Musket ‘bolo’ balls buried in sand for 366 years discovered on WA beach

Beach prospectors have uncovered rare, 366-year-old pieces of ammunition believed to have been carried ashore by the missing survivors of a 1656 shipwreck. 

The “bolo” musket balls, found on a West Australian beach, provide a clue to historians about where 68 people may have made camp before they mysteriously vanished.

On April 28, 1656, the Dutch East India ship Vergulde Draeck, known as the Gilt Dragon, struck a reef and sunk 70 kilometres north of where Perth is today. 

She was laden with cargo and eight chests of silver coins, and was bound for Batavia, the then-capital of the Dutch East Indies which is present-day Jakarta, Indonesia.

An old map showing the location of the Gilt Dragon shipwreck.
Archival footage from an ABC story showcasing the location of the Gilt Dragon shipwreck.(ABC Archive)

While the shipwreck and most of her treasure have since been discovered, mystery surrounds the fate of some of the survivors. 

Seven of the 75 people who made it to shore sailed in a small boat to get help.

When rescuers arrived, the 68 people they had left on the beach had disappeared, seemingly without a trace. 

Perhaps, until now. 

A photo of the ocean from in the water at sunset
The disappearance of 68 survivors from the Gilt Dragon remains one of the most enduring maritime mysteries.(ABC News: Chris Lewis)

A significant clue 

Leon Pule and Hanneley Tredoux were camping and prospecting along the coast earlier this year when their detector started beeping.

“I don’t think we realised what we were getting as we were digging them up. I think we were just lucky hitting that spot,” Ms Tredoux said.

A photo of Leon Pule and Hanneley Tredoux.
Leon Pule and Hanneley Tredoux were camping when thery came across the musket balls.(ABC News: Chris Lewis)

The wired musket “bolo” balls were used in the 16th century to rip through ship sails, forcing the ship to stop and inflicting a lot of damage on anybody in the way.

Archaeologist, author and historian Bob Sheppard said the beachcombing discovery of the musket balls was “hugely significant” in the Gilt Dragon story, and provided another clue in the puzzle of what happened to the survivors. 

“There’s been other finds out in the ocean, but this is the most significant coastal find since the Edwards coins find in 1931,” he said. 

According to Dutch records, the survivors were camped in one place for about a week while the small boat sailed off to get help.

“From that point on we don’t know what happened to them,” Mr Sheppard said. 

“Somewhere along here is the main camp, and I think these musket balls are a clue to that location.

“[It was an] amazing bit of history just sitting there.”

A photo of archaeologist, author and historian Bob Sheppard
Archaeologist, author and historian Bob Sheppard has been researching the stories of the Gilt Dragon for over a decade.(ABC News: Chris Lewis)

Mr Sheppard said the balls were typically loaded into a small deck gun with a powder charge and then fired.

“The two balls would separate on the spring and they’d spin, and they would just chop you to pieces. They were absolutely horrible, lethal things,” he said. 

“It would be the sort of thing you’d carry on a small boat if you were doing a shore patrol.”

“Here we are decades later, and that just goes to show what can be hidden along this section of the coast … it’s just amazing.”

A close up of a hand holding the musket balls
Leon Pule and Hanneley Tredoux say the bolo musket balls were all in the same spot in the sand when they discovered them.(Chris Lewis)

Shifting sands keep secrets

Returning to the spot where the musket balls were found, Mr Pule and Ms Tredoux said the shoreline looked completely different from when they made the discovery.

A picture of the rocky coastline near Seabird in WA.
The coastline near Seabird is constantly changing with the seasons, allowing rocks to be uncovered with the moving sands.(ABC News: Chris Lewis)

“We wouldn’t have detected here if it looked like it does today,” Ms Tredoux said.

“There was a lot more sand here when we were detecting. 

“I really think there might be some more stuff here now that all the sand is gone.”

Mr Sheppard has written a book titled Chasing the Dragon’s Tale: The Vergulde Draeck Story, and has been regularly visiting the coast. He said it was constantly changing. 

“In the winter you get rocks that are bare and exposed and then in the summer they are covered up by two or three metres of sand,” he said.

“So, things are hidden, and then they’re not hidden.”

Leon Pule detecting near the spot he found the musket balls
Leon Pule detecting near the spot he found the musket balls.(ABC News: Chris Lewis)

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