This is the tale of the good ship Duyfken (Little Dove) and her sometime skipper, Willem Janszoon – a tale that gives us a window into the contest for the Spice Islands and also tells of the first European landfall on Australia.
BEGINNINGS OF THE SPICE RACE: For centuries, highly-sought spices of the East – cinnamon, peppers, cloves, nutmeg, mace – had been transported by sail variously to Malacca (in Malaya), Achin (north Sumatra), Bantam (now Banten, West Java) or key ports in the Moluccas, a huge island-specked area west of New Guinea. From there they would be conveyed by Indian, Persian and Arab traders to the Middle East, and thence by caravan to the eastern Mediterranean, before being distributed by Venetian and Genoese ships to the sale points of Europe. However, in 1453 the Turks captured Constantinople and levied tolls on the caravans, making this route much less profitable.
Portugal was therefore keen to find an ocean route to the Indies, a vague term roughly encompassing India and lands eastward, and a great age of maritime exploration began. In 1511, Portugal’s Captain Alburqerque conquered the trading port of Malacca and the maritime nation proceeded to establish itself in Bantam and the Moluccas, home of the Spice Islands, gaining virtual monopoly of the spice trade within ten years.
In the late 1500s, the Netherlands rose in revolt against Spanish domination and, in retaliation, King Philip of Spain blocked their access to the port of Lisbon. A major part of Dutch sea commerce had consisted of collecting Asian goods brought by the Portuguese to Lisbon and distributing them around Europe. The port closure prompted the Dutch to step up efforts to secure their own maritime line-of-supply from the Spice Islands. England, which had also been reliant on Lisbon, did the same. Portugal wanted to block everyone else.
THE FIRST DUTCH FLEET: In 1595, a company of Amsterdam merchants dispatched a four-vessel fleet under Cornelius de Houtman along the established route to the Indies: roughly southerly to Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and then very roughly easterly to Java. It was a wretched journey and, when the surviving vessels limped home two and a half years later, 160 out the original 249 men had perished. Nonetheless, the expedition brought back enough spices to cover costs.
Also in 1595, the Duyfken was built in the Netherlands. She was a kind of vessel referred to as a pinnace: three-masted, less than 20 metres long, 5 metres wide and with a 2 metre draught. Fast and nifty, she was armed with eight guns and four catapults. I recently looked over its replica and can assure you there is precious little room for twenty men, which was the original Duyfken’s complement (for videos of the replica, see YouTube). It is unclear exactly what she was used for in the first years of her life.
THE SECOND WAVE: Competing Dutch merchants sent out more fleets to the Indies, with varying degrees of success. In March 1598, a well-equipped fleet under Admiral van Neck set sail with eight ships, including the Hollandia, on which Willem Janszoon (or Jansz) sailed as mate. Little is known of his earlier life but it is thought he was an orphan born around 1570, who received a reasonable education. He was described as “a very competent and sober man”. It seems no picture of him has survived.
When van Neck’s fleet reached Bantam, four ships were loaded with spices and returned with Janszoon to Holland, realising a 400% profit! The rest of the fleet sailed eastwards to the Moluccas, home of key spice-trading ports, where they loaded with nutmegs and mace, and set up trading posts on the Banda islands (1,700 miles east of Bantam) with a few men left to staff them.
Some Dutch companies formed a joint venture to finance another large fleet. In 1599, the original four ships were sent out as an advance party under Vice-Admiral Jacob Wilkens, with Janszoon as a first mate, returning in 1601 after a successful voyage. Janszoon sailed again as ship’s master in fleet of three, reaching Sumatra in 1602. The Dutch commander went off with an English fleet to attack a Portuguese ship, while Janszoon stayed behind and charted Malayan coasts. He got back to the Netherlands the next year.
As for the Duyfken, two years earlier it had joined a fleet led by Willem Cornelisz Schouten, whose four ships reached Bantam on Christmas day, coming up against a Portuguese fleet of no less than thirty vessels. The plucky Dutch engaged this force in intermittent skirmishes, taking only a week drive them off. The dominance of the Iberians (Portuguese and Spanish) had been cracked.
After repairs, Duyfken sailed to the spice-trading port of Ternate in the Moluccas, taking on a cargo of cloves. She then sailed to Banda islands to load up with nutmeg, and thence eastwards to check what the Portuguese were up to. After this voyage, Duyfken set off for her homeland in company with some larger ships but was separated from them in a storm off Africa, still reaching the Netherlands before them in early 1603. THE DUTCH EAST INDIA COMPANY: In 1602, the Netherlands government had sponsored the establishment of the United East India Company (VoC), and granted it monopoly of trade in Asia, thus combining the strength of the former competing-cum-cooperating merchants. The cartel had the right to build forts, raise armies, make treaties and militarily engage in the region as it saw fit.
