Category Archives: History

A side trip to Dresden

Dresden’s main square

It’s not very far from Berlin to Prague, so when we left Berlin on Sunday morning, we made a brief visit to Dresden, which was famously incendiary-bombed by the Allies in World War II. The city suffered under GDR rule, but has been rebuilt since the reunification.

This was a walking tour, and I’ll confess the details are a bit hazy since it was a while ago – and, you know, sick. However, I remember the bit about Augustus the Strong, who built much of the resplendent architecture in the city. Dresden is a spectacularly over-the-top Baroque confection, with lots of grandiloquent flourishes, in keeping with Augustus himself, who liked to host grand balls and such. He was a bit of a lad, fathering kids by a succession of mistresses. His great ambition, though, was to be a king – in which aim he succeeded, becoming King of Poland twice. He was quite happy to convert to Catholicism to reach that pinnacle, so there are two main churches in town – the Frauenkirche, in the central square, and the nearby Catholic cathedral.

By Deutsche Fotothek‎, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7937907

The Frauenkirche, in particular, was effectively demolished in the bombing. For years the residents prevented the authorities from removing the rubble and making it a carpark, while secretly collecting and numbering pieces for an eventual restoration. Which, of course, has happened. I think this achievement is a tribute to the tenacity of the people of Dresden.

You can see the restored building in the top photo of the post, the tallest one with the dome.

Here’s the story.

Part of Augustus’s palace

Beautifully decorated columns in arcadian style

And something a little more Celtic

As you can see from the photos, it was a damp and miserable day in Dresden, but we managed to avoid most of the showers by hiding indoors. As usual, the old town has cobblestones, and you can buy a sausage-in-a-bun from several stalls.

It’s a pretty town, that would have been much nicer in less inclement weather. But that’s Europe in October, I guess.

The porcelain parade of kings

A closer view

Most of the damage in the famous bombing of the city was caused by fire. Because of that, one notable survivor was the magnificent frieze of rulers, which was made of – porcelain, for which, of course, Dresden is famous.

The bombing itself has remained controversial. I’ll let you read about that yourself. In my opinion the Allies usually took care not to destroy places with little strategic value and lots of history, such as Heidelberg and the Rhine castles. War is nasty, whatever happens. Still, February, 1945 was very close to the final days of the war.

After lunch we drove on to Prague, passing along the banks of the Vltava River in the late afternoon. Tomorrow we would visit the castle.

The train to Berlin

The Brandenburg Gate taken through a wet window

We caught a train to take us from Warsaw to Berlin. We were in the first class carriages, but as Pete said, “If that’s first class I’d hate to be in economy”.  I can’t say it was a train journey to remember, just a track through Eastern Europe on an overcast and drizzly day, stopping now and then at a station. Once again, Tomas had suggested bringing along some food, since there might be a restaurant car – and then again, maybe there might not. As it happened, there was a a restaurant car, and the service did provide coffee and a cake. You could buy beer and wine, and food, but we were happy with our roll. It’s a long trip – most of a day, which I spent reading, or playing solitaire. But, since this trip was a series of unfortunate events, I wasn’t really surprised when something went wrong.

Tomas was at pains to tell us we shouldn’t get off the train at the first Berlin station (Berlin East). We would be going on to the central station. However, it seemed we’d arrived just after tropical storm Xavier (the remains of a hurricane that had hit the Caribbean a week or two ago) had cut a swathe through Berlin. We’d noticed the tops of trees whipping around in the wind, but it had been much worse. Trees were down, power lines were cut, and the normally reliable rail service in the city was in chaos. We couldn’t get to central. So we all hopped off the train and mooched around the railway station while Tomas organised a bus to take us to the hotel.

Storm damage from Xavier

If you’ve travelled much in Europe, you’ll know most hotel rooms are tiny compared with Australia. That wasn’t true in Eastern Europe, where I think the hotels are more recent. That’s especially true in Berlin, which was flattened in the war, and the Eastern parts stayed in a pretty parlous state until after reunification in the nineties. Our room was almost a suite, with enough room to host a party, and a splendiferous bathroom. The down side was that the cost of a shot of Scotch was in keeping with the surroundings – we bought a bottle at a supermarket for about the same money.

