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Houtman Abrolhos, WA

Historically significant chain of islands of the Western Australian coast 60 km west of Geraldton.

The Houtman Abrolhos is an archipelago of 122 islands stretching across 100 km of the Indian Ocean and including the Wallabi, Easter and Pelsaert groups. About 10,000 years ago the islands were part of the Australian mainland until they were separated by rising sea waters. None of the islands rises more than 14 metres above sea level. They are home to a rich variety of fauna particularly sea bird life including the rare lesser noddy tern, the brush bronzewing pigeon and the painted quail. Over two million birds from 35 species live on the islands. The Tammar Wallaby which is common on the islands was the first Australian marsupial ever recorded by Europeans. The islands are home to sea lions, dolphins and migratory whales and to over 140 species of native flora all of which are protected. Today twenty-two of the Abrolhos islands are home to lobster fishermen and their families who sustain the island's multimillion dollar western rock lobster industry. The islands are controlled by the Western Australian Department of Fisheries. There are tours which travel to the Abrolhos from Geraldton but no visitor is allowed to stay the night.


Geraldton Airport (which is 11 km from the centre of town) is located 434 km north of Perth via the Brand Highway and the Houtman Abrolhos islands are approximately 60 km west of the town.


Origin of Name

Abrolhos is a word derived from the Portuguese 'abri vossos olhos!' which can be translated as "open your eyes - keep good watch!" It was coined by the Dutch navigator F. de Houtman who named the islands when he reached them in 1619. No one knows why he decided they should have a Portuguese name.


Things to See and Do

The Islands
For information about the islands, particularly information about fishing, diving and boating, download the 43-page brochure The Abrolhos Islands: Information Guide. The guide available at http://www.fish.wa.gov.au/Documents/recreational_fishing/fhpa/abrolhos_islands_information_guide.pdf and is detailed and comprehensive.

The Wreck of the Batavia
The story of the wreck of the Dutch East India merchantman, the Batavia, and the subsequent murder of 125 of the survivors, is one of the most important and gruesome events in early Australian history.

The Dutch, who had established a trading post at Batavia in the Dutch East Indies (now Jakarta in Indonesia), were sailing the Roaring Forties to Terra Australis Incognito and then heading north. The problem was that, given the unreliable nature of navigation and the storms in the Roaring Forties, they ended up not knowing how far they had sailed east and kept crashing into the coast.

Thus it was that the Batavia, flagship of the Dutch East India Company, a new vessel on its maiden voyage carrying 316 people as well as 12 chests of silver and jewels, two hours before dawn on 4 June, 1629 ran aground on one of the many coral reefs which edge the Abrolhos Islands. At the time they believed they were 600 miles (1000 km) from the coast.

The passengers and crew managed to reach the narrow beaches of Beacon Island on the edge of the Morning Reef. Immediately the Batavia's commander, Francisco Pelsaert, accompanied by 47 crew and passengers, launched two small sailing boats – a sloop and yawl - and headed for Batavia. They left behind 250 people on an island with no water or food.

So great was the speed advantage offered by the Roaring Forties that Pelsaert and his crew, even though they had been wrecked and forced into a small boat, arrived in Batavia on 7 July only a few days after the rest of the fleet which had plotted a north-east course across the Indian Ocean. Pelsaert was given the Sardam, a fast vessel which the Dutch called a 'yacht', and he headed back to the Houtman Abrolhos to collect the shipwrecked passengers and crew and the Dutch East India Company's cargo of jewels and guilders.

What no one, including Pelsaert, realised was that even before the Batavia was shipwrecked a group of about 20 sailors led by Jeronimus Cornelisz (an apothecary by trade) had been planning to mutiny. The chests on the Batavia contained some 250,000 guilders as well as jewels and they planned to head to the East Indies and engage in piracy. The plan was to murder most of the survivors and, when Pelsaert returned, capture his ship and head for the Barbary Coast.

The mutineers were outnumbered by the soldiers and ship passengers so they planned a process of secret murders which involved killing the strongest survivors at night time and keeping a supply of the more attractive women for their sexual pleasure. Other victims they lured onto rafts, told them they were being taken to other islands where the water supply was good, and then shoved overboard into the channels between the islands and left them to drown. Others were executed – usually by having their throats cut - after being falsely accused of stealing the property of the Dutch East India Company. In one case an entire family were killed in their tent by mutineers wielding adzes. In another incident a boy, Cornelisz Aldersz, was beheaded just to demonstrate how sharp a sword blade was.

