Category Archives: History

Tiny little flying things

I confess I haven’t had the camera out recently – too busy sweating over a hot keyboard. But I have gone back to look at some of my old files and while some of the photos aren’t sharp enough or large enough for commercial use, they’re not half bad for all that. We all miss seeing the smaller things in our world. I’ve shared a few of those photos with you further down.

TDADD-ebook-webOn the writing front the new story is being beta-read so I hope to have it out there next week. I also received a wonderful email from someone who had just finished reading my historical novel, To Die a Dry Death. Here’s a little of what she had to say.

“Thank you for writing a brilliant book that I have enjoyed very much and just this very second finished. In the past year I have become very very ( obsessed my friends and family might say 🙂 about the Batavia . I work at sea, and whilst on a flight, saw a small piece about it in a history magazine I buy to expand my mind on boring flights… and it has totally gripped me

I have read several books on Batavia so far and enjoyed yours immensely and would just like to thank you very much for all the work you put into it and made the characters ‘come to life’ more so for me than the other books, which all differ in style as I know you appreciate.”

This sort of thing means so much to me. Not everyone is going to like what I write – that’s okay. But it feels wonderful to know I’ve reached someone, that I’ve told the story in a way that worked for them. So, dear reader, thank you so much.

Now on to the micro monsters.

A tiny praying mantiss. That story about cannabalising the males after sex isn't completely true

A tiny praying mantis. That story about cannabalising the males after sex isn’t completely true.

You know the story about their mating habits? Turns out it’s only true 30% of the time. http://insects.about.com/…/praying-mantis-cannibalism.htm

This butterfly was laying eggs - but this shot shows all four wings

This butterfly was laying eggs – but this shot shows all four wings

A European honey bee on rosemary

A European honey bee on rosemary

An Australian native blue-banded bee on a salvia. These bees are tiny, solitary little creatures, and very fast. I went through a lot of digital 'film' to get this

An Australian native blue-banded bee on a salvia. These bees are tiny, solitary little creatures, and very fast. I went through a lot of digital ‘film’ to get this

This dragonfly is a rescue. It was drowning when I took it out of the swimming pool. It's drying itself off.

This dragonfly is a rescue. It was drowning when I took it out of the swimming pool. It’s drying itself off.

Don’t believe everything you read on the internet

1270187Even if you find the same story written in many places. You’ll all have heard the quote from Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister. “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” It doesn’t even have to be a lie. If people believe something, they will repeat it.

I received an email yesterday from Bob Sheppard (someone I don’t know) questioning my little article about Abraham Leeman (it’s here). Popular understanding is that Leeman was a junior officer on the Vergulde Draeck (Gilt Dragon) which was wrecked on the West Australian coast in 1656. The story goes that he was in command of the ship’s longboat which made the hazardous voyage up the WA coast then across to Batavia. When he arrived, he was dispatched on the Waeckende Boey to search for the survivors. (And the cargo – the Dutch East India Company was nothing if not pragmatic.) While searching islands not far from modern day Perth, Leeman and the thirteen men with him were abandoned. He had to do that voyage up the WA coast all over again.

It’s a remarkable story. And how do we know all this? Leeman wrote a journal, which was translated and published in James Henderson’s book, Marooned. I read that book many years ago and told the story in that blog post. I saw references to this double trip all over the net. Well, it had to be true, didn’t it?

Bob Sheppard didn’t believe it.

He asked me if I had any primary evidence that Leeman was on board the Vergulde Draeck. And no, I didn’t. Neither, it seems, has anybody else. Bob pointed me at an article he’d written about Leeman which I feel pretty much proves his case. Mea culpa. I do know better. In my research for the Batavia ship wreck I read many stories about a lad being decapitated with one blow from a sword. Reading the primary source (Pelsaert’s journal) the story is clearly not true. Here’s my article about that.

So my thanks to Mr Sheppard for correcting my mistake. Oh, and by the way, that quote from Goebbels? That’s not true, either. Read all about it here.

