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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

The de Vlamingh Plate

WA Shipwrecks Museum - Joy of Museums - The de Vlamingh Plate

The de Vlamingh Plate

The “de Vlamingh Plate” is a pewter dish that has been flattened and inscribed with a record of Willem de Vlamingh historic journey. It was left as a signpost of his visit and landing on the western Australian coast in 1697. The de Vlamingh Dish is preserved in an atmosphere of an inert gas, argon, to reduce corrosion.

The Dutch tradition of signposting the Australian coast with a plate started in 1616, over 400 years ago, when Dirk Hartog became the first European to land on the western coast of Australia. Hartog left behind a flattened pewter dish inscribed with a record of the details of his historic journey. The Dutch established a long history of contact with Australia’s western coastline and in 1697, the Dutch captain Willem de Vlamingh discovered Hartog’s plate and replaced it with his own, the de Vlamingh Plate.

The Dirk Hartog’s Plate was signposted on Dirk Hartog Island and is the oldest-known artefact of European exploration in Australia still in existence. The Dirk Hartog dish was returned to the Netherlands by Willem de Vlamingh where it is on display in the Rijksmuseum.

Vlamingh ships at the Swan River, Keulen 1796

A painting of Willem de Vlamingh’s ships, from 1696, which also shows Black Swans at the entrance to the Swan River in Western Australia. 

Stress from flattening process to produce plates from dinner bowls predisposed the plates to corrosion and cracking. Analysis of a tiny fragment of the plate strongly indicates an English origin of the tin and lead in the pewter alloy, probably Cornish tin and Derbyshire lead. The de Vlamingh plate was attached to a wooden post with rectangular iron-planking nails. As the iron corroded the run-off caused corrosion that formed the complex patina. It was recovered by a French explorer, Louis de Freycinet in 1818 and eventually taken to Paris where it remained until given by the French people to the Australian government after World War II.

The de Vlamingh Plate is one of Australia’s earliest ‘documents’, and a memorial of the early Dutch exploration of the Western Australian coast.

Willem de Vlamingh

Willem Hesselsz de Vlamingh (1640 – 1698) was a Dutch sea captain who explored the central west coast of Australia, which was then called then “New Holland” in the late 17th century. Vlamingh charted parts of the continent’s western coast, and in 1697, he ventured up the Swan River in what is today the City of Perth. He and his crew were the first Europeans to do so. They are also assumed to be the first Europeans to see black swans.  De Vlamingh named the Swan River (Zwaanenrivier in Dutch) after the large number they observed there. The crew split into three parties, to catch an Aborigine, but about five days later they gave up their quest to catch a “South lander”.

A month later he landed at Dirk Hartog Island, Western Australia, and replaced the pewter plate left by Dirk Hartog in 1616 with a new one that bore a record of both of the Dutch visits. This plate is now known as the de Vlamingh Plate

Black Swan Theory

The ancient metaphor of the “Black Swan” derives from a Latin expression going back to at least 2nd-century and the phrase was coined when the “black swan” was presumed not to exist. The expression was derived from the Old World presumption that all swans must be white because all historical records of swans reported that they had white feathers. In that context, a black swan was impossible or at least nonexistent.

In 1697, the Dutch explorers led by Willem de Vlamingh became the first Europeans to see black swans, in Western Australia. The term later metamorphosed to connote the idea that a perceived impossibility might later be disproven.

Today, the “black swan theory” or a “black swan event” is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a significant impact, and is rationalised after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. The term is based on the ancient saying that presumed black swans did not exist. A saying that became reinterpreted to teach a different lesson after black swans were discovered in the wild. The theory was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Exploring Shipwrecks & Maritime Museums

Reflections

  • Australia could have been a Dutch colony or a French colony but became an English colony. Which would have been better for the indigenous peoples?
  • Any examples, from today, of beliefs such as “there are only white swans”?
  • Why was it assumed that Black Swans did not exist?

The de Vlamingh Plate

  • Title:                The de Vlamingh Plate
  • Dates:              1697
  • Material:          Pewter dish
  • Museum:         WA Shipwrecks Museum

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“Art is like a shipwreck; it’s every man for himself.” 
– Marcel Duchamp

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Photo Credit: GM 2) By Johannes van Keulen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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