The Origin Of Life On Perth (1697)

1697 was a huge year in the history of Perth.  To be honest most of the historical action was wrapped up in the first couple of days of 1697, and things suddenly went quiet for the next 130 years. 

This of course is not to forget the local indigenous people, who had been doing their thing in the region for thousands of years before that magic date.  They however, had no immediate plans for developing the Perth metropolitan area.

The Geelvinck, Nijptang and Wezeltje.

In late December 1696 three ships under the command of Dutch navigator Willem de Vlamingh appeared on the horizon.  For the history buffs, these ships were the Geelvinck, Nijptang and Wezeltje. On Christmas Day 1696 the expedition became excited.  Sure, we all get excited at Christmas, but these guys had not even started to open their presents.  The crew on the Nijptang had just sighted land.  More precisely they had a sneak preview of an island just off the mainland.  Unfortunately a thick fog settled in and ruined things for the rest of the day.  I guess they then resumed opening their presents.

Christmas Day 1696.


A couple of days passed before the weather improved, allowing Willem plenty of time to come up with a great name for the place.  As the mist gradually lifted around December 30th, Willem again sighted the island, and named it "Mist Island".  Some say it was because he nearly "missed" it the first time, though some historians think he might have been influenced by the local fog.  This choice of name continually troubled Willem, so he organised a landing party to resolve the issue.

Exploration of the island proved it to be uninhabited, except for a large population of rat like creatures.  Still unconvinced about his "Mist Island" decision, Willem promptly renamed the island, "Rat's Nest".  Satisfied with the new name, Willem then decided to explore the mainland, encouraged after seeing some distant palls of smoke.   Apart from charting the coastline, another objective of the expedition was to search for the wreck of the Vergulde Draeck.   This was a Dutch trading ship lost in 1656, over 40 years earlier.  It was hoped that Willem would recover the wreckage, and even find the survivors still living on the mainland.  Could the smoke be from the survivor's camp?   Check out the Dutch Shipwrecks Page to get the low down, on the ships that went down.


The Swan River and Stirling Bridge.

On January 5th 1697, Vlamingh's second in command, Gerritt Collaert landed a party near Cable Station Beach.  They then trekked through dense bushland up a coastal peak known as "Buckland Hill".  From this lofty perch Collaert spotted a nearby river.  Collaert spent nearly four days exploring the beaches, inland region, and the river mouth. 

Swan River from Buckland Hill today.


The group walking along the beach found a piece of a ship's rib, though decided it had been there even longer than the 1656 wreck.  The distant smoke palls were from the recently deserted camps of the local Aboriginal people.  The expedition found fresh footprints, simple huts, and smouldering fires, though never met  any of the locals.

The beach that Collaert explored in 1697  - (South Cottesloe)


Retracing the steps of Collaert, 310 years later, the 2007 Life On Perth Expedition could not locate the 1697 driftwood, and had to settle for a 10 year old sun bleached bottle of Coke.

PERTH ALERT:  History buffs love to argue about this landing.  Some say Willem climbed Buckland Hill on January 5th. Others say Willem stayed on his ship and sent his men ashore.  Now that's a bit like driving to Disneyland, and then sitting the whole day in the car park.  Life On Perth reckon Willem did do the Buckland Hill thing, though he waited until Collaert reported back.  Willem explored the river on January 10th, with three boats and 40 well armed men. Back in 1697, Buckland Hill was a dominant coastal landform, just waiting to be climbed.  Today it looks like a pancake, as it was plundered for limestone during the early years of the colony, and more recently levelled for a water reservoir. 

Buckland Hill Today.

Buckland Hill Today.  You'll find more exciting things to climb in a kids playground.  A group of nearby hills known as the Seven Sisters, were also levelled by quarrying during the 1800's.


An artists impression of Buckland Hill if the limestone had not been excavated.

Buckland Hill at it's 1697 height. Perhaps it might be a little exaggerated, but you'll quickly get to the point.... or summit if you decide to climb it.  A walk to the top would have been on the itinerary of any world voyage of discovery.


Jakob van der  Schley's  early engraving (1740) depicts the Vlamingh Expedition entering the Swan River.   The big hill on the left could be the first picture of Buckland Hill.

Engraving by Jakob van der Schley (1740).


The Vlamingh Expedition entering the Swan River.

Willem de Vlamingh may have pulled another first while coming ashore that day.  Check out the article on Cable Station Beach to find out more.


It was on the journey upstream on January 10th, that Willem sailed right past the future site of Perth.  It was undeveloped bushland at this stage, with it's potential not immediately obvious to Willem.  After all, he was thirsty, hot, and a long way from home. The river then became impossible to navigate due to a section of reed beds and small islands, now known as Heirisson Island.


A turning point in the expedition.

Black Swan Vs Vlamingh

Ready to turn back, Willem observed the then unknown "Black Swan".  Back in those days everyone believed that swans had to be white.  This spooked the expedition, which then decided they had seen enough.  The moment when Willem's, and the swan's eyes first met, has been immortalised in a statue erected near the site.

Close Up Of Vlamingh.

A Black Swan sighting Willem de Vlamingh for the very first time.

Black Swan Syndrome.

Drawing inspiration from the unsettling "black swan incident", Willem named the estuary Swartte Swaane Drift or as it is known today, "Swan River".  Perth indeed owes a great deal to Willem de Vlamingh, for he was the first European to cast eyes on the Perth area, and chart the region.

In hindsight though, he perhaps made a mistake in describing the region as arid, barren and wild.  He never met an Aboriginal, and only collected a couple of Black Swans, and some resin from a gum tree. Some might say naming a future tourist resort "Rat's Nest", to be a fatal error of judgement.  If there ever was a pay back time, the people of Perth certainly short changed the guy in the memorial department.

Vlamingh Obelisk


What you get after a great voyage of discovery and then naming Perth's premier tourist Island "Rat's Nest".

NEXT:  The Wilderness Years

Copyright 2007