In the same boat

Navigating Australia

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that this essay contains references to deceased people.

SWINGING IN MY hammock, it’s hard to get to sleep. Beside my head the sea bounces between hull and wharf – a hollow liquid sound, repetitive scrape and gollop. The rhythm hauls up lines from a sea shanty:

Oh the anchor’s onboard and the sails are unfurled
We’re bound for to take her halfway round the world.

At present we’re moored, courses and topsails lashed to their yards. But at first light we’ll continue the work of taking Duyfken almost all the way around Australia – a six-month delivery voyage from the National Maritime Museum in Sydney to her home port of Fremantle. Some things don’t change with the centuries: you still can’t sail against the roaring forties, westward along the continent’s southern edge. We’re taking the long way round.

Duyfken’s role in history has long been eclipsed by the myth that ‘Captain Cook discovered Australia’ in 1770. But nearly two centuries before Cook’s voyage, in 1606, a little jacht of the newly formed Dutch East India Company (VOC) became the first European ship to chart any part of the Australian coastline, and her crew the first Europeans to encounter the Indigenous inhabitants of the Great Southern Land. In some ways, Duyfken’s visit was an historical cul-de-sac: within a few weeks Captain Willem Janszoon had sailed back to Indonesia, and the handful of Dutch captains who followed him over the next century and a half were almost as quick to abandon the new-found continent and leave its custodians in peace. But oral histories in the communities of Mapoon and Aurukun still record these early encounters with Dutch ships and sailors. And this leg of the delivery voyage – Cooktown to Weipa – will retrace Duyfken’s original venture down the west coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria. It’s no surprise I can’t sleep.

A square-rigged ship is a fraught symbol in Australia. This year, 2012, Duyfken joined fellow-replica Endeavour along with other barques and schooners out on Sydney Harbour, sails bellied and flags fluttering for 26 January. Voices were raised, as they have been increasingly since at least 1938, to demand what narrative was being celebrated? At the end of the eighteenth century, a motley assortment of convicts, marines, officers and their families called this Foundation Day, First Landing Day or Anniversary Day, to celebrate having survived an eight-month sea voyage and two years of near-starvation in Sydney Cove to become the British colony of New South Wales. More recent names – National Day of Mourning, Invasion Day, Survival Day – acknowledge the profound suffering and loss European colonisation brought to the continent’s original inhabitants. Through the names and narratives sail quaint vessels: constructions of timber and canvas caught in a storm of cultural, spiritual and emotional signification. Some observers, looking at Duyfken, see Masefield’s serene ‘tall ship and a star to steer her by’ – the spirit of adventure and exploration, the horizon-yearn for oneness with sea and sky. To others, those sails in Sydney Harbour are gleeful dancers on mass graves.

Lying in the dark I smell the peculiar cocktail of the ship: salt water seeping through European oak, dusty hemp rope, linseed oil, Stockholm tar, brick dust, the astringent scent of my canvas hammock. Among maritime re-creationists, Duyfken is hailed as the most authentic replica ship in the world. Her construction in Fremantle took fourteen years, using the same techniques and materials that went into the original ship around 1601. Every rope and cleat on this ship looks, feels and operates exactly as it did for a Dutch sailor more than four centuries ago. The anonymous author of ‘Mapping for Societal Memory: From Duyfken to Digital’ on the Australia on the Map website enlists historian Krzysztof Pomian’s term semiophore to describe the Duyfken replica (or rather, reconstruction): a carrier of meaning, defined by the invisible, and ‘not only…the invisible past, but also…the historical sensation, which is a sensation in the present’. It’s this historic sensation that’s buzzing on my skin, churning my brain so hard that sleep eludes. I walk in the footsteps of 400-year-old sailors. Can I learn anything from the invisible past to help me function authentically in visible, present, contested Australia?


MORNING DAWNS DAZZLING, with a light breeze. Cooktown’s residents have enjoyed hosting the exotic little relic at their wharf, and a number of families come down to wave us off on the high tide just after seven. Captain Matt leads the crew in a ‘Two, six, huzzah!’ of farewell. I’m sure ‘huzzah’ is more a nineteenth-century British navy word than a seventeenth-century Dutch one, but it’s part of the ship’s lexicon. No one can explain where ‘two, six’ came from, but that’s how we haul up a yard or raise the anchor: ‘Two, six, heave!’