The VoC assembled a 12-vessel fleet under Admiral van der Hagen, with instructions to intimidate Spanish and Portuguese ships on the coasts of Africa and India, and to chase the Iberians out of the Spice Islands. The refitted Duyfken, skippered by Willem Janszoon, was part of this fleet, which embarked for the Indies again in late 1603. They captured two Portuguese ships near Africa before arriving in Bantam on the eve of 1604.
In 1605, Duyfken was in a fleet that recaptured the key island of Amboina from the Portuguese. Then onward to Banda, consolidating the Dutch trading post there. The Duyfken and another vessel stayed in the area for three years exploring trading opportunities.
THE TORRES STRAIT VOYAGE: The next year, Duyfken returned to Bantam to be fitted out for a mission we read of in an English trader’s diary: “The eighteenth, heere departed a small pinnasse of the Flemmings, for the discovery of the land called Nova ginnea [New Guinea].” The captain was Willem Janszoon. After reaching Banda, Duyfken pushed easterly to the southern ‘belly’ of New Guinea, rounded it and headed through the Arafura Sea until she arrived in the Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Australia. Changing course, she bumped into Cape York Peninsula, the huge finger of land that points at New Guinea. Janszoon imagined it was the New Guinea coast extending south, but he and his men were in fact the first whiteys to see or land on the continent of Australia. They explored the coast southwards as far as Cape Keerweer, before heading back north. At the Batavia River, “in sending their men on shoare to intreate of Trade, there were nine of them killed by the Heathens… so they were constrained to returne.” Thus the very first white-black contact in Australia was marred by conflict. Duyfken continued until close to the northern-most tip of mainland Australia, and then north adjacent to the narrow neck of Torres Strait until she reached the coast of New Guinea. This area is so strewn with islands, reefs, sand banks and mists that Janszoon did not discern he was in a strait leading through to the Southwest Pacific. Baffled by obstructions, he headed west around New Guinea’s belly and home to Banda, arriving in May 1606.
What the Portuguese did not know was that Captain Luis Torres, for Spain, left the Southwest Pacific just weeks after the Duyfken got back to Banda and traversed westwards the strait that now bears his name. The true nature of this stretch of water was not confirmed by other powers until Captain Cook (at right) sailed west through it after his land-grab of eastern Australia in 1770.
DUYFKIN’S LAST DAYS: After her return to Bantam, it is unclear whether Duyfken made a second voyage to Australia. Later in 1607, it is recorded she had to fetch supplies for the Dutch fortress on Ternate, under stress from its enemies. Janszoon, after a misadventure in which he had to abandon a ship in Mauritius, was sent to Banda with instructions to stall English ship on their way there and buy up all the spice he could so there’d be none left for the Brits.
The Dutch next had to deal with an Iberian fleet which arrived in the Moluccas, spoiling for trouble. Setting out to confront them, a fleet including the Duyfken and the Delft, skippered by Janszoon, had a five-hour battle with three Spanish galleys, which they managed to rout. In June the following year, Duyfken was dispatched with other ships to capture a fortress on Makian Island, and a few weeks later she was taken to Ternate for repairs. The well-travelled vessel was reported as “burst in the doubling”, judged irreparable and “cast away”. Thus did the bold Little Dove meet its end in 1608.
WILLIE’S LATER CAREER: Meantime Janszoon had been sent on missions to Sumatra and India, dishing it out to the Portuguese. When his term of service expired in 1611, he returned to his homeland but soon signed for another three years and set off for the Indies again, bashing Portuguese again. He next governed the island of Solor, a centre of sandalwood trade, for few years until his new term expired, and then went back to the Netherlands, where he served on the defence fleet.
Next – you’ve guessed it –he returned to the Indies, participating in the destruction of Jacatra (on whose ruins the future capital of Indonesia was built) and then trounced four English ships off Sumatra. When England and the Netherlands made peace in 1620, Janszoon was in a combined fleet that attacked any common enemy between Bantam and Tokyo, becoming an admiral to the bargain. For a while he served as Governor of Banda, before heading a fleet on a diplomatic mission to India.
After that, he helped organise the defence of Java but finally went home for good in 1628, ending his VoC career with a report on the state of the Indies, with the company recording “he has pleased us greatly”. And that’s the last we hear of Willem Janszoon. They don’t make men like him any more.
‘A Brave Ship’ (no date) at http://www.duyfken.com/original/brave-ship
Corn C, 1999, The Scents of Eden: A History of the Spice Trade, Kodansha, New York.
Milton G, 1999, Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, Sceptre, London.
Mutch T D, 1942, ‘The First Discovery of Australia…’ at http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0600631h.html