100 Heroes: Bram and Ruel

Two men who were sentenced to death in 1727 for being lovers - their cruel punishment marks the beginning of Australia's European queer history.

100 Heroes: Bram and Ruel
Image: video stills taken from Drew Pettifer's work, A Sorrowful Act: The Wreck Of The Zeewijk.

On 21 May, 1727, the Zeewijk - a ship owned by the Dutch East India Company - became shipwrecked on the reefs of the Houtman Abrolhos archipelago off the coast of Western Australia.

The journal from the ship reveals that after colliding with Half-Moon Reef, the ship’s company abandoned the wreck and established a base on Gun Island. When the rescue party they sent out failed to return with help, they set about building a new boat from the remains of the wrecked vessel.

The journal documents that during this fraught period, two young men (aged 18 and 22) were discovered “committing with one another in god-forsaken way the gruesome sin of Sodom and Gomorrah”. They were having sex.

In one of the first recorded European trials on the continent of Australia - this predates Britain's colonial annexation and invasion - the two men were found guilty and condemned to death.

But they weren't simply executed by blade or bullet. The ship's journal explains how each man was marooned without food or water on a separate island north-east of Gun Island, where they perished.

The cruel and agonising deaths of these two men mark the recorded beginning of a homophobic history of Australia.

Artist Drew Pettifer has drawn on the story of the marooned men - identified as Bram and Ruel - for his work A Sorrowful Act: The Wreck Of The Zeewijk - an installation that uses photographs, video, audio, and installations to interrogate this jarring episode of queer history.

Pettifer's research included visiting the archipelago where the Zeewijk ran aground and Bram and Ruel were left to die. He also went to the Netherlands to walk the streets of Sint-Maartensdijk and Gent - their home-towns.

It's a long way from the Netherlands to the unforgiving coast of Western Australia. It's impossible to imagine what Bram and Ruel endured - surviving a shipwreck only to be cruelly left to die by their shipmates.

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