How did Australia, the mysterious southern continent that had captured European imaginations since ancient times, slip from the grasp of the Dutch?
Four hundred years ago, the Dutch East India Company – the most powerful business in the world – was trading all across the Indian Ocean and had its Asian headquarters in Java. And yet the most hard-headed businessmen of the age saw little value in pursuing trade and settlement in Australia.
The Dutch East India Company (often called the VOC, the initials of its name in Dutch) was set up in 1602 to help Dutch traders and explorers work together to find and supply spices across the world. Historians see the VOC as the world’s first multinational.
The company had trading posts in Africa and Asia and employed more than 30,000 people – at a time when there were only about 2 million Dutch altogether.
So why didn’t they set up in Australia too?
Seeking riches in the great ‘Southland’
The Dutch were looking for anything that could make them a profit, not just back home but also between ports in Asia. They also needed bases where they could refresh their supplies and workforce from Europe, across the Indian Ocean, to Batavia (modern-day Jakarta).
The Dutch knew for sure about a southern land from the time of the Duyfken, a ship that encountered Australia in 1606, and they set to work investigating what the new land had to offer.
The 17th-century mariner Dirk Hartog made a claim in 1616 but the VOC never made a settlement here. Why?
In short, unrealistic expectations raised hopes beyond all possibility. The great “Southland” had long been fabled to be overflowing with gold and peopled with giants – and, for all their practicality, the directors of the VOC hoped such tales might be true.
When Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh landed close to what would later become Perth on his 1696-7 mission in the Geelvinck, his crew brought news of a little hut and 18-inch footsteps they had found.
But when in the morning the group retraced their steps to the hut, they found “the 18 inch footsteps changed into ordinary ones".
As to gold, VOC instructions required crews to look out for riches:
Certain parts of this South-land are likely to yield gold, a point into which you will enquire as carefully as possible.
They were also to get to know the local inhabitants. What might they have, what might they want, and what would they be willing to trade for it?
Instructions from the Governor-General and Council to the ships sent to search for the shipwrecked Vergulde Draeck, lost in 1656 near the mouth of the Moore River, were told to observe Indigenous people’s “ornaments”, taking particular note:
of what such objects are composed, whether they use any gold, silver or other metal, to see what they may be able and willing to exchange for these which could yield profit for the Company.
But most returned to Batavia profoundly disappointed by the unfamiliar and seemingly barren landscape of the Western Australian coastline.
The shock of a new coastline
Vlamingh, in his detailed 1696-7 voyage along the coast, was scarcely more hopeful. His men had brought back Zamia Palm nuts which had made them all violently ill.
The council in Batavia sent samples of flora along with their conclusions to the managers in the Amsterdam Chamber at the end of Vlamingh’s travels:
[all of it] of little value and decidedly inferior to what elsewhere in India may be found of the same description … they have found little beyond an arid, barren and wild land, both near the shore and so far as they have been inland, without meeting with any human beings, though now and then they have seen fires from afar, some of the men fancying that two or three times they have seen a number of naked blacks, whom however they have never been able to come near to, or to come to parley with; nor have they found there any peculiar animals or bird.
Even when contemporaries argued that the south-west of Australia offered huge potential as a stepping stone to Asia, and would also be perfect for wine-making, VOC officials refused to contemplate it.
In 1718, Swiss civil servant and entrepreneur Jean-Pierre Purry went as far as to warn the VOC governors not to let their emotions hinder what was a logical place to settle:
It is only one third as far as from here to our Cape. It would be much better to make our cellar and our attic here than elsewhere. If there are any insurmountable objections, I confess I have not seen them.
All I have been able to learn is that there is little hope that treasures may be found in this vast land and that some have experienced the ferocity of its people. This is why these coasts have not been settled … these reasons are not good ones.
Purry insisted: “The country is neither worse nor more evil for that and this should not dissuade us”. In essence: don’t let this opportunity slip through your fingers just because it didn’t live up to your unrealistic expectations.
Defeated by the landscape and people
So perhaps the Dutch weren’t always the determined traders and rational businessmen they are made out to be in the textbooks. Was it really good business sense or actually greed and excitement turned to disappointment, dashed hopes, and resentment towards the continent’s land and peoples that governed their decision?
Analysing those emotions is key to our nation’s story.