The wreck of the ‘Batavia’ – a different point of view

Many books have been written about the infamous events surrounding the wreck of the Dutch merchantman Batavia in 1629. My novel, To Die a Dry Death, is just another one. But I believe I’ve given a different slant on events.

Having grown up in Western Australia, I heard about the Batavia and the other Dutch wrecks of the 17th and 18th centuries at primary school. That was a long time ago and I think I’ve read most of the non-fiction about all those wrecks. I’ve been to the maritime museum in Fremantle and seen the artefacts recovered from the site, including the Batavia’s actually keel, rebuilt in the basement. I’ve been on the Batavia replica built in Holland, I’ve stood on the forbidding cliffs the longboat sailed along, and I have visted the Abrolhos Islands, the site of the wreck and the murders. So I’ve been immersed in the story for a long time.

Any book about the Batavia is based on one main account of the events – Pelsaert’s journal. Francisco Pelsaert was an employee of the Dutch East India Company, the Upper Merchant in charge of the fleet of which the Batavia was the flagship. So while Adriaen Jacobsz, the ship’s captain, was in command of the ship, he was beholden to Pelsaert. (Who was not a sailor.) After the Batavia was wrecked, Pelsaert started a journal to record events. On his return to the Abrolhos islands to rescue the remaining survivors, he documented the trial of Cornelisz and his band of thugs.

Apart from the journal, the only other known contemporary document is a letter written by Predikant Bastiaensz to his family. It is about the only source for what happened in the last few days when Cornelisz’s thugs made their final attacks on the soldiers.

Henrietta Drake-Brockman’s ‘Voyage to Disaster‘ (UWA Press, 2006) contains a translation of Pelsaert’s journal, Bastiaensz’s letter and other documents she was able to procure from Holland and Jakarta, such as Coen’s orders to Pelsaert. As an aside, Drake-Brockman, an amateur historian, actually deduced the whereabouts of the wreck from reading the descriptions of locations in the journal and the Predikant’s letter. Archaeologists had been looking on the wrong reef. The ship was finally found in 1963, when her book was first published.

Most historians support the notion that the Batavia’s captain, Adriaen Jacobsz, was in a plot with Cornelisz to hijack the Batavia, kill Pelsaert and go pirating. Drake-Brockman supported that belief, so did Mike Dash in his 2002 book ‘Batavia’s Graveyard‘.

I have always found that argument difficult to believe, for the following reasons:

  • Pelsaert and Jacobsz hated each other. Pelsaert would have readily believed the captain guilty of anything.
  • Evidence was extracted using torture and it’s easy enough to answer loaded questions with the expected answer.
  • If Jacobsz intended (with Cornelisz) to kill Pelsaert they had plenty of opportunity on the voyage (accidental fall overboard) or when Pelsaert was ill. Cornelisz was an apothecary, after all. Or even in the longboat. You could even ask why Jacobsz took him in the longboat at all.
  • Cornelisz was a liar and completely without conscience. He blamed everybody else and lied through his teeth to get out of everything. It was he who testified to the plot between him and Jacobsz at Table Bay, he said Zwaantie was a tart, he said Jacobsz offered Lucretia gold to sleep with him. He’d say anything to avoid torture, too.
  • The main players apart from Cornelisz were already dead before the journal was written and couldn’t defend themselves.
  • Pelsaert executed most of the more important surviving members of Cornelisz’s gang before returning to Batavia, so they couldn’t be interviewed, either.
  • We know what happened to all the members of Cornelisz’s gang who were returned to Batavia, so it seems odd to me, given their idea of justice, that Jacobsz was not put to death immediately and that his fate is unknown.

To a point, the journal itself is a work of fiction. I do not doubt that Pelsaert did his best to record the known facts and the interviews with the murderers. But it certainly wasn’t a transcript of a trial in the modern sense. And I have no doubt that Pelsaert had an eye on the person who would read the account – the formidable Governor of the Indies, Jan Pieterszoon Coen.

My picture of Pelsaert soon became one of a man trying to salvage his own reputation. He and Jacobsz had a history, they despised each other. Reading the early part of the journal, where Pelsaert describes the initial wreck, I raised an eyebrow as Pelsaert used ‘I’, implying he gave orders that would have been given by the captain. The same thing happened during the longboat’s journey as Pelsaert claimed credit for things I felt were beyond his knowledge. Jacobsz deserved the credit and received none. It was also important to remember the man for whom Pelsaert was writing this journal. Governor Jan Pieterszoon Coen was a harsh and puritanical man who was unimpressed (to say the least) at the loss of a ship and its cargo. One could expect Pelsaert to be at pains to present his own actions in the best possible light.

In contrast, my picture of the captain was of a tough, strong, capable man. A hard drinker, a womaniser sure enough. But a true leader, somebody these hardened seamen would follow. Zwaantie, the young woman who won Jacobsz’s affection, is depicted in the journal as a tart. But again, some of the evidence for that conjecture comes from Cornelisz. I think the mere fact that Jacobsz took Zwaantie with him in the longboat indicates a little more than a casual fling.

The journal reveals Cornelisz as a psychopath, silver-tongued, charismatic, and an accomplished liar who would say anything to save himself. The main evidence for the existence of the piracy plot implicating Jacobsz comes from Cornelisz. There is corroborating evidence given by some of the other henchmen, but men said things like “I didn’t know about a plot until after the wreck” or evidence was extracted through torture. I began to wonder if I could build a case that Cornelisz deliberately wove a tale of a plot to seduce his followers. He needed sailors to pull off his plan to capture a rescue ship and he was a merchant. What better way to add validity to his plan than to implicate the popular captain? Pelsaert, of course, jumped at the notion of a plot.

The other two characters, Lucretia and Wiebbe Hayes, are merely bit players in the journal. Dash and Drake-Brockman gave me the wherewithal to paint Lucretia as a real woman, a grieving mother going off to join her husband in a far-off land. Combine that with the perilous situation of a high-born lady left with a mob of louts and it’s easy enough to imagine how difficult it would be for her. I took the opportunity to use her as the eyes of the victims, if you like, interpreting events on Batavia’s Graveyard from her point of view.

Of course I made some things up. It’s a novel, after all. I guess every historian has a duty to examine the facts and interpret them and in a way, that’s what I’ve tried to do in this book. One reader (who knew the history) describes the novel as dramatization rather than fiction. I’ll take that, with a bow.

PS. After the book moved from the original publisher it was from ‘Die a Dry Death’ to ‘To Die a Dry Death‘. The story is the same but the the latest version has added bonus material.

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