A small group of survivors, led by Weibbe Hayes, managed to escape to West Wallabi Island where they survived by catching the tammars (tiny wallabies no more than 75 cm high) which still inhabit the island, finding bird's eggs and collecting the oysters and shellfish along the rocky shoreline. They also found reliable sources of water.

When news of the massacres reached them (usually brought by people who had managed to swim or row across from Beacon Island) Hayes organised the survivors into a quasi-army. Although they had no weapons they managed to make pikes out of hoop iron from barrels washed up on the shore and they made clubs out of flotsam from the Batavia.

Hayes established a system of sentries along the island's coastline. He built two stone forts and collected coral rock which he planned to use as "ammunition". The first attack on the island occurred in late July. It was successfully repulsed at the shoreline by a defence involving stone throwing followed by a pike charge. So successful was this counterattack that Cornelisz and the mutineers stayed away from West Wallabi for a month.

In September the mutineers attempted to persuade Hayes and his supporters to join them. Five of the mutineers, led by Cornelisz, went to West Wallabi where Hayes arrested them, tied them up, executed the supporters and kept Cornelisz as a prisoner. The mutineers who had remained on Beacon Island during the "negotiations" tried to invade the island once again but, just as the battle began, the sails of the Sardam appeared on the horizon.

Weibbe Hayes and his followers reached the Sardam and explained what had happened. They handed Cornelisz over to Pelseart who cross-examined him about the atrocities. Pelsaert wrote in his journal: "I examined him in the presence of the council, and asked him why he allowed the Devil to lead him so far astray from all human feeling to do that which had never been so cruelly perpetrated among Christians, without any real hunger or need of thirst, but solely out of bloodthirstiness to attain his wicked ends". Cornelisz blamed others or, as Pelsaert so beautifully put it "he tried to talk himself clean, with his glib tongue telling the most palpable lies".

Pelsaert convened a court on the Abrolhos. Dutch law at the time required that a man had to confess to a crime before he could be executed. This requirement was greatly assisted by the legal use of torture. Cornelisz had to be tortured five times before he confessed. The examinations of the murderers took ten days. While this went on the divers who had travelled on the Sardam managed to retrieve most of the valuables from the wreck of the Batavia.

In the end the punishments were typical of the times. Cornelisz was taken to a narrow strip of land known as Seal's Island "and there firstly to cut off both his hands, and after shall be punished on the Gallows with the Cord till Death shall follow". Of the others four were sentenced to have their right hands cut off before being hanged. Another three were hanged without having their hands cut off – as if it made any difference. This occurred on the morning of 2 October 1629.

A small group were taken back to Batavia where Dutch law would see them all executed and, on 16 November 1629 when the Sardam finally sailed away from the Abrolhos, an 18-year-old servant Jan Pelgrom and a man named Wouter Looes were marooned on the mainland. They were never seen again.

The Abrolhos Today
Today the Abrolhos are a strange mixture of untouched isolation and commercial fishing. There are literally hundreds of narrow jetties jutting out across the reefs that edge the islands. For fourteen weeks each year – from 15 March to 30 June – approximately 120 licensed rock lobster fishermen, their families and their deck hands – live on the islands and catch around 1.5 million kilos of lobster. They live in huts, shacks and houses on 22 of the small islands with at least one of the islands even having a school for the children of the fishermen.

Beyond this commercial activity the uninhabited islands of the Houtman Abrolhos group – particularly the two largest islands of East and West Wallabi – are part of a marine conservation area which is pristine and unspoilt. These islands are home to tiny tammars; over 90 species of nesting birds including the predatory white breasted sea eagles; schools of tailor, Sampson fish, baldchin groper (which, at four years of age, gives itself a sex change moving from female to male) and jewfish; and colonies of seals and sea lions.