Batavia’s Graveyard is being excavated at last #history

TDADD-ebook-webIt’s been a while since I wrote a Batavia post. It has also been a while since Beacon Island (Batavia’s Graveyard) has been vacated and the fishing shacks removed. With those impediments to a proper investigation out of the way, teams of archaeologists and anthropologists are getting down and dirty, excavating the island for more skeletal remains from 1629, in the aftermath of the ordeal faced by the survivors from the wreck of the Batavia. If you’re not familiar with the story, please check out my historical fiction page, or make a note to do it later.

Here are three articles from the team working on the island.

Fragments point to more skeletons being discovered on island after Batavia shipwreck

Unearthed grave sheds light on Batavia shipwreck mass murder

Batavia mutiny: More human remains uncovered by archaeologists at Beacon Island

I’m hoping the searchers find the remains of the predikant’s family. (Predikant is the Dutch word for pastor) In one horrifying night the predikant’s wife, six of their seven children, and their maid, were slaughtered by men acting on the orders of Jeronimus Cornelisz, leader of the gang controlling the island. The predikant and his oldest daughter were spared – the daughter because she was desired by Cornelisz’s lieutenant and the predikant because he might prove to be useful. Pelsaert’s journal records that the bodies were dumped in a mass grave on the island.

It seems 13 bodies have been found so far. When you consider that many of the victims – numbering around one hundred – were drowned, or their bodies thrown into the sea – that’s a good start.

Here’s a short excerpt from my book To Die a Dry Death. The predikant (Batiaensz) and his daughter Judyck are dining with Cornelisz, his lieutenenant (van Huyssen) and Lucretia. Cornelisz and van Hussen have been talking about hunting with hawks, back in Holland.

________________________________________

Lucretia sipped her wine. Hunting. The animals they chased with hawks were almost as defenceless as the poor people on this island. She heard noises, muffled voices in the night. The cold of dread froze her hand. A woman’s cry, abruptly ended. Then a high-pitched scream that curdled the blood, as quickly silenced.

Judyck jerked to her feet, lips parted, eyes staring. “Roelant.”

Van Huyssen pulled her down. “It’s nothing, dearest. Not your concern.”

“That was Roelant. I’d know his voice anywhere.” Judyck pulled away from van Huyssen, but he held her fast.

“Not your concern,” he said again, the words sharp, commanding.

Lucretia caught the girl’s eye. Hopeless terror. Not fear for herself, but for the child. She wondered if Bastiaensz would say anything but he sat rigid, watery eyes fixed on Cornelisz.

Cornelisz ignored him, ignored Judyck and continued the previous conversation as if nothing had happened. “Did you catch hares, rabbits?”

Chuckles from outside, voices muttered. Lucretia was sure she’d heard Mayken’s name. The knot in her stomach twisted, tightened. Silent, appalled, she signalled to Judyck with the barest shake of her head. Say nothing, stay still.

“With snares.” Van Huyssen kept his hand tight on Judyck’s arm. “Although sometimes we let the dogs loose and let them run. Often, there isn’t much left when they bring the prey back, all battered and bloody.”

Somewhere in the settlement, a scream swiftly ended in a gurgle.

Is it worth revamping an old book?

TDADD-ebook-webHave you ever gazed forlornly at your first ever publication and wondered whether you could have done a better job? I know some of you have. I guess that’s one of the wonderful things about the ease of electronic publishing – fixing errors and typos is so easy. So when the rights to my one and only historical fiction book, To Die a Dry Death, were returned to me, I decided to give it my best.

TDaDD has had a chequered history, moving from one publisher to another three times, each without much sales success, despite a number of excellent reviews. During the years since I first wrote the book, I’ve been able to visit the Abrolhos Islands, and I described that visit in a post. At that time I wondered whether my descriptions of the landscape matched the reality, so when my rights were returned I wanted to check. Accuracy in details are so important when describing something that really happened.

Bear in mind that each time the book changed house it was edited and copy edited before it was re-released. Even so, I’ve written quite a few other books since TDaDD was first launched, and practice in writing might not make perfect, but it sure does help. I started reading from page one (as you do) and soon found myself thinking I could have expressed a few parts a little better. I soon built up a head of steam and ended up adding over a thousand words to the MS.

