Sunk into oblivion for 400 years

Hendrik Cornelisz. Vroom

Een aantal Oostindiëvaarders voor de kust, ca. 1600 - ca. 1630

Oil on canvas 104x199 - Rijksmuseum Amsterdam


Citizen of Liege • V.O.C. Opperkoopman • First European to touch Australian ground

This year, on October 25th, we will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the proven landing of Europeans on Australian ground. The so-called Hartog plate which provides evidence for this landing is preserved at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. It reads:


Dirk Hatichs, best known as Dirk Hartog, is widely celebrated in all textbooks and websites as the  “discoverer” of Australia and, for this reason, the Westernmost island of Australia is still today called Dirk Hartog Island. Surprisingly enough, no trace can be found of the first person mentioned on the plate, namely Gillis Miebais. At the occasion of the 400th anniversary isn’t it (high) time to restore a historical truth and pay tribute to this man?

So let’s start this fascinating historical investigation having as unique entry key the reference to Luick (the modern city of Liege) currently part of Belgium but in those times capital city of a neutral principality in the heart of Europe.

Eric Pirard

Liège, October 24th 2016

Contact me :  eric.pirard_at_gmail.com

Map of the city of Liege by Merian the Elder in Topographia Westphalia (1647)

1) Landscape view of the city of Liege showing the Meuse river with the two bridges Pont d'Avroy (forefront) and Pont des Arches (centre).

2) Closer view of St Lambert’s cathedral dominating the Place du Marché (Market place - 69). Notre-Dame-aux-Fonts is the small chapel (9) located to the South of the cathedral. The arrow indicates Gilles Miebais’s native house at the entrance of Feronstrée, with its backyard facing the butcher’s hall (58).

Born in a privileged world

Gilles Mibaise was born in 1571 in a house known as « A raskignoux » (the nightingale) at the very entrance of Feronstree, a main street of the medieval Liege connected to the central market place. His father was a wine merchant and an active member of the guild of the « vignerons et sclaideurs » of the city of Liege. Gilles was baptised at Notre-Dame-aux-Fonts, the small church next to the majestuous cathedral of St Lambert which in those times was among the tallest buildings in the world. Notre-Dame-aux-Fonts is only known through a few drawings and city plans as it has been thrown down during the revolutionnary times (1795) as well as the cathedral itself! But luckily, the baptismal fonts who were considered as one of the marvels of the city were saved from destruction and are still to be seen today in the collegial church of St Barthélémy.

Notre-Dame-aux-Fonts and the baptismal fonts

3) Exceptional drawing attributed to Wenceslas Hollar (ca. 1649) representing St Lambert's cathedral and the small chapel of Notre-Dame-aux-Fonts where Gilles Mibaise was baptised in 1571.

4) Baptismal fonts from the beginning of the XIIth century considered as a unique masterpiece of the time. They are currently to be seen in St Barthelemy’s church where they were transferred after the destruction of Notre-Dame-aux-Fonts. Most liegeois of the XVIth century and in particular the Mibaise children were baptised on these fonts.

Papist and Orangist Merchants

Gilles was born only three years after the Battle of Heilerglee which marked the beginning of the Eighty Years War opposing the Low Countries (currently Netherlands and Flanders) to Spain. Liege, as the capital city of a prince-bishopdom was theoretically not involved, but being geographically so close, it was hard for the city during those troubled times to keep its neutrality. Some families clearly choose to be “papists”, supporting the catholics and trading with Spain, while others were “orangists”, feeling closer to the ideas of the protestant reform and trading with the Dutch merchants. Several liegeois merchants took advantage of this particular situation to build real fortunes out of control of the guilds. This is especially the case for those who started new business activities in the sulfur, alunite and gunpowder sectors. The most famous merchant of this time is Jan de Corte alias Curtius whose splendid house, built between 1597 and 1603, still appears as one of the most magnificent buildings of the city of Liege. Curtius was the official provider of gunpowder and cannon balls to the Spanish crown for decades. When his business suffered a decline because of the twelve year pause in the war opposing Spain to the Low Countries (1609-1621) he moved to Spain (Lierganes) in 1613 to develop steelmaking but his business proved to be much less successful and he died far away from his home country.

