Historical articles

This is a list of articles I’ve written about the Batavia shipwreck

The wreck of the ‘Batavia‘ – a different point of view

Many books have been written about the infamous events surrounding the wreck of the Dutch merchantman Batavia in 1629. My novel, To Die a Dry Death, is just another one. But I believe I’ve given a different slant on events.

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

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.

A place like home

Although the vast majority of the action in To Die a Dry Death happens on the Abrolhos Islands, some of it takes place in the city of Batavia itself. Pelsaert had a meeting with Governor Jan Pieterszoon Coen to inform him the ship Batavia had been wrecked, Pelsaert had a second meeting with the new governor, Jaques Specx, when he returned with the survivors, and there were some brief scenes involving Captain Adriaen Jacobsz and the people in the longboat, both within the city and in the fort. To write those scenes with any conviction, I needed to be able to visualise the rooms, the harbour, the town square, and the dungeons in the fort.

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,

Of God and Demons

I have always felt that one of the most important aspects of writing historical fiction is getting the mindset right. People in the seventeenth century had different beliefs, different sensitivities to ours. Things like torture, which we find reprehensible, was an accepted means of extracting the truth. Infant mortality was a fact of life; if a child died, parents routinely used the same name for a child born later. God was real, up on a cloud somewhere up there above the stars, and demons caused much of the mischief in the world.

Debunking myths about the days of sail

Have you ever climbed a high ladder without a safety harness? Try climbing a rope ladder up a high mast, then inch along a spar and haul up the ropes on the sail to bring it in. Then do all of that in a gale, with the ship tossing like a cork, the waves crashing over the bow and almost as high as you, the rain lashing your face, the canvas and the ropes sodden. Yet we’re expected to believe that sailors could do this sort of hard, physical work on lousy food, driven like slaves by uncaring officers? It doesn’t make sense, does it?

‘Justice’ for the gang

In previous posts I spoke about the punishments meted out to the members of Cornelisz’s gang of cuthroats, starting with the execution of the main ringleaders and then the lesser punishments (if that’s what you want to call keel hauling and dropping from the mast) suffered by many of the others on the way back to Batavia.

I’ve also mentioned the horrible death of the remaining senior member of Cornelisz’s gang by breaking on the wheel. But the courts in Batavia were not finished with the miscreants. Reading about the punishments handed out* is a fascinating indictment of the concept of ‘justice’ at that time.

Water torture the Dutch way

In the seventeenth century the use of torture to extract confessions and the like was de rigeur. Everybody did it. The rack, thumb screws, weights on chest, iron maidens – you name it. You’ve all seen these things in the horror movies.

Dropping from the yardarm

Continuing with the concept of suitable punishments while at sea, if you weren’t keelhauled you could be dropped from the yard. Masts and the accompanying yardarms were common on all ships (of course) and they provided a venue for a simple and very damaging treatment.

Well, I’ll be keelhauled

Keelhauling was apparently invented by the Dutch. As I explained in an earlier post, torture was a part of life and if you were out at sea you didn’t have access to the accoutrements available in the better class of dungeon so you made do with what was to hand. An inventive lot, the Dutch.

Death by hanging

Once Pelsaert had finished his trial of the conspirators who had been responsible for the deaths of nearly one hundred people on the Abrolhos islands where they had hoped for rescue, he passed sentence. The ring leader, Jeronimus Cornelisz, along with six of his lieutenants, was hanged at the islands. In comparison with what they would have received had these men been taken to Batavia, their end was lenient. (We’ll get to that in another post.)

 The ultimate punishment – breaking on the wheel

The 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.

Australia’s first white inhabitants

There is little doubt that Commandeur Pelsaert was much more lenient in his treatment of Cornelisz’s band of thugs than his masters in Batavia would have been. As mentioned in previous posts, Cornelisz and his major henchmen could count themselves lucky to just have been hanged. Others who were keelhauled or dropped from the yardarm were not necessarily considered immune from further punishment. But perhaps the luckiest of Cornelisz’s cut-throats were two men who were marooned on the Australian mainland.

Blame it on the longitude

It’s an interesting fact that of the four Dutch sailing ships known to have been wrecked off the coast of Western Australia, two of them – the Batavia and the Zeewijk – struck the reefs of the Abrolhos Islands and there has long been speculation that a third ship, the Aagtekerk , lies in the deep water off North Island. The question is why? Why didn’t the Dutch navigators avoid these islands?

Who was the other woman?

After the Batavia ran aground on Morning Reef before dawn on 4th June 1629, the captain ferried as many people as he could to nearby islands and then decided to head for Batavia to fetch help. When the Batavia’s longboat left the Abrolhos islands where the survivors from the shipwreck had been landed, she carried forty-eight passengers. The complement included Commandeur Pelsart and Adriaen Jacobsz, the Batavia’s captain, along with forty-three other officers and sailors – and two women and a babe in arms. One of the women we know was Zwaantie, Captain Jacobsz’s girlfriend. She was an important minor player in the drama of what took place on the Batavia before the ship was wrecked and her place in history was cemented in Pelsart’s journal. But who was the other woman?

