Brouwer 1611

West Coast on new route to spice islands

Dutch captain Hendrik Brouwer can be credited with bringing the first European ships into close contact with the coast of Western Australia when in 1611 he discovered a quicker trade route to Indonesia’s spice islands. Brouwer’s route – which halved the time it took to reach Indonesia – used the ‘roaring forties’, a band of strong winds in the southern oceans, to speed the passage of ships in an easterly direction.

Following Brouwer’s discovery, the Dutch East India Company instructed its captains to travel in the roaring forties for one thousand Dutch miles (about 7,400km) before turning north to Indonesia. The course discovered by Brouwer replaced a slower and more dangerous passage first used by the Portuguese in the 1500s which hugged the east coast of Africa before heading across to India and then down to Indonesia. Due to frequent becalming, this route took up to 12 months to sail, making crews susceptible to disease without fresh food and water for long periods of time.

Although Brouwer’s route was much quicker, there was no way of accurately determining when to turn north from the roaring forties on a course for the spice islands. Consequently, it was only a matter of time before a miscalculation would lead a Dutch ship within sight of Australia’s west coast.