Chasing the Dragon

The letter believed to have come from survivors of the Gilt Dragon shipwreck.
The letter believed to have come from survivors of the Gilt Dragon shipwreck.

Gilt Dragon Research Group founder Steve Caffery said he recently received confirmation from the West Cape Archive that it had a letter from survivors of the 1656 shipwreck in its collection.

�This whole thing might sound nerdy, but the Gilt Dragon survivors� letter is one of the most significant archival discoveries, in relation to early Dutch contact in WA, to have been made in decades,� he said.

�The letter, a copy of the survivors plea for help, was sent from Batavia to the Cape of Good Hope in 1656.

�The letter remained in the West Cape Archive for 359 years whereupon it was rediscovered by the West Cape Archive Service, at the request of the Gilt Dragon Research Group.�

Mr Caffery said 75 people were known to have survived the wreck of the Dutch ship Vergulde Draeck, or Gilt Dragon.

�We know this because seven sailors, who had survived the Gilt Dragon wreck, were sent to Batavia with the hope of generating a rescue, and against all odds and adversity, the sailors made it to tell their tale,� he said.

�The Gilt Dragon survivors� letter, written by the remaining survivors of the Gilt Dragon shipwreck, was carried by the seven Gilt Dragon sailors to Batavia in 1656.�

Mr Caffery said the handwritten letter, penned in Ancient Dutch, was a plea for help from the then Lord Governor General Joan Maetsuycker.

�The letter discusses the bleak circumstances in which the Gilt Dragon survivors found themselves and further describes the loss of their boat,� he said.

�Most interestingly of all, the letter dated May 7, 1656, indicates the Gilt Dragon survivors remained on the coast of WA for some seven days before the schuijt (small boat) was sent to Batavia.�

Publishing photos of the letter and his translation on the Gilt Dragon Research Group facebook page this week, Mr Caffery said, to his knowledge, the letter had not been published before.

�The letter may also represent the earliest known example of European handwriting on mainland Australia,� he said. WA Museum chief executive Alec Coles said the museum had not yet been approached about the find.

�If it proves to be genuine, as it appears, this is an exciting discovery that would add considerably to the historic record of early Dutch contact with WA,� he said. For more information, visit