I thought it was worth pointing out the main faults I found – especially bearing in mind this book has been edited at least six times. It’s a useful lesson in self-editing.

‘Said’ isn’t as invisible as you might think

Sometimes it’s just plain unnecessary

Here’s an example:

“I believe it,” said Pelsaert. “It’s just the sort of thing Adriaen was capable of. Fancy offering a woman like Lucretia gold to submit to his will.” He jerked his head at Cornelisz. “Go on.”

This could just as easily be:

“I believe it. It’s just the sort of thing Adriaen was capable of. Fancy offering a woman like Lucretia gold to submit to his will.” Pelsaert jerked his head at Cornelisz. “Go on.”

Telling instead of showing

It takes more words to paint a picture, but it’s usually worthwhile.

This:

A soldier approached with a canvas collar, brought from the Sardam. It sat tight around Cornelisz’s neck, a funnel all the way around his head to above the level of his nose. That done, they strapped him to a frame built for the purpose so he could not move or tilt his head

Became this:

The men approached with a canvas collar, brought from the Sardam. They fastened it tightly around Cornelisz’s neck, forming a funnel all the way around his head to above the level of his nose. That done, they strapped his arms and legs to a wooden frame built for the purpose so he could not move, then fastened the funnel to the frame so he couldn’t tilt his head.

Poor scene transition

By that I mean from one sentence to the next we’re suddenly somewhere else, forcing the reader to work it out. No-one ever mentioned that as an issue, but I noticed it, so I’ve fixed it.

Not enough in the character’s head

This was interesting, because at the time I thought I was doing that, revealing the character’s thoughts to the reader. Sometimes I did, but sometimes I didn’t. This isn’t a fault per se; not everyone writes like that. But I do, and I felt it would add to the reading experience.

In the end, I’ve added about one thousand words. Which means I added rather more than that, since I took out a lot of ‘said’s. But I have not changed the plot, or the characters in any way. The cake was baked. I just added a bit of icing.

Was it worth doing? I think so. I believe I’ve made an already good book a little bit better. I hope readers will agree. And I really, really LOVE the new cover. Thanks to Rebecca Poole of Dreams2Media for her patience and skill in realising my vision. I also rewrote the blurb, which I believe reflects this incredible true story much better than the previous versions.

So here it is, for better or for worse. Any bets on whether it’ll now be a best seller? Let’s just say I ain’t holding my breath.

To Die a Dry Death

TDADD-ebook-webSurviving the shipwreck was the easy part

1629. Shipwrecked on an uncharted reef thirty miles off the coast of Australia, two hundred men, women and children scramble ashore on tiny, hostile islands. There is no fresh water and the only food is what they can salvage from the wreck, or harvest from the sea.

The ship’s officers set out in an open boat on a two-thousand-mile journey across uncharted ocean to seek help. But there’s not enough food and water for everyone on the islands to last until a rescue ship arrives. One man will stop at nothing to ensure that he is among the survivors.

But adversity throws up heroes. Soon there’s war between two groups, both determined to be there to greet that rescue ship when it arrives. If it arrives.

The terrifying true story of the Batavia shipwreck. Contains graphic violence.

 

 

 

Maybe now the ghosts will rest in peace

Beacon island, Traitor's Island and Morning Reef from the air

Beacon island, Traitor’s Island and Morning Reef from the air

I read today in a newspaper article that systematic excavation of Beacon Island in the Abrolhos group off the West Australian coast has begun with the discovery of a new grave.

That might not mean much to many of you, but it does to me. Beacon Island is the modern name for Batavia’s Graveyard, the site of one of the most despicable episodes in Australian maritime history. In 1629 the Dutch merchantman Batavia was wrecked on a nearby reef. One hundred and eighty survivors managed to make their way to the tiny, desolate coral outcrop we call Beacon Island. The ship’s captain and most of the officers took the Batavia’s long boat and made a perilous journey over uncharted waters to the city of Batavia (now Jakarta) to fetch help. When rescuers returned five months later, they discovered that in their absence about one hundred men, women and children had been murdered. Jeronimus Cornelisz, who had been the Batavia’s undermerchant ( a senior position in the Dutch East India Company), recruited a group of thugs who systematically did away with the old, the inform and the very young. I’ve written more about the history here.

