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Government of Western Australia - Department of Fisheries

History of the Abrolhos

The history of the Abrolhos is unique and colourful, dating back to 1619 when Frederick de Houtman and his crew of the United Dutch East India Company ship Dordrecht first encountered and named the Abrolhos Islands. The islands are remarkably associated with the earliest periods of European history in Australia. 

Historic shipwrecks

The United Dutch East India Company was formed in the Netherlands in 1602 to send wooden sailing ships from the Netherlands to Asia to buy silks and spices and sell them in Europe. In order to get there, the ships sailed down around the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa), before using the prevailing winds to carry them east across the Indian Ocean and then north to the East Indies (modern day Indonesia). Some of the ships ventured too far east and encountered the Western Australian coast, sometimes fatally. Abrolhos, loosely translated from Dutch means – “keep your eyes open!”

It is estimated that up to 50 vessels may have been wrecked within the Abrolhos FHPA, some still to be located. The most famous of these shipwrecks are the Batavia (1629) and the Zeewijk (1727). It’s no wonder some of the islands are considered to be haunted.

Research into historic shipwrecks at the Abrolhos is undertaken by experts from the WA Museum. They have removed and preserved many artefacts from historic shipwrecks at the Abrolhos, including a portion of the Batavia’s hull.  You can see these at the Shipwreck Galleries in Fremantle and the Geraldton Museum.​

Aboriginal connection

Little is known about Aboriginal cultural heritage values of the Abrolhos FHPA. A single artefact, excavated from Beacon Island in 1967, is the only known evidence of Aboriginal occupation at the Abrolhos Islands. Modern-day Aboriginal cultural heritage associated with the Abrolhos FHPA may include taking part in recreational, commercial fishing and aquaculture activities, in addition to employment in historical guano mining operations and defence activities (see below). At the time of writing, the Abrolhos Islands are not subject to any native title claim or determination. The Yamatji Nation Native Title Determination extends offshore from the mainland but does not incorporate the Abrolhos Islands.​

Guano mining

Guano mining was one of the first profitable export industries established in WA. When the Abrolhos Islands were surveyed in 1840 by Commander John Wickham and Lieutenant John Lort Stokes in HMS Beagle, their report identified guano resources on the islands. Guano is a natural fertiliser, predominantly made up of bird droppings, which was highly sought after in Europe and the United States at this time. The first commercial shipment of guano to leave the Abrolhos was in 1844 and guano continued to be mined at the Abrolhos until 1946. 

At least five guano ships ran afoul of the reefs and sand bars in the Abrolhos, including the German barque Hadda in 1877. The remnants of buildings, jetties and tramways used for guano mining are still visible on many islands in the Wallabi, Easter and Pelsaert Groups. 

Defence

In 1942, during World War II, the Royal Australian Air Force established No. 1 Spotting WT Post on East Wallabi Island near Turtle Bay, including the first air strip on East Wallabi Island. This was manned constantly by staff and cadets from the No. 4 Service Flying Training School at Geraldton until March 1943. East and West Wallabi Islands were also used for training exercises during World War II.

Early tourism

The Abrolhos Islands were considered ideal for tourism and recreation in the first half of the twentieth century. Between the 1930s and 1950s tourists visited by boat and aircraft and, after World War II, a tourist resort was established on Pelsaert Island, using buildings that had previously been occupied by guano miners. Due to a lack of fresh water, poor quality food and accommodation, and the long and difficult boat trip to get there, this tourism venture was unsuccessful – it only operated for several years before being closed and the buildings were demolished. 

Commercial fishing

The commercial fishing industry was established at the Abrolhos in the late 1800s. Initially, finfish, whales, seals, and sea cucumbers were caught. Development of the rock lobster fishing industry commenced in the 1920s and expanded during World War II when canned lobster was supplied to armed forces. During this time, some of the first fishing camps were constructed on the islands and by the 1930s more rock lobster fishers were living and working at the Abrolhos. As entire families moved to the Abrolhos during the seasonal fishing season, the fishing communities continued to grow, and schools, community halls and a church was built. The fishing camps’ distinctive and colourful buildings have a unique aesthetic and social history, providing a colourful contrast to the whitewashed coral outcrops, and make a strong contribution to the identity and sense of place of the Abrolhos.

More information about the cultural and natural history of the Abrolhos can be found at the Geraldton Muse​um​.

Last modified: 3/11/2022 8:45 AM

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