No time for language lessons this morning, though. We raise the forecourse, both tops and the spritsail, and as we leave the channel the engines are turned off. The south-easterly trade winds catch us, lift us and suddenly – with canvas on all three masts – we’re a sailing ship under sail.

A similarly confident ship – a clipper – is depicted on the blue T-shirt worn by Paul from Port Watch. Paul’s ship is framed by the words ‘Boat People’ in block letters, asserting commonality among the disparate, the equal value of all arrivals however and whenever they come. Desperation to escape one life – hope for a better one – have driven would-be Australians to sea since the eighteenth century; and these twin forces are still driving them. My maternal ancestors eked out a living as smugglers on the Cornish coast in the early 1800s, until resolving to risk typhoid and shipwreck by sailing to Australia (‘shortly before the government would have paid their passage for them,’ as my mother says darkly). My husband’s parents were boomerang Poms, migrating by steamship for £10 apiece in the 1950s, again in 1962 and finally – by air – in 1979. The sixteen people currently aboard Duyfken were born in Australia, New Zealand, England, Holland, Ireland and Indonesia. But we boat people all arrived to find others already here: people who’d come on foot.


TWO BOOKS COME out of my seachest in the rare spaces between sleep and work. The Duyfken: Unveiling of the first contact memorial at Mapoon, Queensland was produced in 2000 to commemorate the ceremonial visit of the newly launched replica ship to the Pennefather River area. This is where the original Duyfken – Dutch for ‘Little Dove’ – made landfall on the Australian continent. Recognising the history of European occupation that came later, informed in part by Dutch maps and reports, the first item on the replica ship’s agenda was reconciliation. Tucked into this book are transcripts of several interviews with Wik Elder Silas Wolmby, and several academic papers. One of these, ‘Reconciling Replicas’ by Simone Bignall and Mark Galliford, quotes sections of captain Peter Manthorpe’s journal from the 2000 visit. The other book is This Is What Happened: Historical narratives by Aborigines (Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1986), edited by Luise Hercus and Peter Sutton.

In the afternoon I should catch some sleep, since I’ll be going on watch after dinner. But instead I curl up high in the stern, holding pages down against the wind, to piece together the story of the first Duyfken’s arrival on what is now Cape York Peninsula.

Since Willem Janszoon’s diary is lost to time, stories of that original visit come via hearsay and legend, second-hand and conflated with later and earlier events. John Saris, agent of the British East India Company stationed in Bantam, Indonesia, wrote in November 1605 that the ‘eighteenth heere departed a small Pinnasse of the Flemmings, for the discovery of the Iland called Nova ginnea, which, as it is said, affordeth great store of gold’.

Janszoon had orders from the VOC to look for the rumoured gold in New Guinea as well as trading opportunities there and further afield. Earlier, when Duyfken was despatched to explore the island of Ceram in Indonesia, she was instructed to find a source of sago and discover ‘whether there is anything to be had there besides sago, their way of doing business and in what places, what commodities had best be sent there, and to what limits their furthers navigation extends, also, wether they have any knowledge of Nova Guinea, whether they have sent ships there, or whether ships from Nova Guinea have ever come to Ceram’. The VOC was seeking trade commodities and partners, keen to discover and capitalise on the ‘way of doing business’ that prevailed in places previously unknown to Dutch merchants. They’d won decisive victories over the Portuguese at Bantam and Ambon – largely thanks to Duyfken’s capabilities as a warship – and were feeling confident about extending their trade routes into the south-west.

Sadly for Janszoon and his crew, New Guinea wasn’t ready to do business with the Dutch. While charting a bight north of what is now called Pulau Yos Sudarso or Pulau Dolak, Janszoon heard drums and went ashore to try to meet the locals. Instead, a hail of arrows killed eight of his men. Janszoon and four survivors beat a hasty retreat.