Although many victims were drowned, or were killed and their bodies disposed of in the sea, some were buried. We know this because the facts were recorded in a journal, and some remains had already been found on Beacon Island. However, over the years the wreck of the Batavia passed into the pages of history and the location of the ship, and the island where the subsequent events took place, were forgotten.

The wreck site was finally located in 1963. But by then, fishermen had discovered the rich grounds around the Abrolhos Islands and built shacks on some of them – including Beacon Island. If I remember correctly, one victim’s skull was found when a clothesline was being erected. So excavating this important historical site had to be balanced against the rights of the fishermen who used their shacks in the few months of the fishing season to earn their livelihood.

Now, at last, the shacks are gone.

I’ve heard Beacon Island is not a comfortable place to be, especially at night. It has been called the island of angry ghosts for a reason. I hope the archaeologists find the graves of the Predikant’s wife, six of his children and their maid. They were slaughtered in one hideous attack, and (according to the journal) their bodies buried somewhere in the shallow ‘soil’ of Beacon Island.

Congratulations to the powers that be in Western Australia. Beacon Island should be preserved as a historical site, no less important than places like Port Arthur in Tasmania. Perhaps with some recognition, some of those angry ghosts will rest in peace.

Historical fiction

Historical fiction

I’ve written a book about the wreck of the Batavia. You’ll find links to the book, an article about why I wrote the book, and a number of historical articles.

I’ve also been privileged to visit the Abrolhos Islands Wallabi Group, where the drama unfolded. Here’s my description.

 

Future Politics – is democracy dying?

picture of Sunset on the Houses of Parliament, London

Sunset on the Houses of Parliament, London

I recently read an article in iO9, about the potential shape of future political systems. And it got me to thinking, as these things do. I have a BA(Hons) in history. Part of my honours year was a fascinating study of the French, American and Russian revolutions, and the rise of Fascism in Italy and Germany. The broad brush similarities between these apparently disparate events is there for all to see. In essence, a powerful autocracy is weakened by allowing the influence of the educated middle class. It all looks like everything will be rosy in the garden, but then the rabble rousers see an opportunity and rouse the rabble. That’s when the random killing starts, and mob rule and fanatics take over, while the people at the top get rich. Animal Farm, anyone? After a while, everyone recognises that this can’t continue. A small group sets up rule, which, more often than not, leads to a new dictatorship, for example Napoleon, or Stalin. Yes, I know this is an over-simplification. Spare me the detailed ‘yes but’s. Let’s look at a few modern examples.

  • Yugoslavia. Tito kept a lid on the ever-present simmering ethnic tensions in the Balkans. He died, the attempt at democracy failed, war and genocide broke out. Without Tito, a state like Yugoslavia cannot exist.

  • USSR. Gorbachev recognised the writing on the wall. He was the moderate intellectual wave. Then Yeltsin took over in Russia and attempted a form of democracy, but the economic situation was such that the poor became poorer, gangsters became rich and lawlessness was rife. Now, Putin is working steadily at establishing himself as a second Stalin. Including grabs of territory.

  • Iraq. Nobody disputes that the late Saddam Hussein was a tyrant. But while he was in power, most ordinary Iraqis could go about their business. Sectarian violence didn’t happen – not that we heard about, anyway. When the Americans invaded his country, all bets were off. We only need to look at the newspapers to feel sympathy for that strife-torn country. It will not survive the overflow of sectarian violence pouring in from Syria.

  • Iran. Under the Shah, this was a westernised, modern country. Then the Ayatollah Khomeini took over. Salman Rushdie, a resident of another country, was in fear of his life for writing a book, and the American embassy was besieged. Now it’s an Islamic state where women are second class citizens and ‘democracy’ is a farce.

  • And these are just a few.

