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Graeme Cocks. Through Darkest Seas. Motoring Past Vintage Publishing, 2023

465 pages. Includes B&W photos, maps and engravings, Glossary, and Index.

Reviewed by Peter Manthorpe

Graeme Cocks’ Through Darkest Seas chronicles the remarkable story of Duyfken, a reconstruction of the small Dutch East India Company ship which, in the early 1600s, was the first ship in the written historical record to make a voyage to the land we now know as Australia.


The book covers the whole story of the reconstructed Duyfken to date. It contains three main adventures dividing the book roughly into thirds: the building, the re-enactment voyage from the spice islands to Cape York Peninsular, and the voyage from Sydney to the Netherlands. Interspersed with the narrative, Cocks takes us on many side expeditions that provide contextual depth to the story. There are discourses on history, particularly of the Dutch East India Company (the VOC), as well as on contemporary and historical geo-politics relevant to the story. There are also several potted biographies of characters who play important roles in the narrative.


The book begins with Cocks’s involvement as media consultant with the HM Bark Endeavour replica, which was nearing completion in Fremantle in 1993. At about the same time, an idea developed to use the skills, knowledge, and momentum from that project to build another replica ship, this time commemorating the prolific Dutch exploration of all the coasts of the Great South Land that Cook’s Endeavour did not explore, namely, the Northern, Western and Southern. The idea of another ship replica became a committee, then a campaign, then something akin to a movement. Cocks became involved in the new project as publicist and marketing specialist and, later, CEO of the foundation. It is because he was so intimately involved in every aspect of the Duyfken story that followed, that he is able to narrate it so thoroughly in this book.


The first question to be decided is which vessel to re-construct. The debates around this topic as told by Cocks are convoluted and sometimes amusing, revealing the protagonists’ passions, obsessions and, inevitably, parochialism. An example of this is when a Western Australian regional council claims that building a ship associated with Queensland rather than WA will ‘destroy tourism’ in their shire. These themes are explored further during the ship’s maiden voyage.


With the committee finally settling on Duyfken, the next part of the narrative describes planning the construction, assembling the teams to build it, sourcing materials, and designing the ship. This section details some fascinating debates about how decisions are made, and the rationale behind them, relating to every detail of the build: what materials should be used, what level of accuracy should be employed, even down to details such as whether to use sandpaper or not.


Then there are questions relating to how the ship might be used after completion, which will determine endless decisions arising later, such as whether it should have engines fitted, whether it should be in commercial survey for carrying paying passengers, and so on. There are many parties to these debates, each with different, sometimes overlapping, often conflicting motives and agendas. Because the true purpose of the project only emerges over time, they make for interesting reading. By outlining the differing interests and influences on the decision making, Cocks builds a cultural depth into the narrative that few others could have provided, often with disarmingly deliberate objectivity.


The middle section of the book describes the re-enactment voyage. In early 2000 a crew have been assembled and they take the ship on an overnight trial voyage. The trial does not end promisingly. Setbacks are overcome and, in April of that year, the Duyfken embarks on an ambitious expedition to the spice islands of Indonesia, to re-enact the voyage of the original ship.


By the previous year, Cocks has become CEO of the Duyfken Foundation, and the project becomes increasingly shaped by his vision for what it could achieve. But he is also in the hotseat for making decisions in an increasingly fraught cultural and historical landscape, not to mention the civil war erupting in the very province to which the ship is bound:


The dream of a pleasant voyage across the Indonesian archipelago was turning into a nightmare. The more we delved into the history of the region, and the current state of affairs, the more we asked ourselves whether it was correct for us to take Duyfken back to the places where her history was tied to misunderstanding, oppression, murder and bloodshed… And then there was the recurring civil strife which was plaguing Indonesia… (p. 176-7)


The journey to the spice islands goes ahead, and there are some genuinely tense moments as the ship navigates its way through a deadly civil conflict. I was involved in this part of the story as the ship’s master for the re-enactment, so I am very familiar with how it unfolded. More than once, while re-reading the story more than two decades later, I have thought, ‘Yikes!’


Like all good odysseys, there are many setbacks but more than sufficient uplifting moments. Cocks’s account of the re-enactment of first contact at the Pennefather River near Weipa is especially powerful, involving the conjunction of disparate story-telling traditions. On both the ceremonial and the personal levels, there is a deep sense of genuine reconciliation in the air. On the shores of Cape York Peninsula, as had been the case in Indonesia, it is when localised story-telling traditions overlap with the Duyfken’s story, that the true purpose of the ship becomes most clear.


