Shipwreck Databases Western Australian Museum

Report and Recommendations on Archaeological Land Sites in the Houtman Abrolhos

Author/s J.N. Green and M. Stanbury

Year of publication 1988

Report Number: 29

The islands of the Houtman Abrolhos have many unique features which have made them the focus of special studies by geologists, natural scientists and conservationists since the nineteenth century. Frequently, however, the historical and cultural environment of the islands is overlooked. Yet, the activities of human groups over more than three centuries have left a distinct cultural impact on the Abrolhos Islands. The topography of many islands in the archipelago has been markedly altered by specific forms of human activity, notably the mining of guano and rock phosphate. The native fauna and flora have been infiltrated with alien species as a result of human occupation; and, the destruction of natural habitats has led to adaptive plant and animal behaviour, particularly noticeable among certain species of migratory birds who regularly nest on the islands.

Concern for the preservation of marine and terrestrial fauna and flora are undoubtedly important issues. Yet, any plans relating to the future use of the islands for recreational and/or other purposes should also take into account their significance with respect to the national and Western Australian cultural heritage. This report gives a brief description of three categories of land sites on islands in the Wallabi and Pelsaert Groups which are considered to be worthy of protection: (a) sites associated with pre-European settlement shipwrecks; (b) sites associated with post-settlement or colonial period shipwrecks; and, (c) sites associated with colonial maritime trade and industry. Each group of sites varies in its type of cultural significance; likewise, individual sites within each group. Apart from the educational, cultural, historical and social value that the protection of these sites may have for the Australian public, they inherently present those with more scholarly interests with a number of potential research themes.

The pre-settlement sites are culturally unique, reflecting the earliest attempts by Europeans to survive on Western Australia's isolated, relatively waterless, off-shore islands. These are sites which were temporarily occupied, visited or utilized for some specific purpose by survivors of the seventeenth and eighteenth century Dutch shipwrecks Batavia (1629) and Zeewijk (1727). They represent the earliest evidence of European settlements on Australian territory. Underlying the dramatic circumstances and historic events which placed the survivors on the various islands, the sites may be used to interpret the particular social and economic problems associated with survival in an harsh alien environment, such as colonists were to face more than a century later. The association of these sites with the early European discovery and exploration of Australia makes them historically significant at a national and international level. Certain sites in this group are known to be at risk, recent reports of interference giving cause for concern as to their future integrity.

The second group of sites is related to shipwrecks of the colonial period and the fate of these ships' crews. While the sites may not be classified as culturally unique, they are significant in terms of the maritime history of the Abrolhos Islands as a discrete region and to the broader colonial history of Western Australia. Such sites reflect the gradual increase in colonial shipping to and/or past the Houtman Abrolhos and the hazards these islands continued to present to mariners, even in times of improved navigation technology. They further extend the theme of survival into the nineteenth century and emphasize the geographical isolation facing settlers in the early phase of colonization.

The remaining sites are associated with nineteenth century maritime industries established by pioneer colonial entrepreneurs, in particular the Pelsart Fishing Company and Charles Edward Broadhurst, for the exploitation of island and marine resources. Maritime industries such as whaling, fishing, sealing and guano mining were important economic enterprises in the early colonial years. They provided valuable export and domestic produce which aided colonial economic and rural development and contributed to the growth of colonial shipping and shipbuilding.

Guano mining was carried out on many of Australia's off-shore islands. The archaeological remains of this industry on the Houtman Abrolhos provide a useful data base for comparative research with similarly exploited islands in Shark Bay, the Lacepedes, Browse Island and other Northwest archipelagos, along with offshore islands in other states of Australia. The remains on certain islands have been surveyed, documented and their historical background researched, but no archaeological excavation has been undertaken. The guano industry was one of the first in Western Australia to employ indentured labour. Apart from the specific technological and operational aspects of the industry, therefore, the sites have an inherent social significance. In many instances, the residual effect on the landscape is very obvious and is of value inasmuch as it reflects the historical pattern of land use in the Houtman Abrolhos from the early nineteenth century through to the midtwentieth century.