Which leads to the question, what about democracy? Here’s Wikipedia’s explanation of democracy. Does it work? I wonder, I truly do. I believe democracy can only work where it develops within the country. It cannot be imposed by anybody else. It’s a fantasy to imagine that Western armies can roll into Afghanistan and impose democracy on the population. Democracy must be based on an educated population which understands the concept. Let’s remember that the original Greek democracy didn’t include everyone. Slaves and women weren’t considered part of the voting population. For a true democracy, everyone must be enfranchised. In Australia, women were able to vote in Federal elections in 1902 – but aboriginal people were not able to vote until 1962. http://australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/austn-suffragettes So real democracy in Australia only goes back to 1962.

Increasingly, I’m seeing ‘democracy’ around the world going to hell in a hand basket. Minorities and women are being marginalised. Equality is a farce. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. Big business runs our countries for the benefit of a few. Some super-rich individuals earn more than some nation states. Only a handful of democracies work as they should, places like Finland, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland; small countries with educated populations – where the state pays to educate people. Sure, workers pay high taxes, but the state provides education, health care and social security for all.

I wish it was like that everywhere, where people got off the endless ‘productivity’ bullshit bandwagon and recognised this is the only Earth we’ll ever have. Forget about why the climate is changing. It is. And our oceans are dying, the rainforests are being cleared for palm oil, extinctions are soaring, population is ballooning, fundamental fanaticism is exploding as marginalised people grope for simplistic answers.

From all of this I see two things.

  • Isaac Asimov’s psychohistory, as postulated in his Foundation books,  will probably exist in the future. We will be able to predict what is likely to happen next in a society on a large scale, with reasonable accuracy.

  • And the best, most stable, most efficient form of government is a benevolent dictatorship or an oligarchy based on merit. No wonder Asimov postulated a Galactic Empire.

Yes, I think ‘democracy’ has run its course, or will have run its course in the foreseeable future. What do you think?

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.

They made them tough in those days

OWA coastn a recent journey down the west coast of Australia, I wrote a blog post in which I mentioned the town of Leeman, and I promised to tell the story that goes with that name. It’s another one of those incredible stories associated with the Dutch shipwrecks on the WA coast.

In 1656 the Vergulde Draeck (Gilt Dragon) foundered on one of the reefs that make that western coast so picturesque – and so dangerous. All the VOC ships carried two boats and both small vessels were used to get the survivors ashore. The VOC (the Dutch East India Company) had learned some lessons from the 1629 sinking of the Batavia and its horrific aftermath, when all the ship’s officers made for Batavia in the long boat, leaving the castaways at the mercy of Jeronimus Cornelisz. You’ll find many references to those events in my blog, or read the whole tale in my book, To Die a Dry Death.

So standing orders were that the captain stayed with the survivors, who were landed on the beach. The vessel’s upper steersman Abraham Leeman was sent with six men in the smaller boat to make the perilous crossing to Batavia to seek help, leaving sixty-eight others behind. We know this because Leeman kept a journal, which was translated and published in James Henderson’s book Marooned.

As with the Batavia‘s longboat twenty-seven years before, Leeman and his team faced incredible hardships, in particular lack of drinking water, before they successfully completed the two thousand mile journey to Batavia in the tiny yawl. Ships were immediately dispatched to search for the Vergulde Draeck, without success. As usual, the precise location of the shipwreck was not known because the calculation of longitude was not an exact science. Some time later Leeman himself was sent out on the Waeckende Boey. Leeman located the survivor’s original campsite, which had been abandoned, so the ship’s captain sent parties to check the string of small islands that dot the sea in that area. On one such search, while Leeman and thirteen men were on an island, the wind picked up, so the skipper moved his vessel, resulting in Leeman and his crew staying on the island overnight.

The Waeckende Boey never returned.

Imagine the shock and despair as these men realised they’d been abandoned on this desolate coast. But Leeman was able to rally his sailors, who found water, and killed seals for their meat and skins. Once more, he sailed a small boat up the Western Australian coast to Java, with the loss of one man. This time, the longboat was wrecked as they tried to make land. Most of the men apparently ran off into the jungle, but Leeman and three others walked the length of Java until they were captured by a Javanese prince and held for ransom, which was paid.

