Authors: Diederick Wildeman & Marleen Stavenuiter | Het Scheepvaartmuseum, Amsterdam
It is exactly 401 years since the discovery of Cape Horn, and now Dutchman Pieter Heerema is sailing past this unique place himself as a competitor in the Vendée Globe race. On 29 January 1616, the Dutch ship De Eendracht was the first to round Cape Horn. It was a milestone in the exploration of the world when the Dutch crew found a new route between two oceans and also discovered the southernmost point of the American continent.
Dismissed for expenses fraud
This voyage was prompted by unusual circumstances. A few years after the founding of the Dutch East India Company in 1602, the immensely wealthy Amsterdam-based merchant Isaac le Maire was forced out of the company. The story goes that there was some disagreement about financial matters. We suspect that some fiddling of expenses was involved… This departure didn’t do his image or reputation any good; after all, he had been one of the founders of the company! Le Maire was forced to sign a statement containing a solemn promise to never again enter the waters of the Dutch East India Company. Secretly, Le Maire did everything within his power to break the monopoly of the Dutch East India Company in Asia. He just had to be sly about how he did it! It certainly seems to be true that obstacles make a person more creative.
Where there’s a will, there’s a seaway
Back then, the route around the Cape of Good Hope and the route through the Strait of Magellan – a narrow passage through southern South America – were the only known ways of reaching Asia. The Dutch East India Company had the exclusive right to use these routes. Isaac came up with a daring and risky plan. If there was a western route to Asia that didn’t pass through the Strait of Magellan, he wanted to find it! Most maps of the time assumed that the land to the south of the Strait of Magellan was connected with Terra Australis, the fabled though as yet undiscovered ‘Southern land’. However, there were also clues suggesting that there could be open sea there, which was a very intriguing and potentially profitable prospect! It would mean that the Dutch East India Company would not have a monopoly on a new, different route to the Pacific Ocean, and Le Maire would be able to trade in Asia after all…
The excitement of passing the Cape
On 14 June 1615, the two ships – De Eendracht and De Hoorn – set sail from Texel in the north of the Netherlands. The expedition was led by Jacob le Maire, one of Isaac’s sons. Captain Willem Cornelisz Schouten took charge of navigation. The ships first headed for South America, where they took shelter in a bay to wait for better weather. De Hoorn was lost when it caught fire while trying to clean the hull of the ship, a process involving ‘burning off’. The voyage continued with just one ship. In early January, De Eendracht sailed past the entrance to the Strait of Magellan and continued southwards, heading into completely uncharted territory. On 25 January, the ship passed through an opening between Tierra del Fuego (Spanish for ‘Land of Fire’) and Isla de los Estados (Staten Island) as they are now known, with high cliffs and mountains on both sides. This newly-discovered strait was named the Le Maire Strait, a name it still bears today. The fearless sailors continued still further south, and on 29 January the ship reached the southernmost point of South America. It was an incredible moment for those on board, and today – in 2017 – sailors passing this point still feel that rush of excitement. They named this point Cape Horn, after the Dutch town of Hoorn where the expedition began and many of the crew came from. They had reached the Pacific Ocean via a new, previously unknown route – a great achievement!
Dutch islands in the Pacific
The voyage then continued in a great arc northwards up to a latitude of 15° south before heading due west to cross the Pacific Ocean. On their way, they discovered what is now known as the Tuamotu Archipelago, the northern islands of Tonga, and two other islands north of Fiji and Tonga that were named the Hoorn Islands (today also known as the Futuna Islands, and individually as Wallis and Futuna). It was clear from their reaction that the inhabitants of the islands had never seen a ship like De Eendracht before. These were the first Europeans to find this region.
Jan Pieterszoon Coen: the bogeyman in Bantam
De Eendracht passed New Guinea on the north side, and dropped anchor at Ternate – in the Maluku Islands of eastern Indonesia… and in the territory of the Dutch East India Company! – on 17 July 1616. The Dutch governor of Ternate gave these rivals a friendly welcome but forbade trade. De Eendracht sailed onwards to Bantam (also known as Banten) on the island of Java. The new governor-general there, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, had received instructions from the Netherlands to arrest the expedition leaders and to confiscate the ship, and that’s exactly what he did. Schouten and Le Maire were sent back to the Netherlands with the first fleet heading that way. When Le Maire’s father Isaac heard that his ship and cargo had been confiscated, he brought a charge against the Dutch East India Company and won the case. The States General judged that the confiscation had been unlawful, and the Dutch East India Company was ordered to pay compensation. Justice came too late for Jacob, however, who died on the return voyage. It was a sad end to a spectacular voyage of discovery, and deprived Le Maire of the chance to enjoy his fame.