By this time we were both tired and ill from constant coughing and lack of sleep. The bark was so bad we could have hired out our services to a security firm. I was sneezing a lot, too. This was not flu – no aches and pains and fever, but even so, we had an eye on the long haul flight back to Oz in a few days’ time, so we asked to see a doctor. He arrived in due course, and prescribed a decongestant during the day and pills to reduce the coughing at night. So off we went to find an apothecary. In fact, we had to do that twice. The first time the assistant gave us smaller packages with not enough pills to cover the doses, and (of course) we didn’t notice until we sat down for coffee (which was at least good coffee). Back to the pharmacy. The pharmacist apologised, and said they didn’t have the items we needed, but she could have them in by 3pm.

Since it’s warm and dry in shopping malls, we stayed there for some time, and pinpointed a couple of places to buy lunch, and dinner. We noticed a big food item in Berlin was ‘sausage with curry sauce’. I’m partial to sausage, but not with curry sauce, so I asked if it came without the sauce. I was told it wasn’t a good idea, because the sausages weren’t very nice. Like the coffee in Slovakia, this was a cold war leftover. You hide the horrible sausage with curry sauce, and now it has become a Berlin staple. The waiter did tell us where we could get good sausage, though, at a nearby restaurant. So we had dinner there.

Sans Souci palace. Yes, just a single story

Once again we missed the city tour which had taken in Checkpoint Charlie, the remnants of the wall, and the Brandenburg gate, but the next day we passed all those places on the way to the leafy suburb of Potsdam, so at least we got to see them from the bus. We also got to see the extensive damage from storm Xavier, with trees down in many places. Well-heeled Berliners live in Potsdam and around the Wannsee. So did the aristocracy in the past, and there are a number of palaces. One of the best known is Frederik II’s  (the Great) bijou palace, Sans Souci. It’s quite small, but elaborately decorated. Frederik loved the place, and wanted to be buried there. That request was not honoured – until 1991, when his remains were interred in the crypt Frederik had prepared. (You can find the story here – it’s short) He was a fascinating man, a King of Prussia who came close to uniting Germany before Bismarck finished the job in 1870, a scholar and a soldier, and very likely gay. It’s well worth reading a little about him. Oh, by the way, no photos allowed inside the palace. But you probably worked that out. The tour was conducted with precision, with groups waiting until the previous group had left a room before being ushered through.

Some of the lovely gardens at Sans Souci

After our visit to the palace we went to  Potsdam, a nice little village with cobble stoned streets and old houses, where you could buy a sausage-in-a-bun with mustard. Then it was back to Berlin.

Potsdam High street

As the Holocaust featured so much for me on this tour, I have to say something about Berlin’s holocaust memorial. We drove past it in the bus, and Pete took the picture with his tablet. There’s no immediate recognition of what this thing is – it looks like a collection of packing cases, or shipping containers, arranged in lines over several acres – 4.7 of them, as it happens. “What’s that?” I asked.

The Holocaust memorial

“The Holocaust memorial,” the guide said. “Kids use it to jump around and take selfies.”

I was seriously unimpressed. To me, the place is unrecognisable as a memorial, certainly not from this angle. It seems I’m not the only one who was underwhelmed, as evidenced in this article in the New Yorker. The author says what I think, only better, and I urge you to read it. As I mentioned in my post on Auschwitz, people of my generation know about the Holocaust. The challenge is to make the next generations understand. This monument isn’t helping at all. Yes, kids take selfies there. The particularly disturbing aspect of those selfies is that the kids tag them as ‘jumping on dead Jews’ or similar. That means they have at least a rudimentary knowledge of what those blocks represent.Not enough is being done to ensure they understand the reality.

Literally tons of overwhelming evidence – documents, designs for the gas chambers, eye witness accounts from such people as Eisenhower and Patton as well as survivors, photographs taken in secret, and photographs taken proudly by the SS – attests to the fact that the Nazi regime deliberately set about exterminating the Jews. Despite that, there are Holocaust deniers, people who suggest that the whole thing was a conspiracy by the Allies to demonize the German people. Let me direct you to Snopes, where denial of the Holocaust is examined,

I’ll finish this post with one small observation. The Nazis killed about 6 million Jews, but they deliberately targeted many other groups, as listed in this article from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum site.  If you require context to absorb those figures, in 1938 the population of Australia was about 6.8 million people. The Nazi regime deliberately murdered many more than the whole population of Australia.

And here, dear reader, I will leave behind talk of the Holocaust. From Berlin we travelled to Prague, and from there home. But before we left Europe there was one last unfortunate event. That’s for next time.

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.

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.