The hamlet of Leeman isn’t far from where the wreck of the Vergulde Draeck was finally found in 1963, just over three hundred years after she sank. I wonder how many of the people who pass through Leeman know the story that goes behind that name?  Abraham Leeman personifies the qualities of a great leader, able to inspire, cajole, give hope when there is little. I can’t imagine having to make that dreadful journey north under the Zuytdorp cliffs once, let alone twice. Yes, they made them tough in those days.

UPDATE Dec 2015. Oops. It seems I (and many others) have swallowed a falsehood. Leeman most certainly made the second trip, but probably not the first. Read all about it.

A triumph for an amateur historian

This hole is the exact spot where the Batavia lay

This hole is the exact spot where the Batavia lay

Fifty years ago, the last resting place of the Dutch merchantman Batavia, which hit a reef on the Abrolhos islands off the coast of Western Australia in 1629, was finally found.

Fifty years. It had taken three hundred and eighty-four years before the wreck was finally found. It wasn’t as if the incident hadn’t been recorded. It wasn’t as if nobody went looking. In fact, a number of times people thought they’d actually found the right wreck. That’s how the Abrolhos’s Pelsaert Group got its name – people thought that’s where the Batavia lay. I must say, it seems odd that anyone believed something so obviously incorrect. The Zeewyck went down in the Pelsaert group in 1727, almost one hundred years after the Batavia. The Batavia could not have carried coins minted after 1629, which (of course) the Zeewyck did.

So why was it so hard to find the Batavia‘s wreck site? In a word, longitude. No precise method of calculating longitude was available until the late 1700s at best. I had a few things to say about longitude and how the Batavia was wrecked, here. However, mariners always attempted to record latitude and longitude for specific locations, and Adriaen Jacobsz, captain of the Batavia, was no exception. He recorded the location of the wreck as best he could. But he was wrong, so the ship’s hulk disappeared into the reef, becoming a home for sea creatures. The Abrolhos Islands themselves continued to be a hazard for sailors. As mentioned, at least one other Dutch ship, and many other vessels, were lost on these wind-swept islands, their surfaces just a few meters above the sea.

For several centuries the islands were left to the sea birds and the ghosts. Then fishermen from Geraldton, the closest town on the mainland, discovered that the warm Leeuwin current flows through these islands. Corals grow there, and pearls. Fish abound, along with the much sought-after rock lobster, known in the West as crayfish. The fishermen established fishing shacks in the Wallabi Group for the few months of the cray fishing season, but other than that, the islands kept their secrets to themselves. My guess is that the fishermen knew very well about the wreck on Morning Reef. On a clear, calm day they would have been able to see the shapes of the cannons and the tell-tale timbers. But they kept that information to themselves.

Beacon island, Traitor's Island and Morning Reef from the air

Beacon island, Traitor’s Island and Morning Reef from the air.

The person who finally told the world where the Batavia lay was Henrietta Drake-Brockman. Born into a prominent pastoral family in the Geraldton area, she researched the events surrounding the shipwreck there in 1629. She had Pelsaert’s journal translated into English, contacted Jakarta and Amsterdam for more information and – most importantly – she thought about what she’d read. She obtained a copy of Predikant Bastiaenz’s letter after his rescue, in which he described the locations he’d visited during his ordeal. From those descriptions Henrietta identified Beacon Island as the journal’s Batavia’s Graveyard. And from Bastiaenz’s remarks about sitting on a little beach from which he could see the Batavia’s two remaining masts jutting above the reef, she knew the ship was on Morning Reef.

In 1963 a team of divers, accompanied by a local fisherman, finally found the wreck site, and told the world, an absolute triumph for an amateur historian. Henrietta died not long after her book about the tragedy, Voyage to Disaster, was published in 1968.

Since the discovery, many artefacts from the vessel have been raised and brought to Fremantle’s Maritime Museum. Beacon Island’s shacks are finally deserted. Soon archaeologists will be able to excavate Beacon Island properly. I’m certain there will be more to find.

If you’d like to read more about the Abrolhos islands, I talk about my visit there, here. Do take a look at my novelisation of the wreck of the Batavia, and the fascinating, gruesome, aftermath, To Die a Dry Death.