With perhaps eight to twelve remaining crew members, the Little Dove picked her way south through a maze of reefs and islands. She tried to sail eastward up what Janszoon thought might be a river mouth (and subsequent Dutch explorers called a ‘shallow bay’), but the current was too strong. Instead the ship swung south and continued charting the coastline, leaving a break for the stretch of water that had resisted exploration. Later the same year, Luis vaz de Torres sailed through this lacuna from the other side proving it a strait, which now bears his name.

The dawn that broke on a new year revealed a dramatically different landscape from the tropical estuary in which Janszoon’s crew members had died, further north. This land was flat and olive grey, covered in wind-slicked grass and stunted vegetation. It reminded Janszoon so powerfully of his own home province – or he was by now so homesick – he named it Niuwe Zeeland. He made landfall at a river he named River with the Bush, now Pennefather River, then sailed on, charting nearly three hundred miles of shoreline until a shortage of provisions forced a halt. The ship turned around at a point Janszoon named Cape Keerweer (Cape Turnaround). He sailed back up the charted coast, past his original landfall, and came to the mouth of what is now the Wenlock River. Here he and some crew members took a longboat upriver in search of desperately needed food. But where the river narrowed, dark-skinned figures appeared.

What actually happened at this moment is, like Janszoon’s diary and all the participants, washed away by time’s tide. A later explorer, Abel Tasman, was told that Janszoon’s men, fearing another massacre, fired muskets at the group. The men retaliated by throwing spears, killing one sailor and injuring two others. No record remains of how many Aboriginal people were killed or injured in this encounter, though Carstenszoon, arriving seventeen years, later found them wary of guns.

‘My people believed that the strangers were ghosts,’ Grandfather Silas Wolmby explains in interviews. ‘So they hit them on the back of the neck and killed them. They then speared them and killed them. They never went back to their boat. The boat then left. We don’t know what the captain said to his crew.’

I recall this theme from other first contact stories: First Nations people perceiving the European newcomers as ghosts, devils or spirits; the Europeans seeing ‘black devils’. In the shock of first encounter, difference seems to make so much more impression than commonality that each group apprehends the other as supernatural, inhuman. Tragedy tends to follow.

In June 1606, John Sarris recorded that Duyfken was back in Bantam, returned from a voyage on which ‘in sending their men on shoare to intreate of Trade, there was nine of them killed by the Heathens, which are man-eaters; so they were constrained to returne, finding no good to be done there…’ Neither Saris nor Janszoon yet understood that Duyfken had first visited the island of New Guinea and then the separate continent of Australia.

This is by no means a definitive account. The books and papers in my lap outline many different versions, suggesting that the second conflict occurred at Cape Keerweer or Pennefather River rather than Wenlock River; that the Dutchmen were in search of water or attempting to kidnap Aboriginal women; that Janszoon lost between six and nine men on the Gulf Coast. Some of these accounts draw on oral histories from Mapoon and Aurukun, rich in violent encounters between local people and white men. However, cultural misreadings seem to have occurred when non-Indigenous historians tried to corral all the oral histories into a single linear narrative. Janszoon’s path was followed by Carstenszoon in 1623, Tasman in 1644 and Gonzal in 1756, providing many opportunities for interaction between the people of the area and Dutchmen. Other white people began to arrive overland from 1848, and stories of conflict with much more recent newcomers are also recognisable in the Elders’ recollections.

In Jack Spear Karntin’s story, quoted verbatim in This Is What Happened, Dutchmen build a house and a well, and explain that they want to establish a city, to all of which the local people are agreeable. An Aboriginal man lends his two wives to the Dutchmen, who take the women to their ship. However, the Dutchmen keep the women so long the husband gathers his relatives to go and demand their return. All might have been well – the visitors are prepared to return the women – but one sailor hits on an unlucky plan to restore friendly relations by offering the aggrieved husband his gun to shoot ducks. The man’s relatives panic, thinking the Dutchman means to shoot him, and they club the Dutchman and his companions to death before incinerating their boat.

‘They couldn’t ignore the situation,’ Jack Spear Karntin explains of the remaining Dutch, whom the local men assume will forget their slain compatriots. Instead, another party of Dutchmen launches a punitive attack (on the wrong group of Aboriginal people), and the survivors flee eastward.

