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 The Duyfken: Re-enacting a historic voyage


Never since Thor Heyerdahl's famed Kon-Tiki expedition has a re-enactment voyage aroused such public interest as that of the Duyfken which sailed into Galle harbour last week. The Duyfken is sailing on the longest re-enactment voyage ever undertaken in an Age of Discovery replica ship. The 24-metre sailing ship built in Fremantle, Australia left Sydney in early May this year and began her re-enactment of a Dutch homeward bound spice-trading voyage from Jakarta, Indonesia in July. Its ultimate destination is the island of Texel, near Amsterdam in the Netherlands, a voyage which would last 12 months and cover a total distance of over 18,200 nautical miles.

Building the Duyfken

Age of Discovery voyages have a long history and could be said to have begun a little over fifty years ago with Thor Heyerdahl's famous Kon-Tiki expedition. It was in 1947 that Heyerdahl, a Norwegian explorer and his five companions constructed a wooden raft which they named Kon-Tiki and set sail from Peru across the pacific to Polynesia. Heyerdahl sought to prove that the natives of Polynesia were direct descendants of the ancient South American civilization and that they had sailed from Peru about A.D.500 on rafts similar to his own. The voyage lasted 101 days and covered a distance of 5000 miles. Although many doubted whether the raft would survive such a great distance, Heyerdahl's expedition proved a successful one. Ever since then, Age of Discovery voyages undertaken on replica ships based on some old original have captured the fancy of many an adventurer. But none surpasses the Duyfken which means 'Little Dove' in Dutch. The Duyfken is based on an early seventeenth century Dutch jacht or sailing ship of the same name which participated in the lucrative Dutch spice trade from the East Indies, modern-day Indonesia. The construction of the ship, A Dutch-Australian joint effort began in 1997 as part of an ambitious programme undertaken by the Duyfken 1606 Replica Foundation to re-enact Willem Janszoon's historic 1606 voyage from the Spice Islands to Cape York peninsula - the first known European encounter with Australia and her aboriginal people.

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Map highlighting the Duyfken's route from Australia to the Netherlands

The multinational crew headed by Captain Glenn Williams comprises 16 Dutch, English, Australian, New Zealand and American nationals. Conditions on board are said to be tough, with some legs of the voyage lasting as many as 55 days. Crew facilities are also very meagre. For instance, the ship does not have modern conveniences like freezers, and has only a small galley. Even the sleeping facilities sans its space and comforts very much reflect the conditions that prevailed in the old Dutch ships. The ship is nevertheless said to be in excellent condition and all indications at present are that it is heading for a successful voyage. The ship completed an arduous ocean crossing of more than thirty days from Jakarta when it reached Galle. In doing so, it followed the trade winds which have brought sailors and merchants to Galle for centuries

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The Duyfken sails away

Galle's historic role in the spice trade of yore is all but too well known. Among the Asian ports of the VOC, Galle was second only in importance to Batavia, modern-day Jakarta where the VOC's eastern headquarters was situated. In fact, Galle's natural harbour served as the main entrepot for Sri Lanka-international trade until 1873 when a new harbour was built in Colombo by the British.The port was captured from the Portuguese in a decisive battle that took place in 1640 and continued in Dutch hands till the onset of British rule in 1796. Galle saw a flowering during the Dutch period. In fact, some of the finest specimens of Dutch colonial architecture are to be seen in the Fort area of Galle. The old style Dutch residential houses, the famous Groote Church and other architectural feats give the town a profoundly Dutch character.

It was only recently that Galle was twinned with the beautiful city of Velsen in Holland. In the olden days, Galle received regular visits of Dutch sailing ships known as jachts belonging to the VOC. In fact, several VOC shipwrecks are known to lie at the bottom of the Galle harbour. According to Lieutenant Commander Somasiri Devendra, a Marine Archaeologist involved in a joint Sri Lankan-Dutch-Australian effort in maritime archaeology to study and excavate VOC-era shipwrecks, there are as many as 26 underwater archaeological sites including five ships somewhat larger than the Duyfken lying below the shores of Galle. It is therefore not surprising that Galle should have figured as an important stop-over for the Duyfken's historic voyage.The Duyfken Foundation's Chief Executive Officer, Graeme Cocks went on record to say that they hoped the ship's visit to Galle would highlight the city's historical attractions and help promote tourist visits to Sri Lanka.

Other major stopovers in the Duyfken's long voyage to the Netherlands include Mauritius, Cape town, St Helena, Ascension and the Azores islands,all of which figured significantly in the Dutch maritime trade of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Duyfken will soon be pushing south across the equator to catch the south-east trade winds for her passage to Mauritius, a former Dutch colony named after the Dutch Stadholder Maurits. After re-provisioning as many VOC ships have done here in the past, the Duyfken will set sail to Cape Town, South Africa, yet another former Dutch colony which fell into British hands in 1795, but which still retains its distinctively Dutch heritage, including its architecture, legal system and the Afrikaans language, an offshoot of Dutch.

Sailing from Cape Town, the Duyfken will seek the south-easterly winds of the great trade-wind belt that circles the southern hemisphere from the tropics to the temperate zone to reach St.Helena, a beautiful island which like many other prosperous Dutch colonies, ended up in British hands. The Duyfken will then set sail north-westwards and reach the small island of Ascension, about 750 miles off St.Helena. The ship will then set sail northwards through the Atlantic where she would be forced to weather the doldrums and sail against the north-east trade winds until she reaches higher latitudes when hopefully the westerly winds will take her to her destination, but not before stopping over for re-provisioning in the Portuguese-speaking Azores islands which are known to have formerly attracted Dutch mariners.

The Duyfken is expected to reach the Netherlands in April 2002 where it will be received with much fanfare and festivities, especially since it would be playing a major role in the nationwide celebrations during the spring and summer marking the 400th anniversary of the VOC, the world's first multinational company which not only pioneered the spice trade and established Dutch arms in the east, but also provided a stimulus to the growth of Dutch science, culture and the arts during its heyday. The Duyfken would be visiting a number of old Dutch ports and taking part in the festivities in the six VOC port cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Middelburg, Ekhuizen, Hoorn and Delft. The highlight of the festivities will be a memorial ceremony held in the Ridderzaal or Knights' Hall in the parliamentary building in the Hague, an exciting culmination to an enduring voyage.

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