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Shipwreck hunter close to lost treasure
Shipwreck hunter close to lost treasure

A WA shipwreck hunter credited with finding the watery grave of the Batavia believes he has discovered the great ghost ship of the Abrolhos, a Dutch merchantman that mysteriously disappeared almost 300 years ago with 200 souls and a fortune in silver aboard.

The Aagtekerke, which vanished in 1726 on a journey from Africa to Indonesia, has eluded Hugh Edwards for almost 50 years

But the 79-year-old said that decades of research and many expeditions meant the ocean might be about to give up a jealously guarded secret.

Mr Edwards believes the sunken grave of the Aagtekerke - and up to three tonnes of silver coins which would be worth millions of dollars today - lie just a few hours from Geraldton by boat.

In his Swanbourne home yesterday, he unrolled a map on a desk littered with relics and pointed at a treacherous section of reef off the Abrolhos Islands.

"We believe we've found it," Mr Edwards said.

In 1966, Mr Edwards was spear-fishing off the Abrolhos when he found an elephant tusk on the ocean floor. He knew then and there it would lead him to a wreck. He just didn't realise it would be the lost Aagtekerke.

The tusk was a mere 300m away from where, in 1963, Mr Edwards and his team had found evidence of the wreck of another Dutch merchantman, the Zeewyk.

The ships had been built like identical twins.

The Zeewyk wreck would later prove to be the major obstacle and the key to unlocking the mystery of her missing sister ship's supposed location.

In the 1700s, Dutch trading vessels, loaded with chests full of silver destined for the China spice trade, frequently made the dangerous voyage between the Cape of Good Hope and Indonesia.

These bold maritime merchants, armed to the teeth to fend off pirates, used the WA coastline to give them a bearing for the last leg of their voyage.

They aimed to sight land near Kalbarri, then turn north-east for the trading outposts of the East Indies.

But fickle winds and tides drove a few luckless ships towards the Abrolhos, where wrecks and widows were made on the treacherous reefs.

The Batavia, which Mr Edwards and his team discovered in 1963, was one such ill-fated vessel. The Zeewyk, which sunk in 1727, was another.

About 80 men from the Zeewyk survived the wreck, salvaged the pay chests and, using scavenged materials, built a makeshift vessel and sailed to Indonesia. Back from the dead, they carried with them a curious tale.

Mr Edwards discovered the information after getting a translation done of a centuries-old journal kept by Zeewyk's second mate, Adriaen van der Graeff.

According to Mr Van der Graeff, the crew of the Zeewyk saw a "hand-grenade", "some 'old rope", and "rawhide" on the same reef that had sunk their vessel.

Mr Van der Graeff surmised the detritus belonged to, "a ship or ships, which the same fate had struck here".

In fact, the Aagtekerke had disappeared about 15 months earlier.

A 2010 aerial survey - paid for by Seven West Media chairman Kerry Stokes, a long-time sponsor of Mr Edwards' team - helped the expedition establish that the area around the Zeewyk site was devoid of other wrecks.

That's when Mr Edwards and his colleagues - Garrett Orr, Peter Grace, Larry House, Barbara O'Dowd, John Allchin, and John Muntsz - started counting cannon and anchors at the Zeewyk site.

Mr Edwards realised there were far too many for just one ship. After another expedition in February, his team concluded the Aagtekerke wreck lay within 300m of the Zeewyk.

The evidence, scattered by currents and mixed up with the remains of the identical Zeewyk, had been hidden in plain sight.

"It was right under our noses all along," Mr Edwards said.

The elephant tusk was another piece of the puzzle that lent credibility to his team's theory.

"We know the Aagtekerke took on ivory at the Cape, 214 tusks," he said. "The Zeewyk wasn't carrying any."

WA Museum chief executive Alec Coles said his organisation was delighted to be working with Mr Edwards and others to investigate "this exciting new theory".

"There is little doubt that the WA coast still has many mysteries to reveal and this might just be one of them," he said.

Mr Edwards admitted his double shipwreck theory had its critics - primarily those who doubted the veracity of the Van der Graeff journal.

But he hopes to conclusively announce the Aagtekerke "found" after an expedition later this year. He said the ship's lost treasure was the key.

"The Zeewyk's coin was all salvaged by her crew," Mr Edwards said. "The Aagtekerke's wasn't. If we can find coins there, then, there's absolutely no doubt."

But he conceded that finding silver coins scattered by centuries of waves and currents would be difficult and dangerous.

Mr Edwards believed the treasure chests, kept in a special compartment beneath the captain's cabin, were carried to the bottom along with the stern of the ship, in the deeper, rougher waters outside the reef. Thrice locked, the keys distributed to three different sailors, the pay-chests of the era contained a mixture of currency including the famed "pieces of eight", coins tempered by bloody conquest, minted by the Spanish from ingots of silver out of the Americas.

Andrew Crellin, managing director of rare coin dealership Sterling Currency in Fremantle, said it would be hard to put a price on up to three tonnes (about 30,000 silver coins) of currency from the 1700s.

"The value is in the millions," Mr Crellin said. "It's just a question of how many millions." Not that Mr Edwards and his team would get to keep any recovered loot. Under the Historic Shipwrecks Act of 1976, wrecks and their contents, belong to the Federal Government.

Mr Edwards said his reward would be laying to rest another ghost of the Abrolhos.

"In another couple of years I won't be able to do this," he said. "Maybe it's the last hurrah."

'There is little doubt that the WA coast still has many mysteries to reveal and this might just be one of them.'"WA Museum's *Alec Coles *