In a story told by Gladys Nunkatiapin in the same book, six white men cross the river, meet a group of Aboriginal people and take a young woman back with them. Her husband gathers his relatives to help rescue his wife, and when the Europeans fail to understand their sign language, they pull one of the white men into the river and choke him.

In some oral histories, numerous deaths occur among both the Dutch and the Aboriginal people, and pride is expressed in how successfully the Wik warriors defended their country. These stories are plausible: Aboriginal weapons in the early seventeenth century were as good, or better than, those of the Europeans, and the local population far outnumbered the intruders. But it’s clear that none of these remembered conflicts relates to Duyfken’s original visit. With fewer than a dozen starving and dehydrated sailors, the ship had no mandate to attempt settlement, and the VOC hadn’t yet begun instructing its officers to take captives as a form of intelligence gathering.

I’m fretting over irreconcilable details when a passage from Peter Manthorpe’s journal compels me to stop attempting synthesis and appreciate that there are complementary ways of knowing, remembering and storytelling. Peter describes a day spent at Cape Keerweer with Wik Elder Silas Wolmby, probably born in the 1940s, whose tales of first contact are mingled with episodes from his own life. Grandfather Silas keeps insisting he’s not telling multiple stories but one story: ‘The story about the Duyfken arriving four hundred years ago is the same story as you arriving here and us talking.’ Peter begins to understand that Grandfather Silas doesn’t see his story about the past as ‘this factual account that has to be perfectly accurate – what’s the use of that?’ Rather, the Elder understands ‘the whole reason for telling a story about something that happened in the past is its relevance to the present or your own life and vice versa’.

So, although no eyewitness accounts have survived, it seems likely that very first contact occurred between one small group of people looking for food on a foreign shore and another small group gathering food on their own country. Two handfuls of people seeking to fulfil basic human needs. Did they look and sound so radically ‘other’ to each other that it was impossible to recognise a common humanity? Or was that recognition outweighed by the different systems of knowledge and know-how, belief and values, lifestyle and history that each side sensed underpinning the other? Without shared language, they seem to have been unable to move past the shock of the new. At least one death occurred, the Dutch retreated, and what happened between that time and Duyfken’s return to Bantam in June remains untold.


WE’VE LOWERED THE mainyard to the deck to reef the maincourse against an over-boisterous and unhelpful wind. The sail bellies out like a great grey-white beast straining to escape capture. Its body wraps around my face, and when I manage to grasp a handful of canvas it bucks savagely, wrenching my arm in its socket.

‘Come this side,’ Matt says urgently. Somehow I’ve ended up on the windward side of the yard; all my shipmates are in the lee. I duck under the yard and my face becomes miraculously clear of sailcloth, my hands two among many as we tame and tuck the rampant canvas.

It’s a salutary lesson. This north-westerly is lively but not vicious. If I stood on deck, face to the wind, and raised my arm, nothing would happen. Involve my body with a vast unyielding plane of solid flax, designed to channel the wind’s power, and I could easily be knocked out or knocked overboard. They don’t call the great wooden blocks of the running rigging widow-makers for nothing.

Once more in my hammock, while the sea churns past the hull beside me and Big Dave from Starboard Watch snores like a surging engine, my mind fills with sails. Lanteen-rigged Chinese junks. Japanese pearling luggers. Polynesian navigators sailing rafts over the great waves of the South Pacific, settling New Zealand in giant canoes. The younger sons of Danish and Norwegian families working the great square sails of their longships, seeking land, wives, freedom from royal tyranny, a place to call their own; in England, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland and North America. Restless peoples: visionary and unsatisfied. By contrast, James Cook described ‘the Natives of New Holland’ as having everything they needed:

From what I have said…they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans… They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not Magnificent Houses, Household-stuff &c, they live in a warm and fine Climate and enjoy a very wholesome Air, so that they have very little need of Clothing… In short they seem’d to set no Value upon any thing we gave them, nor would they ever part with any thing of their own for any one article we could offer them; this in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life and that they have no superfluities.

It’s possible to read this passage as romanticising, exoticising, paternalistic. But perhaps it expresses simple respect for people living within the provisions of their environment, seeing no need to trust their lives to the chancy physics of sails. Cook was a career sailor, but there must have been weary moments when he envied those who stayed home.


