The tales behind the names

Howard GrayMidwest Times
16th century Dutch map showing Dirk Hartog Island and Houtman Abrolhos.
Camera Icon16th century Dutch map showing Dirk Hartog Island and Houtman Abrolhos. Credit: Supplied, The Commonwealth Bank

Houtman Abrolhos Islands ... a strange name, what’s it all about?

And what about those other names such as Easter Group, Rat Island, Gun, Roma, Wooded Island and so on, or the ones that seem to be named after people, such as Pelsaert Group, Foale Island, Serventy Island, Basile Island and similar.

Then there are the names that don’t appear on maps but which local fishermen use: Kelly Country, The Vee, The Graveyard, Pix Passage.

Behind each name is a story. Houtman acknowledges the discovery of this offshore archipelago by Frederik de Houtman on July 29, 1619.

Houtman presumably scribbled in the empty space on his chart the sailors’ warning “Abrolhos”, “open your eyes”.

But there was already an Abrolhos Archipelago, off the coast of Brazil, so the chart-makers added the prefix “Houtman”.

“Batavia’s Kerkhof” (graveyard) replaced this at times following the Batavia shipwreck tragedy, and the British surveyors Wickham and Stokes labelled it “Houtman Rocks”, literally interpreting “Abrolhos” as rocks to watch out for.

Wickham and Stokes in 1840 gave the names to the three groups: “Pelsaert” (after finding wreckage they incorrectly presumed came from the Batavia), “Easter” (when they were doing the surveying), “Wallabi” (for the wallabies) and the outlier North Island.

They continued with simple descriptive names rather than honouring superiors as the French tended to do: Rat Island, the Mangrove Islands, Square Island, Middle Island.

Many names refer to fishermen, often those who set up camps on them in post-war years when the crayfishery expanded rapidly, some from much earlier: Basile, Burton, Dick, Suomi, Roma, Foale, Morley, Leo’s and others.

In 1986, following a study of the remarkable birdlife of the Houtman Abrolhos Islands by the WA Museum, 11 islands were named to honour scientists who had undertaken previous studies: Alexander, Bynoe, Campbell, Dakin, Gibson, Gilbert, Hall, Helms, Saville-Kent, Serventy and Stokes.

Only half the 175 or so islands and islets have official names.

If you want to know more, visit the BCMHA display on Sunday, July 28, at the Balayi-Open Your Eyes! Houtman400 Festival.

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