1595-1616 The route to the Indies

To avoid encountering enemy ships, the Dutch tried to find an alternative route to the Far East. It was thought that there might be a way to China through the Arctic Ocean.


Northern Route

Clock, from Barendsz’s shelter on Nova Zembla. Netherlands?, c. 1590-1595

Book about China, from Barendsz’s shelter on Nova Zembla. Alkmaar and Hoorn, 1595

Two attempts to find a passage to Asia by a northern route had already failed. In 1596, the city of Amsterdam offered 25,000 guilders to fund a third venture to the Arctic. Two ships sailed out, one under Jan Cornelisz Rijp, the other under Jacob van Heemskerck with navigator and cartographer Willem Barendsz as expedition leader. Their aim was the kingdom of Cathay and China. They discovered Bear Island and Spitsbergen, but they failed completely to reach their objective. Van Heemskerck’s ship became trapped in the ice off the island of Nova Zembla. The crew of seventeen were forced to stay there for the long Arctic winter. By then Rijp had already turned back. He had not been in favour of sailing so far east.

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The ship trapped in the ice. After Gerrit de Veer, 1598

Crew fighting a polar bear. After Gerrit de Veer, 1598

The carpenters building the shelter. After Gerrit de Veer, 1598

The interior of Barendsz’s shelter. After Gerrit de Veer, 1598

We know a lot about how the men survived their winter ordeal. One of the crew, Gerrit de Veer, kept a journal. In it he wrote a detailed account of the weather from day to day and of what the men experienced. With Barendsz in command, they built a shelter on the island with a single door as an opening and a chimney in the middle of the roof: they called it their Behouden Huys - house of safety. Through snow storms and in the freezing cold, the men dragged food and drink and other necessities from the ship to the shelter. They were regularly attacked by polar bears, which they quickly shot. When the polar night set in, on 4 November, the polar bears vanished, replaced by arctic foxes. Often the shelter was covered in snow, so the foxes were able to get onto the roof.

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Letter to the future

Cedelken (handgeschreven document). Willem Barendsz en Jacob van Heemskerkck, 1597

De grote leeuw. Jacob de Gheyn II, ca. 1590-1596

On 13 June 1597, the conditions were ripe and the men left in two open longboats. Gerrit de Veer noted in his journal that Willem Barendsz wrote a letter, a kind of testimony. He placed it in a powder horn, which he hung in the fireplace. In it, he wrote how ‘we had come from Holland to sail to the kingdom of China, and everything that had happened to us, and all our experiences, in case anyone came after us ...’

While they rowed back towards the inhabited world, Barendsz was among those not to make it. Only twelve of the men arrived back in Amsterdam on 1 November 1597. The objects that they had left on Nova Zembla remained untouched for three centuries. In 1871, a Norwegian expedition found the collapsed remains of the shelter. The objects they found – including stacks of hundreds of copper engravings intended for sale in the East Indies, and Barendsz’s letter – were later acquired by the Dutch government and given a place in the Rijksmuseum.

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Round the Cape

The return to Amsterdam of the second expedition to the East Indies, 19 July 1599. Hendrik Cornelisz. Vroom, 1599

In 1595-1597, a Dutch fleet sailed to Asia taking the route used by Portuguese ships round the Cape of Good Hope, the southern tip of Africa. The expedition was commanded by Cornelis de Houtman. They suffered tremendous losses, made some major blunders, yet managed to sail there and back and so the trip was deemed a success. Profits from the pepper they brought back just about covered the cost.

This was the start. A second expedition was soon fitted out, this time commanded by Jacob van Neck. Some of the ships were already back a year later. The vessels full of spices were greeted with euphoria.

In 1602, a company was established to manage commerce with Asia - the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC). There were confrontations with Spaniards and Portuguese; even naval engagements. But the Dutch, having discovered a lucrative trade, were not about to let themselves be excluded.


Terra Australis Incognita

Dirck Hartogh plate. West Australia, 1616

Terra Australis Incognita: the unknown southland. No European had ever seen it. No European had ever set foot on it. But it was supposed to be enormous and full of incredible possibilities. Dutch ships occasionally passed the coast of Australia by accident. Dirck Hartogh and his crew stopped there once. Their VOC ship Eendracht was actually sailing to Batavia, but had been blown off course and sighted the unfamiliar coast by chance.

Hartogh and his crew had no time to explore, but to prove to future generations that they had in fact set foot there, he had a pewter plate brought over from the ship and flattened. This was inscribed with a text to testify to their excursion and then nailed to a pole. Eighty years later, it was another Dutch captain who found it and brought it to Batavia: the first European ever to touch Australian soil.