SINCE LEAVING THURSDAY Island we’ve completely lost sight of land. I’m helming the course I’ve been given, watching the compass in front of me and tilting Duyfken’s timber whipstaff starboard and port, but I can tell by the sun that we’re not moving south. In fact by my lubberly calculations we’re going to bypass Papua New Guinea and eventually hit Indonesia. I look up into the vast expanse of the maincourse. The forecourse and tops are out too, and the mizzen’s just been set.

Matt appears at my side. ‘Forget the compass for now. Watch the sails, and move the whip to keep them full. It’s called sailing full and by.’

‘The principle is, we can’t go anywhere if we’re not moving,’ Ant, the first mate, adds from the foot of the mainmast. ‘So keep us moving.’

‘Even in the wrong direction?’

‘You focus on catching the wind,’ says Matt. ‘Let us worry about the direction.’

Matt strides away and I hear him giving orders, putting people either side of the maincourse to start easing and hauling. Four people are swarming up the shrouds to the maintop. Okay, I understand: I catch the wind, they’ll angle it, and we’ll try to crab our way south.

But by dinnertime Matt looks dispirited. ‘We need to reach Weipa on schedule. Sorry, guys, but we’ll have to motor back to the coast.’

The plan makes sense, but a gloomy silence falls over the crew. We’re a sailing ship, goddammit it. What are we if we can’t sail? Glumly we go about the work of hauling and reefing canvas. I’m aloft when I hear the deep bass of the engines start up, and feel a sullen resentment. Engines like these weren’t dreamt of in Duyfken’s time. The first experiments with internal combustion were performed by Christian Huygens – Dutch, incidentally – around 1680. Still, it’s ridiculous to be too sentimental.

‘Janszoon came down a bit earlier in the year,’ Col remarks beside me as we reef the main course, ‘but these winds are pretty standard for the area. Right now we’re trying to follow directly in his path, and we can’t do it without engines. Hell of a sailor, he must have been.’


THERE’S A SHORT time to read before I turn in, with my next watch due to start at 4 am. I huddle on my seachest under a lantern to read the essay ‘Reconciling Replicas: The second coming of the Duyfken’. Turns out Peter Manthorpe, Duyfken’s captain on her 2000 reconciliation voyage, is also a poet and academic, who was initially concerned that the replica ship was an ‘immoral simulacrum’. ‘Reconciling Replicas’ quotes from his diary:

Conducting a re-enactment of the Duyfken’s voyage of discovery would be immoral because it pretends to revisit the past and to relive it, but what is being enacted is actually a version of the past conducted by present day agents with present day political perspectives and agendas. These images of the past, according to Baudrillard, do more than simply mask the reality of the past. They contribute to the annihilation of the past reality altogether.

However, Peter came to believe that ‘the wonderful thing about re-enacting history is that you can rewrite the script’. Peter writes about re-enactments of colonial events having the power either to fortify or to challenge white Australia’s sense of ownership: to reinscribe colonial attitudes, beliefs and structures of relationship towards Indigenous people, or to open up space for revision and transformation: ‘…perhaps the Duyfken has less to do with the past than she has to do with the present. Perhaps [her] most important function…is to provide a space where we can negotiate our contemporary relationship with the past.’ Peter notes in his journal that most people in the Aboriginal communities of Mapoon and Aurukun are enthusiastic about the 2000 visit. ‘They understand better than we do what we are up to. We are retelling an old story, keeping it alive by living it, but at the same time making it a story of our own, of our own time.’


‘WE CAN’T SEE land yet.’ Beside my hammock, Paul is barely speaking above a whisper, but I hear the excitement in his voice. ‘But we can smell it.’

Reaching the foot of the companionway, I understand what he means. A warm breeze carries the unmistakeable scent of bushfire: eucalyptus, dry banksia scrub. It’s 4 am and still dark, but land must be close on our port side. There’s nothing to see through the darkness: no light, beacon or marker, no other vessel, no loom on any horizon.

Something else is missing, and it takes me a moment to figure out what it is. The engines. We’re picking up the land-breeze in our courses and tops – which Port Watch have set in the night – and successfully sailing south without the help of modern technology.

