The tents on Batavia’s Graveyard

When you’re writing about a particular time in history, it’s important to get the details right; what people wore, how they thought, what they ate. The life of the Dutch in the seventeenth century is well documented through the wonderful artists of the ‘Golden Age’ – painters like Rembrandt, van Dijk, Brueghel, van de Velde and the like. But one thing they could not cover was what was life like on those desolate islands off the coast of Western Australia after the Batavia was wrecked in 1629.

Pelsaert’s journal is light on detail. He was documenting a trial, not living conditions. But he mentions tents and it’s obvious the survivors would have constructed them. It was winter in the Southern Hemisphere and the wind blows cold and constantly.  In this respect, the journal becomes a little bit hard to follow. Pelsart often mentions men going to an individual’s tent and it is easy to fall into the notion that the tiny island was littered with small tents, one per family. But that’s probably wrong.

The survivors had to rely on the wrecked Batavia for building materials and for fuel because the islands are treeless. So they would have collected flotsam or eventually actually went out to the wreck to bring back timber and sails. We know these ingenious people fashioned a number of small boats as well as rafts. But the tents would most likely have fitted in with how they perceived life. Remember, they came from crowded towns and an even more crowded ship. Even the stern where Pelsaert and the senior people lived, was terribly crowded by our standards. It’s more than likely that their tents would have been simple affairs – pillars and a beam with a sail draped over it. And there wouldn’t have been many. One or two for the senior people and a couple more for the ordinary folk.

The picture at left says it all, really. It’s an illustration from the first book about the Batavia, entitled ‘an unlucky voyage’, from 1647. By then, survivors would have been back home, telling their stories and while I imagine some were embroidered, this illustration depicts the island itself (tiny and flat) accurately and no doubt that’s how the tents looked, too. Notice one large tent has a portico, while the other three are quite simple – a way of differentiating the rank of the occupants. So the survivors did what people far from home always do – emulate what they know as best they can.