Butcher's hall and Curtius house

5) The butcher’s hall of Liège (built 1545) and used today as the Office of Tourism.

6) Curtius house (1602) now hosts the museum of arts and history of the city of Liège. Its splendor demonstrates the wealth of the city’s merchants at the turn of the XVIth century.

An influencial family

The Mibaise family was very well introduced in the influential bourgeoisie of the city represented by the “32 métiers”. This is quite obvious when considering the family names of Gilles’s brothers and sisters in law: Chockier, Herlet, Liverlo, etc… All these families played a real political role under the liberal rule of the prince-bishop Ernest de Bavière (1554-1612) and were going to play an even more important role in the history of the city during the second half of the XVIIth century.

Gilles’s parents both died when he was barely five years old. On November 24th 1576, their testament asks the elder brothers of the Mibaise family, Pierre and Jean, to take care of their youngest brothers and sisters. We don’t know exactly whether Gilles was under the responsibility of Jean or Pierre, but we know for sure that the proven last indication of Gilles’s presence in the city of Liège is March 18th 1607 when he was named as the godfather of (Jean Mibaise) the grand-son of his brother Jean and son of his cousin Nicolas married to Gertrude Liverlo. The fact that both Jean Mibaise and his son Nicolas will become commissars of the city of Liege (in 1593 for Jean and in 1623 for Nicolas) indicates again that the family played in influential role in the city at the beginning of the XVIIth century.

However, to understand how Gilles was to be recruited by the V.O.C. as opperkoopman on board of the Eendracht on 15 October 1615, we need to take a look at the other brothers and sisters of Gilles and especially at family alliances pointing outside the Liège region.

The leppard house and Mibaise coat of arms

7) The leppard house dated 1475 is known today as the most ancient house of Liège. It has been built just after the complete (except churches and prince-bishop palace) destruction of Liège by Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy in 1472.

8) Coat of arms of the Mibaise family : "Parti en I d'argent à l'arbre de sinople terrassé du même, en II d'or à trois pics de mineurs d'argent emmanchés de sable, passés en sautoir, un posé en bandes, et deux posés en barre, les pointes tournées vers les bords de l'ecu" (Van den Berg et Bouhon, Armorial Liegeois, t. II, 1882, p.67).

Je ne vis jamais gens de meilleur coeur...

Jehenne Mibaise, Gilles’s elder daughter was born before 1559, and married to a man named Gobbel Lensen (clearly a Dutch name). We know for sure that the Lensen family lived in the maison du Léopard almost in front of the Mibaise family house! On December 10th 1605, this same house of the Leopard is transferred to the daughters of the couple: Syliken and Catherine who will live there with their husbands Claude Lamet and Mathy (le jeune) Liverlo. Interestingly the oldest remaining house of Liège, identified as such my dendrochronology in 2008… is exactly the maison du Léopard (leppard house). This house is unknown to non-specialist as it is hidden today in the rear court of a shoe shop!

Mathy (le jeune) Liverlo, the husband of Gilles’s niece (Catherine Lensen) is a “drapier” (taylor) and regularly appears as a loaner to the city of Liege. The wealthiness of the Liverlo’s is also clearly illustrated by the testimonial of Philippe de Hurges who was invited at Wathieu Liverlo’s house on the day before leaving for Maastricht. He writes in his book (1615) : “Je ne vis jamais gens de meilleur cœur à traiter leurs amis, pour peu qu’ils les cognoissent. Celui-cy nous receut et magnifiquement, avec autant de caresses que l’on se pourroit imaginer, aiant invité ses frères et ses parents pour nous monstrer tant plus de bon accueil : et nous faire boire du vin de Beaune le plus excellent et le moins nuisant que je beux en ma vie … ».

