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Thursday, 9 December 1976


Mr BEAZLEY (Fremantle) - I have only one point in relation to the Navigation Amendment Bill, and that concerns the national maritime college in Tasmania. The AttorneyGeneral (Mr Ellicott) will recall that by some miracle the Bill setting up that college was one of the educational measures which the Senate did not delay or defeat, as it did with the technical education proposals, the legislation dealing with the Karmel funding and the Schools Commission legislation. The Bill relating to the national maritime college went through very quickly. I understand the site has been selected. Yet the construction of the college is being delayed. I think this is a mistake. It is important to have a first class navigational and maritime college in Australia.

I turn now to the Historic Shipwrecks Bill. The study or knowledge of some of these early ships can have very important implications per revaluing Australian history. I mention in passing D 'Entrecasteaux and the French navigators who left France in 1788, the last year of the ancien regime to try to find traces of the Compte de la Perouse who had disappeared with his ship

L' Astrolabe.When I was on the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies we received information from Paris that the journals of that French expedition, which had been cast to the four winds for reasons which I will explain in a moment, had very important references to Aborigines. As D 'Entrecasteaux sailed up the east coast of Tasmania he met Aborigines. He went ashore at one place. The Aborigines stood around a pile of dried faggots. They offered him a burning brand. Assuming he was invited to light the fire, he lit it. He got. a hail of spears. He stopped any of his men from firing. They got back to the ship. When they were travelling up the coast he considered what happened. He assumed, I think, being a very sensitive man, that he had indicated an intention to stay and to take possession, by lighting the fire. He decided that next time, if there were a next time, he would not do that. Sure enough, within 2 days there was a next time. He was handed a burning brand. He handed it back. The result was that they were received as friends, given crayfish and so on.

D 'Entrecasteaux did not survive the voyage. He died and was buried at sea. The expedition came back under the command of D'Auribeau. All of these French naval officers were aristocrats. They knew nothing about the French revolution. They got back in 1 793, the year of the terror. They were promptly arrested. I think some of them were executed. Their work was treated with contempt. It was in the phase when the French were prepared to guillotine the great chemist Lavoisier on the ground that the republic had no need of chemists. It had no need of anthropologists or navigators either. D'Auribeau 's and D 'Entrecasteaux 's books were cast to the four winds. They have only lately been brought back into the French maritime museum. A French-Canadian lady who had been studying Australian Aborigines went to Paris to look at this material.

The wrecks are important. I think the decisive part of this Bill is clause 13, which states:

Except in accordance with a permit, a person shall not- (a) damage or destroy a historic shipwreck or a historic relic; (b) interfere with a historic shipwreck or a historic relic; (c) dispose of a historic shipwreck or a historic relic . . .

All of this, I think, comes from Western Australian experience. Some prize specimens have blown up wrecks that other people have discovered, got together the silver coinage, were prepared to melt it down and fake, with the old silver, silver coins, to try to sell them at a high price as having been in a rather better state of preservation, naturally, than the ones that had been lying at the bottom of the sea. They did this to get a good deal of money. What they were doing to what one might almost say were important files of Australian history was quite tragic. In 1963 Dr Philip Playford of Perth advised the discoverers of the shipwreck of the Dutch East Indiaman Vergulde Draeck, or Gilt Dragon, that their proper course was to assign all their rights in this wreck to the Western Australian Museum. This, he said, would be proper because evidence of Australia's history of that era, the seventeenth century, was so important that it should be preserved on behalf of the nation. The discoverers were a journalist James Henderson and his sons Graeme and Alan and their friend John Cowan. I am very glad to say that they accepted the advice of Dr Playford. A deed of assignment was drawn up by the Crown Law Department of Western Australia and duly executed. Artefacts brought up from the wreck by this group were handed over to the Museum.

