and weapons and corroborees.
In 1606 rumours of gold in New Guinea brought Willem Janszoon (Jansz) to Australia. His ship Duyfken (Little Dove) landed at north west Cape York Peninsula. Sailor John Saris noted “nine men killed by heathens, which are man eaters” but never made it clear if the deaths were in Australia or New Guinea. In 1922 Queensland government geologist Robert Logan Jack said the Duyfken crew members were killed at Cape Kerweer in Queensland. However there is no record of the Dutch landing at Kerweer which was the southernmost point mapped by Janszoon’s men.
The first point of contact was at Pennefather River 160km north of Kerweer. There was an incident at Wenlock River north of Pennefather where one Dutchman was killed. In 1623 Carstenszoon said his ships Pera and Aernem passed a river the Duyfken went up in 1606 and “lost a man by the throwing of the savages”. The name Cape Kerweer (cape turnaround) represents not European domination but a defeat. It was more likely lack of water and provisions that ended their Australian voyage of discovery not the death of crew. The nine men more likely died in New Guinea. Jan Carstenszoon also lost nine men in New Guinea in 1623. Carstenszoon landed at Cape York between the Holroyd and Coleman Rivers but suffered no casualties. Subsequent histories talked about meetings with “wild, cruel, black savages”, often combining the 1606 and 1623 incidents and placing them in Australia not New Guinea based on the Logan Jack account.
Carstenszoon said the people he met in the southern Cape York were less hostile than those in the north. This may be due to the northerners’ familiarity with foreigners at the meeting point with Melanesia and also the likelihood they were familiar with musket fire from Janszoon’s trip.
Locals quickly learned to be cautious of European weapons although their spears were a match for flintlock and matchlock firearms, especially in the rain. Muskets were heavy and fired from a rest position. Muzzle-loading was time consuming while light spears could be reloaded instantly. Carstenszoon said 100 blacks with weapons were on the beach preventing the landing of his men. “(We) fired a shot to frighten them with a musket, upon which the blacks fled…and retired into the wood and from there they tried every means and evil practice to surprise and attack our men.”
Further south, curious blacks (some armed) came up to them “so bold that they grasped the muskets of our men and even tried to take the same off the shoulders and they wanted to have all they saw.” Demand sharing was common between kinfolk in traditional Aboriginal society to obtain objects and establish and reinforce claims of kinship, mutual dependency and amity.
The whites showed they could not be trusted. Carstenszoon enticed blacks with gifts and then seized one and took him on board as a source of information. The kidnap was one of his voyage instructions. They hoped natives would give information about precious commodities in New Holland. He kidnapped at least two more men though one died on board. Carstenszoon said the others ‘raised an outcry and made much noise’ in grief and rage.
The Aborigines may have though they were being spirited away to the land of the dead. It was unlikely the Aborigines thought the Dutch were human. In Cape languages like Anggamuthi, Thaynakwith, Wik, Kuuk-Thaayore, Yir Yoront and Oykangand the term meaning European originally meant ghost or devil. On western Cape York corpses were traditionally smoked and carried for a year before being cremated. The ashen-faced Dutch looked eerily like deceased relatives.
Ritual custodians maintained power by explaining these mysterious visitors within their cosmology. Metaphysical doubt was the enemy. The existence of Europeans called the Dreaming into question so visitors must be dead relatives. In time, the natives saw the visitors as all too human.
The day after the first kidnapping, the Dutch went ashore again to cut wood and fired twice to repel 200 surprise attackers. Other early sailors noted indifference to their presence. At the Staaten River in southern Cape York, Carstenszoon said seven or eight natives they met wouldn’t talk to them nor the people they met in following days. Aborigines dealt with danger by studiously ignoring it.
Whatever information the Dutch got from captives, they never found gold and lost interest in New Holland. The VOC was guilty of overreach when it attacked Chinese interests. The Dutch, exhausted by endless wars with the French, Spanish, Portuguese and English eventually lost their influence. England shared a similar heritage and trajectory towards industrial liberal democracy and similar notions of racial superiority when it came to the Aborigines. It is unlikely Australian history would have changed much for the original inhabitants had the Dutch been the colonisers.