THEY’RE specks on a map, islands almost overlooked in the Age of Discovery, but legend shrouds them and they could hold the secret to a long-lost treasure.
When author and shipwreck hunter Graeme Henderson visited the Cocos (Keeling) and Christmas islands in 2015/16 with fellow members of Wreck Check and a representative from the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands, it was primarily to look for signs of missing Dutch ships Fortuyn and Aagtekerke, presumed sunk in the 16th century.
The search produced just a few tantalising clues, but the islands gave up such a wealth of stories that Henderson and colleagues Robert de Hoop and Andrew Viduka decided to compile them into a book.
Misadventures in Nature’s Paradise is the inaugural publication of the UWA Oceans Institute Monograph Series.
Henderson says writing a book about two islands where few people lived or visited, initially seemed an odd choice.
“But there are so many people going by, and the stories of those people going by, it was quite fascinating,” he says.
Another aspect that captured his imagination, and which the book sets out to settle, is how the Cocos (Keeling) Islands got their name and came to be British, then Australian, territories.
Henderson says it comes down to a bit of a muddle about maps.
In 1646 British cartographer Robert Dudley produced a map with “Killing Island” roughly where the most northerly of the three islands lies, having updated it from an earlier version which named it “Riling Island”.
“Now, the question of where did he get the word riling from stuck in my mind and I kicked it around and kicked it around and then found that riling is a early Dutch word,” Henderson says.
He realised that both riling and killing were Dutch words denoting channels and tidal flows, and points to a 1612 Dutch map with three unnamed islands in roughly the right spot to attribute that country with their discovery.
A later map-maker muddied things by reinterpreting Killing as “Keeling”, the name of a British sea captain who’d sailed across the Indian Ocean in 1609.
“And everyone believed that, including the Dutch,” Henderson says.
“Of course, the Dutch weren’t really interested in it because there weren’t any people there and therefore there weren’t any spices to be had or cheap labor to be acquired, all those sorts of things.”
The only problem is, says Henderson, no one on board Keeling’s fleet ever mentioned spotting three uncharted islands along the way (to this day Wikipedia still credits Keeling with the discovery).
How the islands actually came to be British territory was pure stuff-up.
In March 1857 Captain Stephen Fremantle arrived aboard the HMS Juno and proudly annexed them, not realising he’d misread his orders and was some 1540 nautical miles from his intended destination: Coco Island in the Bay of Bengal. Ironically, the first of the Clunies-Ross clan who became synonymous with the Cocos (Keeling) Islands hadn’t been able to pique British interest when he suggested they be incorporated into the British Empire some 30 years earlier.
Nature’s Island also expands on the argument that the fictional island of Lilliput from satirist Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was actually influenced by the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, while a story relayed to one of the surviving members
of Ferdinand Magellan’s global circumnavigation of tiny humans living on an island near Indonesia (homo floresiensis or “the Hobbit”, anyone?) may have been the inspiration for the Lilliputians.
“I find it’s just amazing that no one else has picked up on this,” Henderson says.
“Maybe I’ve made some dreadful mistake, but he shows a bit of Tasmania, and people therefore presume that he means Tasmania, but he refers to capes on Western Australia.”
But of course the big question still remains: where are those missing Dutch ships and their chests full of silver coins?
Henderson believes the coast off Western Australia has given up all it has and that shipwreck hunters should turn their attention to the deep waters off Christmas Island.
The book argues that by the time the Fortuyn and Aagtekerke disappeared, the Dutch had altered the route taken in the disastrous Batavia
by STEVE GRANT