Tuesday, 23 February 2016

First arrivals?

The earliest Lithuanians are usually thought of as starting to arrive in Australia towards the end of the nineteenth century, with perhaps one or two convicts or adventurers preceding them in the first half of the 1800s. But what if someone proposed that they were here much earlier, at the very start of Australia's European history, even before settlement, right back in the seventeenth century? You would probably laugh at the suggestion, just as I did, until ...

When I first read Chapter 1 of Luda Popenhagen's Australian Lithuanians titled 'First arrivals: seventeenth to early twentieth centuries' I was intrigued by the story of the Dutch East India Company's expedition to the west coast of Australia in 1696-97 which may have included representatives from Lithuania (pp9-10):

On 29 December 1696, the ship Geelvinck, which had sailed from Amsterdam six months earlier, landed on Rottnest Island, 19 kilometres off the coast of Western Australia. The Dutch Captain Willem de Vlamingh was in command, and his passengers and crew included citizens of Copenhagen, Bremen and ten from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Willem de Vlamingh's ships, with black swans, at the entrance to the Swan River, Western Australia, coloured engraving, derived from an earlier drawing (now lost) from the de Vlamingh expeditions of 1696–97.
By Johannes van Keulen - Het Eyland Amsterdam, held at the National Library of Australia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17870436

Sure, I thought, wishful thinking: what were the chances that any of these 10 might have come from the Lithuanian part of the Commonwealth? (The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was united in a Commonwealth with the Kingdom of Poland from 1569 to 1795.) And what was the source for this claim anyway? All I could readily find was a similar statement, again unattributed, on an Australian government website dealing with Polish immigrants (see link here).

However Dutch history offered a few clues. Holland in the seventeenth century had one of the most powerful fleets in Europe and their ships frequently visited Polish and Lithuanian ports. In addition, by the mid 1600s the Dutch East India Company (often referred to as the VOC) had developed into a huge multinational corporation, with over 50,000 employees and a private army of 10,000. As well as its interests in the New World, the VOC traded extensively in Europe including purchasing grain, timber and furs from Polish and Lithuanian suppliers. Movement of people went hand in hand with the movement of goods, so there certainly seemed some possibility that Lithuanians were employed by the VOC.

Digging a bit deeper I came across a 2012 article in the Polish journal Geographia Polonica by Mariusz Kowalski on 'Immigrants from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the Early Stages of European Colonisation of the Cape Colony (1652-1707)' which has a list of soldiers and sailors who served in the VOC's new colony in South Africa. Included in this list were men who were identified as having originated in Klaipeda, Palanga and Plateliai in Lithuania. So there seems to be evidence that Lithuanians were employed by the VOC. If they were sent to serve as far afield as South Africa then there is a reasonable probability that they also served on ships heading out to the Dutch East Indies and the western coast of Australia.

The Dutch had been landing on or near the coast of Australia for 80 years before de Vlaming arrived.  In fact his 1696-97 expedition had been despatched as a rescue mission to search for survivors of earlier VOC expeditions. Revisiting Popenhagen's book, I'm no longer so sceptical about her closing thoughts (p10):
One cannot help but wonder about the cultural make-up of the passengers and crew of any earlier vessels that might have landed near Australian soil. What national and ethnic identities might have been represented? Perhaps there were citizens of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth on board those ships too?