Unfortunately the Western Australian laws were shown as hopelessly inadequate to protect this shipwreck-it was a shipwreck from 1656- from plunder by people whose object was quick profit from the sale of silver coins and other items which they retreived by blasting the site with gelignite. To complicate matters, the wreck site was about on the limit of the 3 miles from shore, giving some doubt about the application of Western Australian legal jurisdiction. Some people in Western Australia sympathised with the shipwreck plunderers. I think the people of Western Australia regarded them as another sort of miner. The people sympathised with them on the basis that they were entitled to rewards for the risks they took and for the time spent in the sea. It almost sounds like Lang Hancock, if I may say so, but I do not think it was. Over a decade or so, political parties, both Labor and anti-Labor, developed the firm view that the historic wrecks -all those of pre- 1900 vintage- should be preserved from commercial or other exploitation. So the wreck legislation emerged and was strengthened.

The doubts about State legislation persisted, and it was difficult to enforce the law in relation to remote coastal areas. But the Western Aus.tralian Museum, through its energetic Maritime Archaeology Department, embarked on a continuing campaign to educate public opinion to support the concept of preservation of historic evidence. It was fortunate that some of the discoverers were very good journalists. It carried out careful, scientific surveys and then conducted . archaeological excavations of the wrecks ofthe Gilt Dragon and the Batavia, which was wrecked in the Abrolhos Islands area in 1629. So the Batavia is a very old wreck.

The discovery of a wide variety of artefacts was published to win public interest and sympathy for the serious, constructive work. That is in sharp contrast with the destructive effects of the plunderers who had made great profits from the sale of seventeenth century silver coins throughout Australia and overseas. Some of the coins were conterfeited in rare and more valuable forms by melting down silver blasted from the wrecks. The Gilt Dragon wreck site was severely blasted for the plunder and pillage of its many thousands of Spanish silver coins which themselves provide an important study of sixteenth and seventeenth century history.

The first English ship wrecked in Australian waters, the Tryal, in 1622, was so badly blasted that there is some doubt whether the remains will warrant a future excavation by the Western Australian Museum. That is really a tragedy for it represented the beginnings of English navigation which was ultimately to be very significant. Probably the historic shipwreck in most danger now from the plunderers is the Dutch Zuytdorp off the Murchison coast of Western Australia. This shipwreck has already been visited by divers after its rich hoard of silver coins. Records of the proceedings of the Western Australian Court of Petty Sessions, the Supreme Court and the Criminal Court and more recently the High Court of Australia leave no doubt about who is the plunderer whose activities have made the Western Australian and Commonwealth laws to protect the historic shipwrecks necessary.

The legislation currently before the National Parliament is the culmination of many years of advocacy by Dr Philip Playford and James Henderson, his son Graeme Henderson, who is now the Assistant Curator of Maritime Archaeology at the Western Australian Museum, and the dedicated work of the Maritime Archaeology Department at the Western Australian Museum. The Department established at Fremantle what is now regarded as one of the finest maritime museums in the world for its special areas of interest. An excellent exchange of interest and information has been developed between Australia and The Netherlands whose archives contain a priceless collection of rare exhibits and documents reflecting on the life and times of the beginnings of European discovery of Australia. Western Australian skin divers are encouraged to take an interest and to participate under supervision in some of the Museum's maritime exploration and excavation with excellent results -in terms of responsible community attitudes. Several valuable historical books have been written in recent years both in Holland and in Western Australia as one of the products of interest in Western Australian history. James Henderson conducted research in The Netherlands in 1975 and is now working with a Commonwealth literary grant to complete a book dealing with a 17th century voyage between Western Australia and Java.

By the new Commonwealth legislation which is now before us, Australia established an international role of significance in the recognition and preservation of history. In fact this legislation places this nation among the world's leaders in this field. It is to the enduring credit of the people who have influenced this legislation in the State and Federal Parliaments, and it will be to the enduring credit of members of both sides of the House, that this legislation has been developed and accepted without delay.







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