A Tale of Two Plates

Apr 8, 2016History, Non-fiction, Research

Precisely four hundred years ago one of two plates began a startling journey around the planet.

This morning I find myself in a stairwell at the Rijksmuseum.

I intended to write in the library but it’s closed as it is a public holiday. It kind of sucks but at least there is coffee here.

The stairwell is an artwork in itself.

Bombastic arched and vaulted ceilings. Stone stairs that have laboured under so many footfalls.

Half way up there is a huge stained glass window with the names of all the patrons and sponsors of the original museum. The rich and affluent of nineteenth century Amsterdam.

I know some of the names as their canal houses have also become museums.

I like museums.

I like history.

It’s one of the reasons I write. It is my way of bringing history alive.

There are two pieces in this museum which stand out for me.

They cannot really be considered as artworks. They are just everyday objects with special significance.

The Rijksmuseum tends to have a different approach to art and displays everything from model ships to musical instruments and clothing. There is even a section with old keys and locks, go figure.

The first object is something unusual for an art museum: a biplane.

I am not sure where it’s from.

Most probably it’s a Fokker, one of the worlds first truly inventive aviators.

A rich boy who took his passion for flying to great lengths. Sort of a predecessor of Howard Hawks, but then around the dawning of the age of human powered flight.

An entrepreneur who had no problem selling his craft to the enemy during the world wars. It makes me think of a couple of movies where American arms salesmen do the same thing.

To some people, war is just business.

The plane itself is impressive.

I will walk upstairs later and have a good look at it.

In any case it’s a spectacular piece of engineering artwork. Full of cutting-edge technology, it’s a testament to man overcoming nature, if only temporarily.

The second object is much less impressive and more mundane.

A plate made of pewter.

The importance of this object has less to do with what it is than what it signifies.

Like the aircraft, it is a symbol of the advancement of modern man.

The object is Dirk Hartog’s plate.

Left on the west coast of Australia to mark his discovery of New Holland in 1616, it was picked up eighty years later by another Dutch explorer and returned to Amsterdam.

Hartog’s plate is inscribed with some basic facts: who left it there, when they were there, and who sponsored their trip.

It is on display in a simple black glass case, against a wall and next to a doorway, it sort of gets lost amongst all the other artefacts surrounding it.

Most people just walk past it and don’t even give it the time of day.

It lays flat in its case, if it was elevated at an angle I suppose it might gain more attention. Even then, most people wouldn’t recognise its importance.

The text is barely legible and it is in old Dutch so most people wouldn’t even understand what is written on it.

I wonder who did the inscription.

Only the upper half of the plate is written on, so it appears they were intending to write more and didn’t get it finished.

I’m sure it was a laborious and time consuming process. I am guessing that whoever it was just ran out of time. They were probably on a tight schedule.

Hartog said that Australia had nothing to offer. The Aboriginals he met had nothing to trade and he had a very low opinion of them.

The Dutch were, and still are, all about making money and doing business.

Unlike the English they never went about dividing, conquering and colonising. They were just in it for the cash. So their time around Monkey Mia would have been short.

They were on another mission and the desolate west coast of the new world had nothing to offer except sand, sea and perhaps dolphins.

It makes me wonder if the same family of dolphins were there to greet the sailors as they do other European tourists today.

If only the Monkey Mia dolphins could talk.

The other question in my mind is whose plate was it?

Perhaps it was the captains.

Pewter was expensive and was also a new technique. Not everyone would have eaten off of such a thing. Maybe Hartog sacrificed his own eating utensils for the greater cause.

The plate is beaten flat. It was nailed to wooden stake and left to weather the punishing roaring forties for a century.

What makes the story even more interesting is the events that followed after Hartog’s descendent brother in arms, Willem de Vlamingh, found the plate and replaced it with his own.

What happened to the second plate is quite something.

A century later another seaman, a Frenchman, Louis de Freycinet, repeated the sequence. He took Vlaminghs plate and replaced it with his own. His plate did not survive.

Vlaminghs plate was shipwrecked in the Falklands, recovered, moved to Paris, lost again and eventually found in the rubble in the aftermath of the Second World War.

It is now in Australia.

Even the occupants of the French ship were noteworthy. A wife stowed away to be with her recently acquired husband and invoked the wrath of the French navy.

Mrs. de Freycinet, I presume.

I find it all very inspiring or at the very least a tale worth exploring further.

Maybe there’s a new novel hiding in the story. It inspired one in it’s day.

A series of tableware, everyday items made immortal. Not exactly a work of art, even the inscription isn’t of a high standard.

However, important enough to mark the beginning of an enormous flood of change that was underway, on a large island hidden for so long from the modern world.

The most fantastic thing is, if I so choose, I can go and stand next it practically everyday of the week.

The aircraft is in fact a FK 23 Bantam.

Designed by Frits Koolhoven for the Royal Airforce in Britain with the aircraft company BAT.

They were originally furniture makers.

It was meant to be used in the First World War but had not completed testing in time. It was incredibly lightweight and fast and would have ruled the skies. The engine could propel it at 220 km/h.

Quite something in 1917.


Have you made any new discoveries lately?


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