The Dutch Conundrum, or the Mariner That Never Was

In 2016 Australia and the Netherlands celebrated the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Dutch mariner Dirk Hartog (1580-1621) on Australia’s west coast. Landing on Malgana Country at what is now Shark Bay in Western Australia, Hartog and his crew left an inscribed pewter dish affixed to a post, which recorded details of his arrival. The inscription read:

On the 25th October 1616 arrived here the ship Eendracht of
Amsterdam; the upper merchant, Gilles Mibais of Luyck; Captain Dirk
Hartog of Amsterdam; the 27th ditto set sail for Bantam; undermerchant
Jan Stein, upper steersman, Pieter Doekes from Bil, Ao1616

One of my major research interests is in the cultural “afterlives” of Dutch presences in Australia. So in light of the various lectures, public commemorations, and celebrations of 2016, I decided to look at historical Australian newspapers in the National Library’s TROVE database, to find out whether a similar fanfare accompanied the 300th anniversary of Hartog’s arrival in 1916.

What I found was completely unexpected: aside from a lecture given to the Royal Western Australian Historical Society, and several desultory notices in Queensland and elsewhere, the only other mentions of Hartog I could find in the Australian press insisted that his Australian journey was the product of an elaborate Dutch conspiracy.

This bizarre hypothesis was postulated in a series of newspaper and magazine articles by George Collingridge (1847-1931). Collingridge was a painter, woodcutter, and self-taught expert on early maps of Australia. He was author of the monumental The Discovery of Australia (1895), and its follow-up, The First Discovery of Australia and New Guinea (1906). Written by an outsider and self-published, both of these eccentric books had met with a lukewarm response from scholars across the globe.

Collingridge’s baffling conclusion that the Hartog voyage never occurred was the result of dubious supposition and faulty reasoning, combined with a liberal misreading of some sources and the absence of some others. Underwriting it all was his conviction that the Portuguese had discovered Australia in the sixteenth century, a circumstance which he believed to have proved beyond all reasonable doubt in his books and articles. As such, when the tercentenary of Hartog’s landing came around, he saw an opportunity to take aim at Dutch claims to priority of discovery.

Collingridge first aired his suspicions in a couple of articles in 1913, in which he drew attention gently to some evidential inconsistencies in the Hartog story. At that point, he played the impartial historian attempting to get to the bottom of this “Dutch conundrum.” But by 1916, the gloves were well and truly off, and the erstwhile artist of Hornsby, north of Sydney, declared that a historical conspiracy was afoot.

In an article titled “The Suggested Tercentenary” Collingridge epitomised his findings. First, he informed readers that the records concerning Hartog’s original pewter plate in the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum described the plate as being found not in Australia, but near “the Straits of Magellan.” Second, another plate bearing a copy of Hartog’s inscription—made by the Dutchman Willem de Vlamingh in 1697—was missing from the collections of the Académie Française in Paris. Third, reproductions of the text on Hartog’s plate and de Vlamingh’s plate vary considerably. Fourth, de Vlamingh’s own journal contains a baffling account of the discovery of Hartog’s plate on Shark Island on successive days, which beggars chronology.

And when Collingridge learned that, at the time of Hartog’s voyage, another Dutch ship called Eendracht was cruising in the Pacific Ocean under the leadership of Jacob de le Maire, having indeed passed near the Straits of Magellan, and had arrived in Jacatra (present day Jakarta) on 28 October 1616—the day after Hartog’s alleged departure from Shark Island—he became convinced that this journey was the basis for an elaborate Dutch ruse:

My conclusion is that Vlamingh’s voyage was undertaken in order to set up a claim of discovery for the year 1616—that Dirk Hartog never existed, or, at any rate, that he never visited the coast of Western Australia in 1616.

While in his articles Collingridge suggested, rather anaemically, that Vlamingh’s creation of Hartog and his voyage of 1616 was intended to forestall any English claims to the continent resulting from William Dampier’s discoveries of the 1690s, I think that his motivations for posing this argument lie elsewhere.

In his Discovery of Australia, Collingridge had insisted that there was no conclusive and authentic evidence proving that the Dutch had discovered Australia in 1606, when Willem Janszoon arrived in the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Duyfken. Indeed, drawing on comments by an English merchant, Collingridge argued that the Duyfken had never left the coast of modern New Guinea.

After eliminating the historical “fact” of a 1606 Dutch discovery of Australia, Collingridge also found fault with Hartog’s 1616 landing. By laying bare this series of unconscionable Dutch forgeries, Collingridge in one fell swoop quashed a historical conspiracy, but also publicised again his own ignored conclusions from his Discovery of Australia (1895), where he made a claim of Portuguese priority of discovery. To resurrect his own middling scholarly reputation, the Dutch had to fall.

Despite the extreme and faulty nature of Collingridge’s conclusions, notices of his argument—published across several Australian newspapers and journals—were repeated in the international scholarly press. But time was not kind to his assertions.

Let us set aside entirely the circumstance that Hartog’s voyage was (and is) amply witnessed in numerous Dutch charts and manuscripts of the early seventeenth century, a matter that Collingridge studiously ignored, and say nothing of the numerous Dutchmen who touched on Australia’s west coast before Vlamingh in 1697. For in short order, the “missing” evidence which fuelled his argument was re-discovered. First, de Vlamingh’s plate turned up in Paris in 1940, and second, charts depicting the Duyfken’s voyage of 1606 were found in Vienna. The underlying premise of the alleged conspiracy had been destroyed.

The Dutch conundrum was not a product of historical fact, but of Collingridge’s own fevered historical imagination.

Far more than a historical curio, Collingridge’s indictment of the historicity of Hartog’s voyage can be read as a warning for modern historians of the European discovery of Australia, who frequently rely on incomplete or suggestive evidence that is difficult to test; maps, place names, and linguistic resonances among them. Furthermore, his arguments also show how personal circumstances can inform historical speculation, for Collingridge’s scholarship was at least partly inspired by the scepticism other scholars had expressed about his Discovery of Australia.

Nevertheless, while quite incorrect, Collingridge’s arguments were not without positive effect, for they prompted other Australian and international scholars to redouble their efforts to locate key pieces of evidence in the European discovery of Australia, all of which now help tell a fuller story of its contours.

Leigh Penman