Netherlands and Australia chart new course for our maritime heritage

On September 15, 2017,  The Netherlands and Australia signed a major new agreement on how our two countries jointly manage and research our shipwrecks, sunken relics and other underwater cultural heritage.

Agreement Australia Netherlands
Deputy Secretary Dean Knudson of Australia and the Dutch Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Joke Brandt sign the agreement

The Dutch explored the Australian coastline more than 150 years before James Cook and the two nations have worked together on maritime heritage for more than 40 years, culminating in last year’s highly successful celebrations of the anniversary of Dirk Hartog’s landing on the Australian continent.

The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) marks the most important review of our shared management arrangements since 1972. It seeks to encourage more joint projects and sharing of skills and resources, and to formally align our work with the UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. This is only the third such MOU that Australia has entered into, after the USAand Indonesia, reflecting the significance of its shared maritime history with the Netherlands. 

The Dutch Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Joke Brandt signed the Memorandum of Understanding on behalf of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW). Deputy Secretary Dean Knudson of the Australian Department of the Environment and Energy  signed on behalf of the Australian Government. The signing took place at the National Library in Canberra, in the presence of its Director General Dr Marie-Louise Ayre amid the Library’s beautiful collection of old Dutch maps that show the extent of Dutch exploration of New Holland (Australia) by 1644. About two thirds of Australia had been mapped by that date. 

As far back as 1606, Dutchman Willem Janszoon and his crew on the Duyfken made the first European landing on the Australian continent (at Pennefather River on the Gulf of Carpentaria). Many Dutch explorers, including Dirk Hartogand Abel Tasman, followed. 

Some of the Dutch journeys to Australia did not end well. So far, four Dutch shipwrecks have been found in Australian waters, including the Batavia and the Zuytdorp. At least three more are still missing, among them the Aagtekerke and the Fortuyn. In 2016, the Netherlands and the Australian not-for-profit group Wreck Check jointly searched for the Fortuyn near the Cocos Keeling Islands and Christmas Island. More recently, Dutch and Australian maritime archaeologists from the Western Australian Museum and Flinders University conducted fieldwork at the sites of the Dutch shipwrecks Zeewijk and Batavia as part of the ‘Shipwrecks of the Roaring 40s’ project. 

With advanced technology the collections are being re-investigated and the sites revisited. Today’s Memorandum of Understanding provides a framework for more great work into 17th and 18th century life and seafaring, encompassing the earliest history of European encounters with the Australian coast and our shared underwater cultural heritage in the Indian Ocean and south-east Asian region.