The First European Building in Australia
West Wallabi Island is a low, flat and scrubby expanse edged by reefs and narrow beaches which is barren and uninhabited. From the air it is possible to see a tiny, sandstone-coloured rectangle in the scrub about 100 metres from the coast. It is unimpressive and isolated and yet this simple structure, just some loose rocks gathered and piled up to make a simple fortress, is the first building Europeans ever constructed in Australia. It was built in 1629 - 141 years before Cook sailed up the continent's east coast and 159 years before Phillip set foot on the shores of Port Jackson. This simple, primitive stone fort was hastily constructed by desperate men trying to fend off a brutal frenzy of rape and murder by mutineers who, before they had finished, would slaughter 125 men, women and children.

Visiting East Wallabi
The only landing strip on the Houtman Abrolhos is located on East Wallabi, an uninhabited island where the visitor can walk to the end of the runway and walk along a path to the shoreline (there are tammars hiding in the bushes) which crosses the low-lying dunes and arrives at the white sand beach which edges Turtle Bay.

The Abrolhos lie at around the same latitude as the Queensland Gold Coast and, because the waters are fed by the Leeuwin Current, the water temperature, even in winter, never drops below 20°C. It is quite possible to dive in off the beach and, with a few minutes of easy swimming, find yourself above the island's coral reefs. It has been estimated that there are over 180 varieties of coral around the islands.

The Dive Trails
There are a number of excellent dive trails around the islands. They are all detailed - the Long Island Dive Trail, Beacon Island Dive Trail, Turtle Bay Dive Trail, Anemone Lump Dive Trail, Coral Patches Dive Trail, Morley Island Dive Trail, Rootail Coral Dive Trail - in the excellent guide available for downloading at http://www.fish.wa.gov.au/Documents/recreational_fishing/fhpa/abrolhos_islands_information_guide.pdf.

Shipwrecks Gallery at Western Australian Museum, Geraldton
The Western Australian Museum, located at 1 Museum Place, Batavia Coast Marina at Geraldton, includes the Shipwrecks Gallery which concentrates, fairly obviously, on the history of the Dutch East India Company, the navigational aids and maps, shipboard life and some of remnants taken from the wrecks of the Batavia, the Zuytdorp which was wrecked near Kalbarri in 1712 and the Zeewijk which struck a reef near the south Abrolhos in 1727.

The story of the wreck of the Batavia and the subsequent efforts to raise pieces of the wreck by nautical archaeologists are told in excellent detail and the displays of pieces of the wreck, including a cannon which has been cut so its construction can be studied in cross section, are all carefully captioned so that the visitor can vicariously participate in the life of the ship and the process of reclamation. It is open from 9.30 am - 4.00 pm daily, tel: (08) 9921 8050 or check out http://museum.wa.gov.au/museums/geraldton.

How to Get There
There are a number of charter companies operating from Geraldton airport and by sea for anglers and divers. Check out http://www.geraldtonvisitorcentre.com.au/content.asp?documentid=118 for details.



* About 10,000 years ago the Houtman Abrolhos were part of mainland Australia.

* In June, 1619 the Dutch commander, Frederick de Houtman, reached the islands and named them.

* In 1629 the Dutch East India vessel, Batavia, hit Morning Reef near Beacon Island.

* In 1727 the Zeewijk was wrecked on Half Moon Reef in the Pelsaert Group.

* By the mid-1800s trepang (sea cucumber) were being fished from around the islands.

* From the 1880s-1920s the islands were mined for guano, a fertiliser mined from bird excrement.

* The Hadda sank off the Wallabi group in 1877.

* In 1904 the Western Australian government recognised the islands as a rich source of western rock lobster.

* Today 120 licensed lobster fishermen operate on 22 designated islands.


Visitor Information

Geraldton Visitor Information Centre, 246 Marine Terrace, Geraldton, tel: (08) 9956 6670, 1800 VISITGERO.



There is no accommodation available on the islands. The lobster fishermen's accommodation is all privately owned.


Useful Websites

The guide available for downloading at http://www.fish.wa.gov.au/Documents/recreational_fishing/fhpa/abrolhos_islands_information_guide.pdf is detailed and comprehensive.

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  • Hi my name is Michael I would like to get more information on what it was like for the Italians living an working on the Abrolhos island mainly pigeon Island back in the 50s an 60s if possible thank you

    Mike Phillips