Hunting for wrecks and bones: islands reveal their secrets

Headshot of Adam Poulsen
Adam PoulsenMidwest Times
Email Adam Poulsen
Hugh Edwards (centre) and fellow divers inspect the first coins found on the Batavia wrecksite in 1963.
Camera IconHugh Edwards (centre) and fellow divers inspect the first coins found on the Batavia wrecksite in 1963. Credit: Supplied

Vast riches still lie waiting to be found on the shallow reefs of the Abrolhos Islands, according to the man who discovered the wreck of the Batavia.

Hugh Edwards was among a team of divers, including Max Cramer and David Johnson, who tracked down the 390-year-old wreck back in 1963.

Five years later, Mr Edwards played a major role in the discovery of the Zeewijk, which ran aground on Half Moon Reef opposite Gun Island in 1727.

Now, the legendary diver believes he is on the cusp of finding the Dutch East India Company ship Aagtekerke, which he said went down carrying three tonnes of silver and 214 elephant tusks in 1726.

Mr Edwards began gathering clues after the discovery of the Zeewijk, as expeditions to the dive site continued.

“In later years we decided there were too many guns for one ship, too many anchors for one ship — and there was ivory. The Zeewijk was not carrying ivory,” he said.

“So we figured we were on the track of the Aagtekerke, and we put a claim in for discovery in August 2015, and the claim is still sitting there waiting to be heard.”

He said the wreck of yet another ship with three tonnes of silver aboard — appropriately named The Fortune — also remained undiscovered.

Diver Merv Brown and one of the Batavia’s bronze guns.
Camera IconDiver Merv Brown and one of the Batavia’s bronze guns. Credit: Supplied

As well as finding the wreck of the Batavia, Mr Edwards was also responsible for the grisly discovery of a mass grave containing victims of the bloody mutiny that followed the ship’s demise.

“A bloke called George Brenzi and myself dug a trench across the island looking for signs of … the original Batavia’s graveyard,” Mr Edwards recalled.

“We got almost right across the island, and next to Dave Johnson’s hut we found some ankle bones sticking out of the side of the trench. Six inches the other way and we would have missed them.”

Mr Edwards described what they uncovered next as “chilling stuff”.

“There was the skeleton of a bloke. His throat had been cut and he had a big sword chop on the top of his skull,” he said.

“Next to him was another skeleton that also had sword hacks to the skull.

“That was very important, because it identified Beacon Island then as being the original island of Batavia’s graveyard.”

A Daily News journalist at the time, Mr Edwards went on to write a bestselling book about the Batavia. Islands of Angry Ghosts was released in 1966 and that same year won the Sir Thomas White Memorial Prize for the best book published by an Australian.

“I would say the Batavia is (Australia’s) most significant shipwreck in terms of its age and its history, and the events which occurred — the mutiny, the murders, the rapes and the massacres,” he said.

In 1968, Mr Edwards embarked on a career as a freelance author and went on to write many books.

Now aged 85, he is working on his latest book, tentatively titled Diver Below: Searching for the Sunken Silver Ships.

Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails