The Hague Embassy: Australia

The Australian Embassy is located on the Carnegielaan, behind the Peace Palace.  Ambassador Brett Mason and Indra McCormick, Deputy Head of the Australian Mission, receive me in the Ambassador’s office.  I have not yet sat down before I am taken to look at a large world map behind the Ambassador’s desk.

“On 25 October 1616, Dirk Hartog landed here just off the west coast of Australia,” says Brett Mason.  He points at the map. “Almost 400 hundred years ago.  His ship was called de Eendracht.  In total, there were six ships.  In January 1616 they departed from Texel.  They followed the advice of Hendrik Brouwer, also a VOC Captain, who advised them to follow the eastern currents past Cape Good Hope in South Africa, and not to turn North-East toward India.  Hartog arrived at an uninhabited island near Shark Bay.  Later, this island was named Dirk Hartog Island.  It was a very dangerous area for ships; there were a lot of shallows and reefs, and cliffs further over on the mainland”. 

Eendracht Land

But Hartog did not ignore the island he landed on.  He first wanted to map what he had discovered.  He left behind a pewter plate with a scratched inscription as a ‘signpost’ for ships which might later land there and set sail northwards, mapping the coast.  The undiscovered land was later drawn on maps as ‘Het land van de Eendracht’ (Eendracht Land).  The Ambassador shows me a number of framed old maps from various centuries hanging in the hallway, from the time of Ptolemy to the 17th century.

“Dirk Hartog was the second European to land on the continent,” says the Ambassador, “ten years earlier, in 1605, Willem Jansz left Bantam aboard the Duyfken to map the unknown Zuidland.  In February 1606, he arrived on the North Coast of Australia at Cape York Peninsula. He followed the coast to Cape Keerweer, mapping around 320 kilometres of the continent.  He believed it was a southern offshoot of New Guinea and called it Nieu Zelandt, but the name didn’t stick.  Abel Tasman, another Dutch explorer, gave the same name to a place he found in the Pacific Ocean in 1642, and that country is still called New Zealand”.

Jansz’s voyage to Cape York was the first recorded contact between Europeans and indigenous Australians.  It marked the beginning of engagement between the world’s oldest living culture, that of the Australian Aboriginals, and the new seafaring merchants of Europe.  In part to commemorate this contact, the Aboriginal Art Museum in Utrecht (the AAMU) is holding an exhibition called Remember Me: Stories in Print (  The exhibition runs until 19 June.

Terra Australis Incognita

By the fourth century BC, it was already assumed that there had to be land in the Southern Hemisphere.  Thinkers such as Aristotle and Ptolemy thought that, if the earth were to remain in equilibrium, there had to be land there.  They even named it: Terra Australis Incognita, the ‘unknown southern land’. Many centuries later, in the time of the voyages of discovery, this assumption was proved correct.

But the continent was not immediately called Australia.  For more than 150 years it was called “New Holland” after the Dutch discoverers.  The name Australia only took hold once the English captain and cartographer Matthew Flinders published an account of his journey as A Voyage to Terra Australis in 1814.

We take a look at the maps in the hallway.  On a VOC map from 1620, we see Eendrachtsland marked on the western coast.   On the northern side, the continent seems to be attached to what we now call Indonesia – there is still no sign of a Torres Strait, the corridor between Queensland and Papua New Guinea.

The Batavia

“The Dutch literally put Australia on the map,” says the Ambassador, “When Hartog was back in the Netherlands and talked about his voyage, various other ships travelled to the continent.  But many, having reached the new continent,  were sunk in the middle of the cliffs and shallows.  The area is riddled with shipwrecks.  At the end of the century captain Willem de Vlamingh, on behalf of the VOC, travelled further south along the western coast.  He discovered black swans on what is now called Swan River, in modern day Perth.  That was better terrain but still, much of the western coast was sand and desert.  On the advice of De Vlamingh, the VOC ceased further exploration.

There is one more story about the discovery of the continent; “a dramatic story – the story of the ship de Batavia” according to the Ambassador.  Indra McCormick grabs a book by Peter Fitzsimmons which describes it all: ‘Batavia, the true, adventurous story of the sinking of the VOC ship Batavia in 1629’. “The ship sprung a leak on the Wallaby reef just off the coast.  Some of the crew remained behind on some small islands, another group sailed by sloop to Batavia to fetch help.  When the rescuers arrived, a munity had taken place among those left behind.  After various – often bloody – entanglements, only 68 of the 341 crew eventually arrived in Batavia.  After the wreck was found in 1963, coins, cannons and all sorts of other items were recovered and displayed”.

Gas and Oil

“Captain de Vlaming, after finding Swan River in 1696, also visited Dirk Hartog island,” says the Ambassador, “ He replaced the pewter plate that Dirk Hartog had left behind with a new version and took the old one with him.  It is now on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  I’m pretty romantic about the whole story of discovery.  But at the same time, you have to admit that it was inspired principally by trade.  The Dutch were great traders at that time.  It’s not for nothing that the pewter plate in the Rijksmuseum has not Dirk Hartog’s name on top, but the name of the trader who ordered the voyage.”

If Dirk Hartog and his companions had, at that time, looked not only at the land but also under it – they would have discovered the true riches of the region.  The area is full of oil and gas – it is in fact one of the largest gas and oil fields in the world. And who is one of the biggest producers there? Shell. “Hartog’s efforts were not in vain,” says the Ambassador, “The results just took their time.  It is one of the biggest investments Shell has ever made”.