A deep sense of the past pervades me. Now, in this moment, I’m seeing exactly what that nameless Dutch sailor four hundred years ago would have seen; hearing the sounds, smelling the smoke and the ship’s oily woody dusty aromas. Although I carry different memories from that man, speak a different language, inhabit a different body, for a moment we’re linked across the centuries by our senses. He would have recognised smoke. Would the alien botanicals in this particular smoke reinforce for him how far he was from home, as powerfully as for me they shout of homecoming?

The world lightens. Soon I perceive a low coastline, this particular section of the vast island I call home as new to me as it was to Janszoon. His name for it – Nieuwe Zeeland – blew away on the wind and was later bestowed on a different country, but I’m intrigued by Janszoon’s desire to connect his old world with his ‘discovered’ one, through a name.

I continue scanning for anything that might disrupt my sense of seeing exactly what the captain and his men saw in 1606. There is nothing. Our watch ends at breakfast and I’m not tired; I stay on deck gazing on the low coast that slides past to port and nothing, no sign at all of the twenty-first century. No plane, no vessel, no buoy or marker; no fence, no building, no farm animal – no animals period. No cultivation, no trees: just low bushy scrub that from the sea appears impenetrable. Sometimes there’s sand, once the wide mouth of a river. We might be the only human beings in the world. The Dutch sailor and Janszoon and I sail on into the blue morning; and in the late afternoon I’m up on the foreyard for the sake of the view and still nothing of the twenty-first century to break our communion. In these hours before first contact, we are all innocent and our ship can be nothing but beautiful.


IT’S MIDNIGHT WHEN we reach Weipa: me on the helm, Warren on lookout and Ant checking and rechecking the channel lights against the chart, crisply giving me headings. When we moor it’s in a fog of exhausted elation. We’ve done it. In the morning Port Watch will have brought us alongside and there’ll be a day of Customs visits and paperwork and refuelling, laundry for crew continuing on and packing for those like me who are flying home from Weipa. But now I’m too wired to sleep, and the cabin light is strong enough to finish reading ‘Reconciling Replicas’.

The voyage of 2000 wasn’t an attempt to re-enact the past. It was a do-over: the event of a Duyfken landing was re-created. Jack Spear Karntin states simply and regretfully that if those early Dutchmen had ‘behaved properly’ they wouldn’t have been killed. Grandfather Silas says, ‘I’m feeling sad at heart. I’m sorry for the Dutchmen who died. They were the first Europeans to set foot on Australian soil. It is the first recorded contact with Australian Aboriginal people.’ These are narratives told with dignity and grace, by people looking back at what might easily have been a different history of intercultural exchange.

Bignall and Galliford, authors of ‘Reconciling Replicas’, describe the Little Dove’s 2000 visit as a ‘discontinuity’ with the past, an opportunity to start afresh with the benefit of hindsight and hard-won cultural understanding:

Before leaving Fremantle, Peter was given a message stick by some local Nyoongah people to offer the local people on arrival at Pennefather River. On it was a simple message: ‘May we whiteman walk upon your ground? Yes. No.’ Peter had kept the message stick in his cabin during the journey and had reflected on its significance. On 9 August, the Duyfken replica was anchored offshore from the mouth of the Pennefather River, where a large party of Aboriginal people and other dignitaries had gathered… After eight thousand kilometres and four months at sea, the moment to step ashore had arrived, like it had almost four hundred years previously.

After paddling a small Bandalese canoe from the ship to the landing site, Peter and two others of the crew waited in the shallows for the signal to come ashore. Although he was unsure of its historical significance, Peter complied with a request to bring a white flag with him, because he felt such a gesture clearly demonstrated ‘overtones of humility that I find entirely appropriate, since it is our intention not to set foot ashore until we have gained permission to do so from the land’s traditional owners’. Three women on the beach started a chant that meant the sailors had survived, and a Yupungutti man walked towards them with a spear, signalling them to come up. Peter planted the flag into the sand and the local man pushed the spear in next to it, then scooped up some handfuls of water and poured them over Peter. Three shell necklaces were placed around Peter’s neck, and one of the women stated: ‘This means you are welcome here, and you can come back anytime.’ With this welcome, Peter made the following speech:

‘In every port we have been to, every place we have landed, we have used the same maritime protocol that has been used for centuries. We have asked permission to come ashore. This is a protocol that I am sorry to say has been ignored far too many times by colonial powers in the past. So it’s a great privilege now for me to be able to do this thing and show the respect that is due to the traditional owners.’

