Is Pelsaert’s journal an accurate account of the Batavia shipwreck?

Picture of Pelsaert's journal. His is the first signature

Pelsaert’s journal. His is the first signature

Many ships have been wrecked over the centuries. Most of their names became nothing more than ciphers in the ocean of history. But the wreck of the Dutch East Indies merchantman Batavia on remote islands off the coast of Australia in 1629 is well known in Australia and Holland. Why? Because over half of the people left on the desolate islands of the Abrolhos group awaiting the return of rescuers, were murdered by a group led by a psychopath. Throw into that the incredible journey of forty-eight people crammed into the Batavia’s longboat, sailing from the wreck site two thousand miles over uncharted waters to the city of Batavia (now Jakarta) to seek help.

How do we know all this? 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. To read a brief overview of what happened, click here.

Most historians support the notion that the Batavia’s captain, Adriaen Jacobsz, was in a plot with Under merchant Jeronimus Cornelisz, who became the leader of the murderers, to hijack the Batavia, kill Pelsaert and go pirating. But it seemed strange to me for many, many reasons, not least because there is no record of Jacobsz having been executed. Although the journal is that most precious of items, a contemporary source, it’s important to consider the bias of the writer. Pelsaert had a vested interest in recording events in a way that would put him in a good light. After all, as the man in charge, he had ultimate responsibility. If he could blame the captain for being involved in a mutiny, much of the blame could be turned away from himself.

As I read the journal, 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 – the formidable Jan Pieterszoon Coen, Governor of the Indies. A harsh and puritanical man, he 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.

Many books have been written about the Batavia, both non-fiction and fiction. There has even been an opera. Most writers agree with the notion of a mutiny involving the captain. As I said, I don’t. So my book, To Die a Dry Death, doesn’t quite sing along with the chorus. I’m absolutely delighted to announce, after a considerable delay, the novel is once again available as an ebook. Please do take a look.