The Dutch in Australia, 1606–2006

Nonja Peters is Director of the Migration, Ethnicity, Refugees and Citizenship Research Unit, Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia. Dr Peters has published widely on issues relating to migration.

Dutch–Australian connections

In 2006 Australia celebrated 400 years of Dutch contact. The mariners, merchants and passengers on ships belonging to the Dutch East Indies Company (Verenigde Oost Indische Compagnie) were the first recorded Europeans to set foot on Australian soil.

Their arrival in Australia happened mainly by chance at a time when the instruments used to determine longitude were still in their infancy. It was not uncommon for ships that left Cape Town in South Africa for the East Indies to travel too far east before turning north-east to Batavia (present-day Jakarta), the capital of the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia). Many of these ships came to grief on the Western Australian coast. Some survivors were rescued but many were not. Aboriginal oral history has it that the fortunate ones cohabited with Aborigines. Dutch East Indies Company ships stopped visiting Western Australian shores in 1796 after the collapse of the company.

Over a century later, only 600 Dutch-born people were living in Australia. It was not until 1942–45 that Dutch numbers increased significantly when Dutch military personnel arrived in Australia to help with the defence and evacuation of Dutch residents of the Netherlands East Indies.

On 19 January 1942, the Netherlands East Indies and Australian governments reached an agreement that all financial responsibilities for Dutch women and children evacuated to Australia would fall on the Netherlands East Indies Administration. After this, evacuations started in earnest.

Many evacuees fled to Broome, on the north coast of Western Australia, because it was one of the closest points to Java on the Australian mainland and could take both land-based aircraft and flying boats. During this period as many as 57 aircraft arrived in Broome on any one day and 7000 to 8000 passengers passed through the base in a fortnight.

Broome was not, however, a safe haven. On 3 March 1942, nine Japanese Zero fighter planes attacked a squadron of 15 flying boats waiting to refuel in Roebuck Bay. Fourteen of these boats were crammed with Dutch women and children who had fled Java the night before and were en route to other destinations. Many of these evacuees were injured or killed in the attack. Those who died are buried in Karrakatta Cemetery in Perth, Western Australia.

During the war the Netherlands East Indies Government became the only foreign government-in-exile on Australian soil. Towards the end of the war, however, the relationship between the Australian and Netherlands East Indies governments shifted from amicable to antagonistic when Australian waterside workers’ unions and the Communist Party of Australia supported the Indonesian Nationalist Movement by boycotting Dutch shipping in 1944–45.

In the years following World War II, the Australian Government began to actively recruit European-born migrants to reverse population stagnation, overcome crucial labour shortages and maintain the war-boosted economy. Between 1951 and 1970, about 160,000 Dutch nationals migrated to Australia. Many ships, including the Groote Beer, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, Nelly, Sibajak, Skaubryn and Waterman, and some KLM Airlines flights, were specially chartered to carry migrants from the Netherlands.

Prospective migrants were enticed by passage assistance and images of wealth unheard of in the postwar Netherlands – booming industry, boundless opportunity, full employment, good working conditions, a home of one’s own, whitegoods and a motor vehicle. All that was required of them was that they meet health, security and age criteria, and remain in the employment for which they were selected for a period of two years, or agree to repay their fare.

Unlike arrangements made with other governments, where migrants paid a flat rate of £10 each, the amount a Dutch migrant paid depended on their earning capacity at the time. Many Dutch migrants had to pay a significant amount of money and consequently arrived at their destination virtually destitute, with only landing money and a small packing crate of household possessions. Few had the collateral to secure bank loans to help establish themselves. Their plight was exacerbated by Australia’s building material and labour shortage, which forced larger families to start their new life at one of the Department of Immigration accommodation centres.

Many Dutch women recall feeling especially overwhelmed by the transition from a well-appointed cabin aboard the Johan van Oldenbarnevelt or the Himalaya to a bare cubicle in one of the accommodation centres scattered around the country. From 1945, Commonwealth-run hostels and camps were used to house newly arrived migrants. Many Dutch migrants spent time in camps at Bathurst, Scheyville and Nelson Bay.

Housing was particularly problematic for larger families. These families had to make tents or old tram carriages gezellig, or homely, until they could afford a deposit on a second-hand house or a block of land. After work or school and on weekends, the whole family was expected to clean old bricks or make new bricks from their meagre cement allocation. When the family had enough bricks to build a garage or the back verandah of their future home, they then had to find innovative ways to cram many bodies into the smallest of spaces.

Aanpassen, or ‘fitting in’, was a distinctive aspect of Dutch resettlement. In public, most Dutch people seemed willing to get rid of, or at least cover up, any social characteristics defined as ‘ethnic’ by Australians. Anglo-conformity became the hallmark of Dutch identity in Australia. These assimilation patterns made the Dutch somewhat ‘invisible’ and saw them labelled ‘model migrants’.

Today there are close to 95,000 residents in Australia who were born in the Netherlands and a further 240,000 Australians who claim Dutch ancestry. Over the last 50 years, the Dutch have had a huge impact on the building and construction industry in Australia, and have contributed significantly to the scientific, artistic and economic development of the country they now call home.

How to find records about Dutch settlement and participation in Australia

The collection of the National Archives of Australia contains many records about Dutch settlement and participation in Australia and Australia's relationship with the Netherlands during the twentieth century. Records in the National Archives collection are available for public access once they are 30 years old.

If members of your family migrated to Australia during the twentieth century, the National Archives of Australia will probably hold their migration records, as well as records documenting their other activities, including:

  • service for Australia in World War I or World War II
  • naturalisation as Australian citizens
  • working for the Australian government – perhaps in a post office or as a Customs officer – or selling land to it
  • applying to patent their inventions, registering their trademarks or copyrighting their creative work

To find these records, you should first do a keyword search on RecordSearch, the National Archives’ online records database.

Use variations of the surname of the family you wish to find records on. Remember that names on official records may not necessarily be spelled as you expect, so try search techniques where you substitute ‘c‘ for ‘k‘, ‘i‘ for ‘y‘ and ‘s’ for ‘z’. Changes to first names were very common with Dutch migrants – eg Marijke to Mary, Sjannie to Joan, Gerardus to Jerry and Jan to John.

You might like to try a keyword search using the names of towns in the Netherlands or the names of any businesses or organisations with which your relative was involved.

The National Archives also produces fact sheets and research guides on topics such as immigration records, which can be a great help in pointing you in the right direction. You might like to start with:

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2016