Why didn’t he use the muskets?

Jeronimus Cornelisz, arch-villain of the Batavia tragedy, wasn’t a soldier or a sailor but when he divided the survivors of the shipwreck and sent them of to the several islands of the Houtman Abrolhos in the vicinity of Batavia’s Graveyard, where he was based, he made sure they left their weapons behind. His intention with the soldiers he sent to the High Island was that they would die of hunger and thirst. They were lucky; they found the only source of fresh water in the group and an extra food source in the native wallabies. Eventually, Cornelisz realised he’d have to deal with them (aka kill them) and take over the water and food they had found.

Cornelisz’s group had swords, pikes and muskets. Wiebbe Hayes’s group on the High Island had none of these things. To be sure, they were clever, resourceful men who were able to use flotsam from the wreck to build makeshift weapons. Six inch nails can be formidable, after all. But the modern-day reader is going to be thinking – how do you beat muskets?

The 17th century musket is a long way from a modern rifle. The illustration at left shows the process of loading and firing. The cartridges around the musketeer’s neck contain powder. He also carried musket balls (bullets) and what was known as a match. Not red-heads in little cardboard boxes; a coal or a glowing ember which had to be applied to the powder. Muskets were not accurate over any distance greater than one hundred yards or so and were supposed to be used en masse in a battle, a bit like machine guns might have been in the modern day. Evidence suggests Cornelisz only had a few muskets, two, maybe three, at his disposal.

We first hear of Jeronimus trying to use his superior firepower against Wiebbe Hayes’s group when Coenraat van Huyssen led an attack across the causeway between the two high islands at low tide. Despite several attempts, the muskets didn’t fire. The weapon wasn’t the most reliable, anyway. Add to this the fact that the attackers had to travel several miles in a small boat, keeping their powder dry and their ‘match’ lit, it is little wonder that they had difficulties.

The muskets came into their own at the final battle between Wiebbe’s defenders and the attackers under the command of Wouter Loos. Loos was a soldier and that may have been the difference, because he was still faced with the problems outlined above. He attacked from a different direction, not across the causeway. There is a tiny island about four hundred yards off the coast but that is too great a distance for muskets to be effective and we know that one man was killed and another injured.

In my description of the battle, I had to account for the damage in a realistic manner.  Once again, I turned to Doctor Anthony Saunders, expert on weapons and military history, and discussed the use of muskets in warfare. In order to kill somebody, the muskets would have to be fired much closer to the target. That’s why I wrote the scene as I did, bringing two musketeers up onto a sandbar with a group of pikemen to defend them while they reloaded.

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