Murder by decapitation

Have you ever wondered about how easy it is to cut off somebody’s head with one blow of a sword? No, I hadn’t either until I wrote ‘To Die a Dry Death’. It’s one of the most famous of the many murders, often quoted, how with just one blow with a sword, one of the murderers struck off the head of a lad about twelve years old simply for amusement. Or did they?

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?

Why are seventeenth century names so difficult?

My historical novel “To Die a Dry Death” was recently reviewed by Kimberly Maloney on her blog Historical Fiction Obsession. While Kimberly rated the novel a five star read and had lots of nice things to say, she said she struggled a little with the unusual names, like Jacobsz and Bastiaenz, so herewith an explanation.

To the victors the spoils? Or maybe not

I’ve written at some length in previous posts about how punishment was meted out to Cornelisz’s band of cut throats. The lucky ones, you might say, met their end at the Abrolhos Islands. The VOC took its vengeance on those unfortunates who made it back to Batavia. It is hard to imagine anyone surviving the aftermath of any but the mildest of punishments such as keelhauling or dropping from the yard in the tropical heat of the Indonesian islands.

But what of the survivors, the innocents?

The mind of a psychopath

Quite a number of psychopaths have made a name for themselves. Hitler, Napoleon, Stalin. Ted Bundy is another, more recent, example. What about Jeronimus Cornelisz, erstwhile under merchant on the merchantship Batavia, who for a few short months in 1629,  strode his tiny island like a colossus, or a God, dealing out death and destruction on a whim. What’s makes a person a psychopath? How do you pick them from the rest of humanity?

Full marks for deviousness and cunning

Jeroniumus Cornelisz has gone down in history as a mass murderer, responsible for the deaths of around one hundred people who had survived the horror of the wreck of the Batavia in 1629. To give him his due, you’d have to give the man full marks for deviousness and cunning. As Under-merchant on the Batavia, he was nominally third in command – after Upper-merchant Pelsaert and Captain Jacobsz. In a society where rank and status were all-important, although he joined the rest of the ship-wrecked folk late in the piece, he quickly took over control of the island by becoming head of the council. It would seem that almost immediately, he decided that there was insufficient supplies to sustain everyone until help came. You might say what happened next was a very early example of ‘survival of the fittest’.

The first murders

In my last post, I described how Jeronimus Cornelisz, arch-villain of the Batavia shipwreck survivors, divided his flock by setting up settlements on different islands. He’d promised all of them to supply them with provisions from the central store, a promise he never intended to keep. Before he could do much more, however, Cornelisz needed support, and he found willing conspirators amongst the young men who had shared the stern section of the Batavia with him. Several were younger sons of noblemen, sent off to make a name for themselves in the Indies.

Now to gradually reduce the number of people on Batavia’s graveyard in more permanent ways, while at the same time cementing his authority.

Murder most foul

The first broad daylight murders occurred on the 9th July, when the people who had settled on Traitor’s Island suddenly launched their rafts and headed off into the channel. Cornelisz flew into a rage and had his men intercept them. Some were brought back to Batavia’s Graveyard, where Cornelisz ordered them put to death – for defying the Council’s authority. Several men and two children were put to the sword. One man was killed with a pike through the throat. The Undermerchant’s thugs then took the three remaining women into the channel and threw them overboard, where they drowned. All this took place in front of the other survivors. Those on the Seal’s Island would also have been witness to events.

The question is why? What happened to cause Cornelisz such consternation, and why did the people on Traitor’s Island launch their rafts?

Kill or be killed

One of the most compelling problems facing an author telling the story of what happened is actually this surfeit of murder. There is a real risk that the novel could degenerate into an endless litany of murder after murder, until the reader’s eyes glazed over. So I tried to select the most ‘important’ murders and highlighted those in the book. When I say ‘important’ I mean that they illustrated the way the situation was deteriorating, or they showed the character or those being forced to kill, or those others who were delighting in the chance. Especially in the early days, before Cornelisz had consolidated his position, murders were carried out quietly, at night. Later, death was a game for the gang. The remaining survivors walked a tightrope, hoping not to displease any of the brutes.

Why approach from the North?

I’m one of those people who believes that when you write about real historical events, it isn’t your place to change facts. If people died, they die. If they survived, they survive. There’s plenty of room for drama and motivation without messing with reality. However… Sometimes the facts as recorded in Pelsaert’s journal are imprecise or… odd. This is one such instance.

The hell below decks

Many of us have some idea of what it’s like when a ship goes down – if only from watching a movie such as Titanic. But what would it have been like for the people on the Batavia? Especially the soldiers below decks.