The question on the Nyoongah message stick was then asked: ‘May we whiteman walk upon your ground?’ Peter was taken to a tent where three elderly women were sitting, and he handed the stick over to them. In return, they gave Peter a plaque of ironwood and shells, which read ‘Coen River, 2000’ (the former name for the Pennefather River). Peter asked the question again. Silence… Someone in the crowd then prompted: ‘It’s a question. Yes or no?’ And finally one of the women replied: ‘Oh yes, you’re welcome to walk our ground. You’re very welcome.’ Speeches were made by important blackfellas and whitefellas, including the Queensland premier. Singing and dancing and more speeches followed, until eventually the gathering became an informal occasion of social mingling and interviewing.

Elder Ina Hall is reported to have received the loudest applause of the day, saying in her speech:

The present is now that we are living. The future is looking forward. We must not think about the past. Sometimes it’s a story to tell our kids what happened. But not all the time. The past is back. Many of us feel terrible about the past but I think it’s best that we forget it.

Perhaps the point of Duyfken, however, is not so much forgetting as remembering something important, a bit of the past that offers hope for the future. According to the 2006 State Library of New South Wales publication First Sight: The Dutch mapping of Australia 1606 to 1697, Janszoon labelled a place on the west coast of Cape York ‘Moent’. The meaning of this word – not Dutch – remains a mystery. Recent research suggests it may be a Dutch transcription of an Aboriginal word meaning ‘coals, charcoal, cremation ground’. This tiny mark on a map raises the tantalising possibility that at some point before returning to Indonesia, Janszoon secured a second chance. Perhaps somehow, despite initially getting off on the wrong foot, these two groups of people who saw each other as so different managed to establish a modicum of trust and respectful curiosity: enough to exchange at least a word, a place-name. One small piece of common ground.

In 2000, Grandfather Silas and other Aboriginal Elders and artists sailed on Duyfken from the Pennefather River to Cape Keerweer. By this act, they opened up the semiophore to symbolise something other than foreign technology, invading power and illegitimate possession. They used the ship to revisit culturally and historically significant sites where they shared stories, and as authorised representatives of their communities granted permission for these to be recorded, broadcast and published for the permanent enrichment of Australian cultural discourse. In Bignall and Galliford’s words, this represented a discontinuity in the devaluing, suppression and marginalisation of Aboriginal knowledge. Something was done properly. Elder Ina Hall reflected, ‘I cried inside… Everything we did today was thrilling.’

Symbols are vital to a lively and living understanding of who we are, this multicultural Australia. Symbols are not static. They are vessels in which we voyage together to collaboratively redress the past, renegotiate our relationships with the present and navigate the future. Nor is our national story some enshrined text, speaking only to and from the past; it’s an oral history told and retold every day in the context of the present. By us. Together. Whoever the hell we are.



Australia on the Map 2017, Mapping for Societal Memory: from Duyfken to Digital.

Bignall, S & Galliford, M 2003, ‘Reconciling replicas: The second coming of the Duyfken’, Cultural Studies Review, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 37-64.

Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands & Mapoon Aboriginal Shire Council 2015, The Duyfken: Unveiling of the first contact memorial at Mapoon, Queensland, Western Australian Museum, Perth WA.

Hercus, L & Sutton, P 1986, This is what happened: Historical narratives by Aborigines, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra.

State Library of New South Wales 2006, First sight: The Dutch mapping of Australia 1606-1697.

Van Huystee, M 1995, On the yacht Duyfken (1601): The first European Ship known to explore the Australian coast, Report No. 105, Maritime Archaeology Department, Western Australian Maritime Museum, Fremantle WA.

VOC Historical Society n.d., Willem Janszoon: Australia’s Columbus.

Wolmby, S 2010, Turn Back film transcript, Wik Media.

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