‘Truth’ in historical fiction

To Die a Dry Death’ is certainly not the first and will not be the last, novel written about the loss of the Batavia in 1629. I recently had an email conversation with somebody who knows the history well and it got me thinking about the idea of ‘truth’ in history.

Conventional history states that the Batavia’s captain, Adriaen Jacobsz, plotted with Jeronimus Cornelisz as far back as when the ship called in at Table Bay to kill Commandeur Pelsaert, steal the vessel and make a fortune from piracy. Pelsaert’s journal includes his summary of the events that took place on the Abrolhos Islands, where Cornelisz and his thugs murdered around one hundred men, women and children. The executive summary hinges around the planned ‘mutiny’ by the skipper and despite his undeniable seamanship in getting the overloaded longboat to the city of Batavia without loss, Jacobsz is remembered as the architect of disaster and some go so far as to suggest that Cornelisz’s behaviour stemmed from Jacobsz.

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 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.

So my book is that little bit different. I applied a ‘what if’ question. What if the captain was innocent of a planned mutiny? Can the events recorded in the journal be interpreted in this way without fiddling with the facts? I felt it could and I guess my efforts were successful. One reviewer who knows the history described the book as a dramatisation, rather than fiction, which is exactly what I tried to achieve.

That’s the wonderful thing about history. We can (and should) reconsider events and what they meant. But of course, we’ll never know for sure.