The final third of the book is largely taken up with Duyfken’s second voyage. The ship has made it through Indonesia, back to Australia via Papua New Guinea, demonstrating its seaworthiness as well as its impressive capacity, despite its diminutive size, for hefty cultural and historical cargos. The inevitable question arises: where to from here?


Duyfken’s next adventure is extremely ambitious by any measure. From Sydney, the plan is to sail the ship to Texel in the Netherlands. This will involve some long ocean crossings which will test the crew literally to their limits. Cocks’s retelling of this remarkable voyage is gripping. The tensions on board simmer, then threaten to boil over. The relationship between ship’s master and CEO deteriorates. The ship sails into another war zone. And, of course, there is a storm at sea. For the definitive descriptions of the little ship sailing through wild and dangerous weather, Cocks lets the crew speak, quoting directly from their personal journals, as well as from the master’s logs. This is one of several examples in the book where he steps aside and lets others take the literary glory in key moments of the narrative. They are powerful pieces of writing, often with raw intensity, and bring the reader into the moment. These well-chosen quotations enliven the text throughout the book.

The arrival of the ship in the Netherlands is part triumph and part anticlimax. Most of the exhausted crew depart and a fresh crew embarks on an exhibition tour of the country of origin of the first Duyfken. By now the ship has established a reputation as a stout ocean adventurer and a world-class replica, for which the Dutch are inordinately proud, even though the ship is Australian! But it has also become a seasoned ambassador accustomed to engaging in contemporary discourse around fraught issues such as the legacy of colonialism. There are some fascinating passages in this section describing interactions between the ship and protesters. There are those who are against the idea of ‘celebrating the VOC’, and the protesters assume that Duyfken represents the enemy of their activist stance. They are surprised to discover that neither the crew nor the organisation is afraid to address history in all its complexity, the ‘darkest seas’ of the title.


There are several themes which run as undercurrents beneath Through Darkest Seas, but perhaps the one which has the most influence on what is possible, what eventuates, and, ultimately, the vessel’s fate, is the issue of finances. Cocks has had an active role in the business end of the organisation from the outset, first with fundraising and seeking sponsorships and backers, and later managing it as CEO. Throughout this time, he has had to deal with a business model that is almost comically terrible: a single asset which is obsolete by 400 years, with limited revenue streams from donations and selling berths—very, very uncomfortable berths—sometimes into war zones. He is in a unique position to tell this important behind-the-scenes aspect of the Duyfken story, and his inclusion of it in his book gives us a window into the machinations of the overlapping worlds of business and government. He shows how the machine can shift money around to make things happen, and he also introduces us to the kinds of people who operate the levers. It is the author’s perpetual task to persuade the lever-operators to pull the levers in the direction of Duyfken, and this makes for some lively reading because of the egos and agendas involved.


Cocks comes to the Duyfken project with no specialist knowledge of either building ships or sailing them. His book is the winner out of this. We feel his genuine excitement as he learns about arcane skills and knowledge from the past, and how they influence history, yet we are spared details about how to reeve a threefold purchase or the correct angle to hold your tongue when wielding an adze. Some sailing-ship wonks might lament this, but there are plenty of alternative texts for them (us). Cocks’s expertise is in the field of communications and this, ultimately, is what the book is about: messages and messaging, storytelling and getting the story out. The Little Dove (a rough translation of Duyfken) was a messenger. The modern ship was built to send a message. There are historical stories to tell. Message sticks are exchanged. Ship-to-shore messages become part of the story. Stories become linked up and intertwined. Re-constructions and re-enactments turn out to be a form of theatre, of storytelling. Through Darkest Seas, then, becomes a meta story, a story about storytelling.


This is a valuable book on many levels. It is a thorough documentation of part of Australia’s maritime and replica-building history. It is also a salutary tale that would make the perfect gift to anyone who might think that building a replica ship might be a bit of a lark. More importantly, it is a fascinating record of one organisation’s negotiation of the complexities of becoming party to many contemporary cultural discourses around questions of colonialism and historical representation. It also stands up well as memoir, with some surprising and moving passages about the author’s responses to various challenges he encounters along his personal journey with Duyfken.

With Through Darkest Seas, Cocks has created a fitting and valuable extension to what the re-constructed Duyfken has already achieved. He has presented a well-balanced story of an iconic cultural artifact in all its complexity with honesty and thoroughness, succumbing neither to squeamishness in the face of dark themes, nor hubris amid subjects arousing high passions. Above all, he has written a cracking good read.

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