The ultimate punishment – breaking on the wheel

Picture of breaking on the wheelThe Dutch merchantman Sardam, jammed to the gunwhales with treasure, survivors and prisoners, sailed into Batavia port on 5th December, 1629. The relief of all those people who had survived the wreck of the Batavia on the Abrolhos islands  six months before can only be imagined. But while the heroes of Wiebbe’s island and the handful of victims who had not participated in Cornelisz’s reign of terror might be grateful, those in the hold who had been members of the gang were no doubt more than a little fearful. To be sure, the survivors had a tale to tell and the taverns would have rung with the telling. Pelsaert had dealt with some of the murderers. Cornelisz and his closest lieutenants were hanged back on the Abrolhos islands and others had been keelhauled, dropped from the mast or flogged. Some had begged Pelsaert to sentence them, hoping against hope that his more lenient justice would be the end of the matter.

This would not be the end of the saga for everyone, though. Pelsaert no doubt realised he would have to deliver at least one of the senior miscreants.  Cornelisz’s second in command, an erstwhile lance-corporal named Pietersz, had been kept in chains to await the Governor’s pleasure. Governor Coen who had given Pelsaert his orders to rescue the Batavia‘s survivors and as much of the cargo as he could, had died while the commandeur was away on his mission, but anyone who imagined his successor, Specx, would be more lenient was to be sadly mistaken. Almost all the prisoners who had already been subjected to Pelsaert’s justice were made to face the Governor. Five more were hanged and others punished in lesser ways. Pietersz, as the only surviving member of Cornelisz’s murderous clique to make it to Batavia, received the punishment which would undoubtedly have been meted out to Cornelisz and his senior co-conspirators.

He was broken on the wheel.

Using a heavy mallet, the executioner first pulverised the prisoner’s bones, starting with the fingers and toes and working inwards. The intention was to make all the limbs flexible so that the prisoner could be wrapped around the circumference of a cartwheel. Mike Dash (“Batavia’s Graveyard”, p.238) explains that the executioners took pride in keeping the victim’s skin intact. Lashed in this way, toes around to head, Pietersz would have been left out in the main square in the sultry Indonesian heat to die in front of an audience which would have included the survivors of the atrocities.

Cornelisz’s death might not have been instant but it was a far cry from this torture. And Coenraat van Huyssen and the other conspirators who were killed by Wiebbe Hayes’ men in that abortive attack – well, they were the lucky ones.

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