Australia’s first documented homosexual act dates to before the First Fleet sailed into Botany Bay. Indeed, it happened even before the birth of James Cook who later claimed the eastern half of the continent for the British Crown.
At 3:00 pm on the afternoon of 30 November 1727, two teenage boys enjoyed a sexual encounter on an island offshore from Western Australia. However, other people observed their dalliance.
The Dutch East India Company
In the early 1700s, the Dutch East India Company reigned supreme as the richest company in world history. A virtual law unto itself, it maintained a private army of 10,000 soldiers and a naval fleet of 40 warships. In addition to waging war, it enjoyed the legal right to imprison and even execute sailors in its employ.
In 1725, company judges in Capetown sentenced both a 25-year-old sailor — and the eighteen-year-old male slave he raped — to death. The company apparently agreed with Dutch law which treated the victim as harshly as the perpetrator. The two men were chained together back to back and drowned.
That same year, the bookkeeper on another company ship was marooned on Ascension Island after his conviction for sodomy. Entries from the diary Leendert Hasenbosch kept on the mid-Atlantic island indicate he died of thirst about six months later.
In late 1726, Jan Steyns took command of the Dutch East India Company ship the Zeewijk. It sailed from the Netherlands in November bound for the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). En route in June of the following year, Steyns ignored the company’s navigational directions because he wanted to check out New Holland (Western Australia).
At 7.30 pm on the night on 9 June, the Zeewijk crashed into Half-Moon Reef, 60 kilometres west of the mainland. Over 70 men died in the initial wreck.
Unable to save the ship, the survivors salvaged what they could. They then set up camp on nearby Gun Island in the Houtman Abrolhos group. On Gun Island, they found freshwater and sufficient plant and animal life to complement provisions salvaged from the Zeewijk. Twelve of the fittest crewmen set off in the longboat for their original destination. No one ever heard from them again.
Australia’s first documented homosexual act
On 1 December, three of the crew reported to Steyns that the day before they observed two young sailors committing the “gruesome sin of Sodomy.”
Adriaan van der Grafee, a ship’s officer, wrote a journal of the voyage including the time marooned. He recorded the trial of Adriaen Spoor and Pieter Engels, both probably aged in their mid to late teens. He noted that their “abominable and God-forsaken deeds” might cause peril to the marooned sailors.
“Terrible plagues may strike our people.”
It’s the same sort of ridiculous, superstitious belief one might expect in another era… such as… unfortunately… our own.
The two boys denied the accusation.
“Wherefore, we placed burning fuses between all their fingers. But being obstinate they would no more confess. So, upon due consideration, we resolved with the entire Council and consent of the Common Hands, to place these men apart on one of the northernmost islands.”
Diver Hugh Edwards found the wreck of the Zeewijk in 1966. In his book The Wreck on the Half-Moon Reef, he wrote of the fate of the two boys, put ashore on separate islands to die.
“Mere nodules of coral slates and spikey bushes raised four feet above the surrounding reefs. There is no water on them. No food. Deep channels run between islets and if the youths could not swim they would have been prisoners, each on his own rock until they died from sun and thirst, or went mad with despair and flung themselves in the water. In any event, death must have overtaken them within a day or two.”
In February of the following year, the remaining crew members set sail for Batavia (Jakarta) in a boat they built themselves from the wreckage of the Zeewijk. 82 of the original crew of 208 made it to Jakarta.
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