Alongside Shell, all the major Dutch businesses are represented in Australia: Unilever, Rabobank, ING, KPMG, Heineken, Achmea, AEGON, Philips and AkzoNobel.  And various businesses in the fields of infrastructure and water management, such as Deltares, Boskalis, Royal HaskoningDHV, Fugro, Strukton Rail and BAM International.  “In Brisbane and its surroundings, where I come from, there have been a lot of floods. And we gladly make use of the knowledge of those businesses,” says the Ambassador.  The Netherlands invests a lot in Australia; it is in fact the fifth largest direct investor, with an investment of 38 billion dollars. The total annual trade in goods and services between the Netherlands and Australia is worth around 6 billion dollars.

The “Boom”

For the last twenty-five years, Australia has experienced continuous growth.  The economic dip of 2008 largely missed Australia.  “There's been growth every year, normally significant growth, even last year growth was just under three per cent.  The ‘mining boom’, and Chinese demand for our raw materials has helped us enormously.  But it would be wrong to reduce our country to a mineshaft.  The returns make up less than 10 per cent of our GNP.  Increasingly important Australian exports come not from the ground, but from the mind: knowledge, innovation, education.  In the top hundred universities of the world, there are six Australian universities”. 

Many young people from South-East Asia study at those universities.  “From the 1950s until the 1980s there was a system of bursaries for this.  It was part of the ‘Colombo Plan’, named after the capital of Sri Lanka.  We have now reformed that project: the New Colombo Plan, where we encourage Australian young people to go to Universities in the Indo-Pacific, an area stretching from Pakistan in the West to the Fiji islands in the East”.

It’s part of a reorientation by Australia.  The Ambassador explains: “I am now 54.  When I was young, we saw our future in the English speaking world. In the last thirty years, young Australians have started to see their future in the Indo-Pacific.  Student exchanges contribute to a high quality workforce.  We have benefitted too from immigration from Asia: immigrants have given our country an injection of hard work, enthusiasm and different culture.  Australia has been the winner.

Optimism and Confidence

This development has contributed to a changing self-perception: “In 1956, the Olympic Games were held in Melbourne.  We had about nine million people at that time.  We didn’t have a sense that we could compete with the world in art, culture or education.  We didn’t have enough confidence; only in sports did we have an excess of it.  That has changed completely in my lifetime.  Right now, Australia has more than 24 million inhabitants.   What was once a country of beaches, mines and cricket ovals is now a modern, multicultural country with a highly educated populace and a sophisticated economy and culture.  There’s a feeling of great optimism and confidence that we are the equals of other countries in the humanities, culture and arts. Young Australians are confident and optimistic, they no longer feel the need to go to America or Europe to enjoy a full life.  That was not the case for some Australians in the 1950s and 1960s.  Many intellectuals left because they thought Australia was a cultural wasteland.  For example Robert Hughes, the art critic and author of The Fatal Shore, went to New York.  Clive James and Germaine Greer fled to London.  But now we have a thriving cultural and intellectual life: millions visit Australia’s national museums and galleries every year, we have 15 Nobel Prize winners, and over a billion people rely on Australian inventions every day.

How did this happen? “We had massive immigration after the Second World War.  Around 300,000 Dutch came.  Great immigrants, they were visible right across Australian social and economic life.  They also did well. Culturally and politically they were close to the Australians.  Honestly, I can’t imagine Australia without the Dutch.  Now there are a lot of backpackers from the Netherlands.  They speak such good English they’re almost Australians, and they’re so polite!  Immigration started to change our outlook.  That is one of the most heart-warming aspects of our country.  Wherever you come from, whatever your religion, whatever your ethnic background, if you keep to Australian values you’re an Australian.  Our country is pluralistic, tolerant and respectful.  My parents’ generation tended to look inwards or maybe to Britain.   But in the seventies and eighties the university system received a boost and the economy was freed from excessive regulation.  Australia became more competitive and the labour market more flexible.  Our population climbed.  Now, almost forty per cent of Australians progress to tertiary education”.

One of the top projects located largely in Australia and South Africa, but with research assistance from the Netherlands, amongst others, is the SKA, the Square Kilometre Array, the largest and furthest seeing radio telescope project ever built.  This research will try to look at the beginning of the universe, the Big Bang.  We are trying to “capture” the very first light.”

Outdoor Culture

Most of the population of Australia live in the South East of the country, an area with a pleasant climate.  “What is the first thing you think of when you think of Australia?  For me, the first association is the sun.  Because of the climate, there’s an ‘outdoor’ culture.  This also influences interpersonal relations: they’re relaxed, bright and optimistic. 


Ambassador Brett Mason and Indra McCormick started their new jobs together in the Netherlands around 7 months ago.  Before becoming Ambassador to the Netherlands, Mason was the Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs and served sixteen years as a Senator for Queensland.  “The work in The Hague is different,” says the Ambassador, “Civilised.  More civilised than Australian politics, you could say”.

Images: 1) Credential Ceremony, 2) The ambassador at van Gogh Museum, 3) Dirk Hartogh Street, Amsterdam, 4) Ambassador with Dirk Hartogh Plate, 5) Credential Ceremony, 6) The Ambassador and Minister Cash with Queen Maxima, 7) All Europeans Champions League 2016, 8) Ambassador at Aboriginal Museum AAMU, Utrecht, 9) and 10) and 11) maps




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