Another figure who might have had a major influence on Gilles’s decision to join the V.O.C. in 1615 is his brother Antoine born seven years before him (1564). Antoine married Anne de Berlo, but we have rather limited information about his activities in Liège before 1619. Although, we still have to prove that it is the same person, it is most probable that Gilles brother is the Antoine Mibaise known to have been designated as the (secret) agent of the General States of the Republic of the United Low Countries in Dunkirk in 1626. An extensive series of messages sent during the years 1626 to 1631 is well preserved and the name of Antoine Mibaise (Antoon Mibassen) appears very regularly in those documents. Interestingly Antoine’s name is already mentioned in a letter by Maurits van Nassau (son of Willem van Oranje) dated february 10th 1619. This letter is a response to another letter received from his sister Charlotte-Brabantine through Antoine. It is well known that Charlotte-Brabantine, widow of Claude de la Tremoille, was in that period very influential in protecting protestant communities established in the region of Laval in France. Undoubtedly Antoine was already playing an important role as close counselor of Maurits and his sister.

The name of Antoine appears in another document referring to February 1619 wherein it is explicit that Antoine calls for protection by the Dutch General States after having been suspected by the Liège city council to be member of a protestant conspiracy against the city. Antoine had the chance to escape but others were less lucky and at least one of the members of this supposed conspiracy was hanged! A spirit of semi-tolerance regarding religious practices seemed to prevail in Liège during those times, but it is clear that the situation was explosive as there was also a growing tension between the new prince-bishop (Ferdinand de Bavière) and the citizens (cf. Chiroux and Grignoux). Following several sources two or three were killed when others were definitely banned from the city (among them most probably Antoine): “L’an ensuyvant 1619, on at esté en grand, trouble en la Cité, à raison des Hérésie, par quel at esté trouvé et discouvert grand nombre d’Héréticque avoir fait plusieurs assemblée, tenu la presche, tant la cène. Dont en at esté exécuté deux à trois, et plusieurs banî à perpétuité du Pays, [ Chroniques de Liège. ]”

Last but not least, Hubert born six years before Gilles was probably his dearest brother and confident. Hubert married Anne der Haen. He was living on the market place in a house known as “del Gayoulle” when he deceased unexpectedly at the age of 33, leaving behind a young widow, three small children and a young brother who was only 25 years old. The youngest of all children was named Jean and baptised at Notre-Dame-aux-Fonts on August 5th 1595. His godfather was his grand father Jean der Haen and his godmother was his aunt Sylliken Lensen, daughter of Jehenne Mibaise. Most probably this Jean Mibaise accompanied his uncle Gilles on the adventure to the Indies when he was 20 and he is the one later mentioned in the V.O.C. archives as director of the factory at Ayutthaya in 1622 and as koopman on the Weesp in 1623.

Although we do not have precise information about the reasons that pushed Gilles to leave Liège, it is most probable that he left in 1613 when the restauration of the so-called “Regiment de Heinsberg” by the new prince-bishop Ferdinand de Bavière severely impacted the liberties and political role of the merchants and bourgeois of the city.

V.O.C. ships by Hendrik Cornelisz. Vroom 1600-1630

9) A number of East Indiamen off the Coast (The Mauritius and other East Indiamen Sailing out of the Marsdiep).

Adventures down under.

