Searchers are narrowing in on a lost Dutch treasure ship off Western Australia

WA Museum maritime archaeologists at work in the Abrolhos Islands. Image: WA Museum

Archaeologists are getting closer to the final resting place of a fifth Dutch treasure ship wrecked off the coast of Western Australia before European settlement began.

A Western Australian Museum team will spend two weeks in November looking for the remains of the Aagtekerke, which was believed to have carried three tonnes of silver coin and ivory in the form of elephant tusks.

The museum is working with wreck-hunter and author Hugh Edwards in the search for the Dutch East India Company ship, believed to have been lost at the Abrolhos Islands off the Mid West coast 300 years ago.

Four Dutch East India Company ships have been found off Western Australia: the Batavia (wrecked in 1629), Zeewijk (wrecked in 1727), the Vergulde Draeck (wrecked in 1656), and Zuytdorp (wrecked in 1712).

The ships carried trade goods, including large amounts of gold and silver, to buy spices from what is now Indonesia.

Edwards, who wrote a book about the Batavia, Islands of Angry Ghosts, in 1966, is a registered finder of two of the four wrecks, the Batavia and Zeewijk.

An aerial magnetometer survey was conducted earlier this year to look for anomalies which could indicate the presence of a shipwreck. The survey in the Pelsaert Group was funded by John Rothwell, the founder and chairman of shipbuilder Austal.

This survey identified areas of further investigation. The next step involves diving and underwater work as well as side-scan sonar and other imaging techniques.

Edwards believes the ship was wrecked in the search area and WA Museum CEO Alec Coles says there’s enough of an indication to warrant a closer look.

“There is enough information for the museum to go back to the Abrolhos and continue the search which we are planning to do in November,” says Coles.

“But finding another historic shipwreck — Aagtekerke or not — is not guaranteed. The new data may well lead to new discoveries, but as to whether it points to a major wreck site remains to be seen.”

The Aagtekerke was carrying silver coins and metals then valued at 200,000 guilders (which would now be worth many hundreds of millions) when it and its 212 crew were lost without trace in 1726 on its maiden voyage.

The new search will be led by Jeremy Green, the WA Museum’s head of maritime archaeology.

“The museum has been investigating and interpreting these and other significant wreck sites for nearly 50 years, and holds arguably the biggest collection of excavated maritime archaeological material in the world,” says Coles.

This year is the 400th anniversary of the first European contact with Australia with Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog’s arrival at Inscription Point near Shark Bay in 1616.

All historic shipwrecks are protected under the Historic Shipwrecks Act (1976), which makes it illegal to damage wreck sites or remove artefacts from them.