That’s one ticked off the bucket list

These islands are incredibly low. No wonder mariners didn't see them at night.

These islands are incredibly low. No wonder mariners didn’t see them at night.

A visit to the Abrolhos Islands has been on my bucket list for a long time and now I’ve finally done it. On a picture-perfect day we flew out of Geraldton airport on a small plane, headed for the Abrolhos archipelago, 55 to 60 km off the coast.

I’ve seen the maps and other people’s pictures but seeing the place for yourself is very different. The islands are spread over a long distance, organised in four groups. We flew over the Pelsaert Group and the Easter Group before heading for the Wallabi group, which is where the VOC ship Batavia was wrecked in 1629. That was my focus; how well had I depicted the setting in my book To Die a Dry Death, and what effect would this place have on me.

To start with, we flew over West Wallabi, where the soldiers under their inspirational leader Wiebbe Hayes, defended themselves against Jeronimus Cornelisz’s thugs. There, I took a picture of the ‘fort’. Fort is the wrong word, I think. They probably built a shelter to protect them from the everlasting wind. Our visit took place on a rare day when the wind didn’t blow.

Wiebbe's fort on West Wallabi

Wiebbe’s fort on West Wallabi

Then we landed on East Wallabi. If anything, I think I underestimated the term ‘High Island’. Certainly East and West Wallabi are much higher than anything else out there – but most of the islands are pancake flat, little more than reefs left exposed above the sea. The High Islands are low sandhills built on a limestone platform. That said, they’re positively spacious in comparison to Beacon Island (Batavia’s Graveyard), the Long Island and Traitor’s Island. Wildlife is abundant. We saw lizards everywhere, a number of the resident wallabies, sea birds, dolphins cruising the reefs, every variety of fish. Because of the Leeuwin current, the water is warmer out there, so coral gardens grow in the shallow water.

A wallaby on East Wallabi island

A wallaby on East Wallabi island

The plants on the islands are another story. All the growth is stunted, with most bushes not much more than knee high. A few plants grow a little higher but shade would have been hard to find. I stood on the highest point of East Wallabi and looked across the sea to the line of bright sand which was the Long Island and the smaller low island which was Batavia’s Graveyard. Yes, I’m sure Wiebbe would have posted lookouts here when he learned of Cornelisz’s reign of terror.

If you look carefully you'll see the Long Island on Batavia's Graveyard on the horizon. Taken from East Wallabi.

If you look carefully you’ll see the Long Island (right) and Batavia’s Graveyard (left) on the horizon. Taken from East Wallabi.

We flew over Batavia’s Graveyard on the way back and also saw Traitor’s Island, where the survivors were first landed from the shipwrecked Batavia. It was from here that the ship’s longboat, loaded with all the senior officers, set sail for the city of Batavia (now known as Jakarta), leaving the rest of the survivors to fend for themselves. The fishing shacks on the islands are now empty and the plan is to remove them so that this island where so many horrendous events took place, can be properly excavated and its ghosts left in respectful peace.

Batavia's Graveyard. Behind it, just under the wing is the spec that is Traitor's Island. Beyond that is the reef.

Batavia’s Graveyard. Behind it, just under the wing is the spec that is Traitor’s Island. Beyond that is the reef.

After nearly 400 years, the hole the Batavia gouged in the reef is still visible. Batavia wrecksiteThe Dutch ships Batavia and Zeewijk are just two of a large number of ships wrecked on these treacherous islands. On a normal day, when the white caps would cover the ocean, it’s easy to imagine mariners in peril of running onto these reefs. At night – well, it’s hardly surprising.

And me? What did this trip do for me? It was sobering. It was so easy to imagine people from another world landing here, maybe grateful to be alive but faced with the enormous problem of survival in a harsh, uncaring land. Complicate that with a psychopath and you have a horror story that no novelist could have dreamed up in a nightmare. Yet it’s also a story of great courage, ingenuity and the strength of the human spirit. Seeing what those people faced all those years ago simply highlights those qualities.

If you’d like to know more about the wreck of the Batavia, check out my history page.