1611: European ships sail closer to WA

Dutch captain Hendrik Brouwer can be credited with bringing early Dutch ships into contact with the west coast of Australia when in 1611 he discovered a new, quicker trade route to Indonesia’s Spice Islands.

Brouwer’s route halved the time it took to sail Indonesia by using the ‘roaring forties’, a band of strong winds in the southern oceans which helped speed the passage of ships in an easterly direction.

The course discovered by Brouwer replaced a slower and more dangerous passage first used by the Portuguese in the 1500s. This route hugged the east coast of Africa while heading north before cutting to Indonesia, via the middle or top of the Indian Ocean.

Due to frequent becalming, the Portuguese route took up to 12 months to sail, making crews susceptible to disease without fresh food and water for long periods of time.

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.

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, inevitable navigational miscalculations would lead some Dutch ships to within sight of Australia’s west coast. Just 17 years after Brouwer found this new trade route, much of Western Australia’s coastline from Cape Leeuwin to North West Cape was mapped as a result of accidental encounters.

The first of these encounters was made by Dirk Hartog and the crew of the Eendracht in 1616.


A new trade route discovered by the Dutch in 1611 (indicated by yellow dots) replaced a slower and more dangerous passage first used by the Portuguese in the 1500s (orange dots). Some ships using the new route veered off course and made contact with Western Australia’s coast.