Gilles Mibaise, now 45 years old, is contracted as opperkoopman on the Eendracht on October 15th 1615. He has no experience of the sea and his schipper Dirk Hartog is still young (36) and has never sailed to the Indies. The Eendracht leaves Texel on January 23, 1616 together with the Bantam and the Trouw they follow the WestFriesland who just left one day earlier and the Gouden Leeuw who left from Rotterdam. On the day of departure the winter conditions are tough and 21 persons and 8 soldiers will ask to disembark at the very last minute because their toes are freezing. Among them, the barber of the Eendracht a man of major importance on board as he was also the « heelmeester » (health master) whereas the under-barber could care for daily hygiene but had no particular education in the science of medicine. In his first letter written upon departure to the shareholders of the V.O.C. company, Gilles Mibaise hopes to be able to quickly recruit a new barber from another boat. A few days later, on February 2nd 1616 Mibaise writes again, praying God for a prosperous journey to the Indies (« biddende Godt Almaghtigh een voorspoedige ende prospere reys te willen verlenen ») and asking to be forgiven for not having sent the

« monsterrol » or list of all passengers and soldiers on board.

On February 9th 1616, the Eendracht arrives in Madere en Mibaise writes: « wij zijn Godt loff in onze vloote ende in ons schip in goeden doene ende sints ons vertreck allen door goeden windt gehad uyt genomen de twee a drie dagen na ons vertreck van Tessel de Heere Almachtich will ons de reste van onse voyagie aldus laeten overbrengen ». The message, brought back by Jans Pietersen from Hoorn on his way back to the Netherlands, basically says that everything is running smoothly and that they benefited from good winds… At the time of writing, everyone on board was considered in healthy conditions, except one suffering from illness and two already deceased underway!

A new caporal named Marten Martenssen from Statin had been recruited and paid 13 gulden per month.

On February 21st 1616, the boat decides to anker in Maio. Sanitary conditions are really worrying on board of the Gouden Leeuw, where more than 40 are considered sick. On board of the Bantam people even start suffering from scurvy, reason why it is decided to halt in Cape Verde and find fresh water and fruits.

When the fleet of five vessels will arrive in Cape Lopez (today Port-Gentil, Gabon) on March 27th, 64 persons will have died on board of the Gouden Leeuw. Only six have died on the Eendracht, but a dozen are considered to be sick. Because they could not make sufficient supply of fresh water in Maio the fleet decides to head for Annabon where fruits will be found in great abundance. Unfortunately this excursion will cause more than two and a halve month delay due to the absence of wind and to strong crosscurrents. The Gouden Leeuw and the WestFriesland will loose contact with the rest of the fleet. Whereas on the three other vessels it is decided on June 10th that favorable currents are prevailing and that they should sail towards Cape of Good Hope.

The third letter, also signed by Hartog, gives some details about the food on board. By chance, the Eendracht met with Portuguese vessels from which they received a few wine barrels, oil and grapes in exchange for passed Dutch cheese! The bread from their own provisions was still very good although tasting after varnish (harpuis) whereas both the French and Spanish wines were excellent. Even meat and bacon were reasonably well preserved…at least much better than stockfish who had to be thrown over board. Beans and peas were poorly preserved but still edible, whereas sugar and sweets were really lacking and kept for the sick.

The Eendracht will finally arrive alone at Cape of Good Hope on August 5th 1616. The Cape at that time is just a landing site with no one to welcome the sailors (it will only be permanently inhabited by Dutch settlers from 1652 onwards). After a few expeditions with indigenes to catch a cattle of about 150 heads, the boat will leave the Cape on August 27th 1616. They will take with them copies of lettres found under a big stone close to the river. One was from the yacht t‘Hart sailing towards Bantam, the other from the Mauritius sailing back to the Netherlands. The lettre left behind by the Eendracht is known from the logbook of the Swarten Beer (Black Bear) on which Adriaen Jansen from Edam was schipper and Franco van der Meer opperkoopman.

For the first time in 1616, the V.O.C. boats have received the order to follow a new route to the Indies. This route, called the Brouwer route, invites them to stay as long as possible under the same latitude before heading to Indonesia. Notably faster, this route will also prove to be much more hasardous as testified by the many shipwrecks recorded on the West Australian coast during the following decades. The seamen on board of the Eendracht will be lucky, avoiding the abundant coral reefs and landing at a point known today as "Cape Inscription"  on Dirk Hartog island.

… to be followed!