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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.

Murder most foul

picture of map of Abrolhos islandsIn a couple of previous posts, I’ve described how Jeronimus Cornelisz gradually built up his power base in the Abrolhos Islands, before starting his reign of terror in earnest. First, he took control of the ship’s council, which governed the survivors. Then, he divided his flock, sending those most likely to dispute his rule to the most remote islands, where he hoped they would die of hunger and thirst. Honey-tongued as ever, he asked their leader, a soldier named Wiebbe Hayes, to light three signal fires if they found water, well aware that the islands to which he sent the soldiers had already been searched for water twice without success.

Meanwhile, Cornelisz ordered his men to kill people surreptitiously.

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?

Pelsaert’s journal doesn’t say, but Mike Dash, doing what historians should always do, examined other events at the same time, and came up with a compelling argument. It seems the folk on Traitor’s Island moved at much the same time as smoke from three signal fires was seen, coming from the High Islands. The soldiers had found water, a good reason for the people on the miserable hillock that was Traitor’s Island to put to sea. This should have been a cause for celebration for all the survivors, but it threw Cornelisz’s plans into disarray. If the soldiers had water, and more survivors joined them, his rule was in jeopardy. He could not allow his ‘subjects’ to escape.

Like many tyrants before him, and after him, his behaviour moved to murderous tyranny. From this time on, no-one who was not aligned with Cornelisz’s bunch of thugs, was safe.

Full marks for deviousness and cunning

picture of map of Abrolhos islandsJeroniumus 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 was 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’.

Mind you, despite his status, Cornelisz wouldn’t automatically have been respected. He was a merchant, after all, not a sailor or a soldier. He would have to win over his supporters, and here, his skill at negotiation and salesmanship would stand him in excellent stead.

His first move was to divide the survivors. Divide and conquer, after all. Indeed, in hindsight it was a smart move if it is seen in a more innocent light. There were far too many people crammed onto one tiny island (Batavia’s Graveyard on this map is the tiny grey shape after the last letter of the name). Spreading the folk across other places meant better chances of finding food and collecting water. Cornelisz sent pretty well all the soldiers to the most distant islands (Wiebbe’s Island and the High Island on this map), promising to keep them supplied with food and water while they searched. Even that move might be seen as innocent. Soldiers and sailors didn’t get along, and it’s easy to imagine fights in cramped, straitened circumstances. Looking back, it was more likely to have been a callous move to remove the group most likely to resent and oppose Cornelisz’s reign. The soldiers never received any supplies from Batavia’s Graveyard. Cornelisz no doubt hoped they would starve to death.

Other groups of people – men, women and children, also moved to two islands much closer to Batavia’s Graveyard. Traitor’s Island,(nothing more than a speck on this map, around where the name ends) from where Pelsaert, Jacobsz and most of the ship’s officers set sail for Batavia, and Seal’s Island, a long, narrow piece of land across a deep, fast-flowing channel from Batavia’s Graveyard.

Having divided his flock, Cornelisz could now recruit likely lads and set about reducing the number of people relying on the limited food supplies.

Kill or be killed

In the few months that the Batavia’s survivors were trapped on the islands of the Houtman Abrolhos’s Wallabi group, Jeronimus Cornelisz’s band of cut throats murdered around one hundred people. There’s no way of knowing exact numbers. Some people died in the immediate aftermath of the collision with the reef, falling overboard, or jumping into the sea in order to swim ashore. Some of those who remained on the doomed vessel died when the hull finally collapsed.

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.

I’ve mentioned often enough that people were forced to kill to save their own lives. One such instance which doesn’t appear in my novel concerned a few lads who managed to escape the massacre on the long island, known as seal’s island, just across the deep channel from Batavia’s Graveyard. The gang attacked the group of people living there twice, the first time murdering fifteen or more of their number. Only three escaped the carnage – all boys who managed to escape by hiding in the bushes.

Six days later, Cornelisz’s second-in-command, Jacop Pietersz, took a group of men over to the island to trap the boys. There were enough men to be able to span the narrow island, simply pushing up its length, herding the boys into a corner. Can you imagine their terror, having seen what happened to the women and children and few men who were killed not a week before?  Inevitably, they were caught and put in a boat to take them back to Batavia’s Graveyard. On the way back over the channel, one of the three, Claas Harmansz, was told to push one of the other lads overboard – or die himself. He complied. The third boy, realising he would be next, understandably fought back, forcing one of the men to carry out the deed.

Harmansz lived to return to Batavia, where he was flogged for his part in the crimes he was forced to commit. I’ve often wondered what I would have done in similar circumstances. Puts a whole ‘nother angle on ‘kill or be killed’, doesn’t it?

Why approach from the North?

Picture of map of Wallabi group islandsI’m one of those people who believes that when you write about real historical events, it isn’t your place to change facts. For example, unless you’re writing alternative history, you can’t move the Battle of Waterloo from 1815 to 1820, or 1795 simply because it suits your story better. In my novel, I’ve stuck to the 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… (you knew there’d be one, didn’t you?)

Sometimes the facts as recorded in Pelsaert’s journal are imprecise or… odd. This is one such instance. Upon his return to the islands from Batavia in the yacht Sardam, the vessel approached from the north, coming up next to the High Island in the deeper water. Pelsaert took the boat to that island, having seen smoke. At this point he was searching for the survivors from the wreck. His journal states that “I sprang ashore, and at the same time we saw a very small yawl with four men rowing around the Northerly point.”* This was Wiebbe Hayes and three of his men, coming to warn Pelsaert about the gang of cut-throats, now led by Wouter Loos.

If Pelsaert’s words are correct, Hayes and his men must have rowed around the outside of the High Island to reach that Northerly point. The obvious question is why? You’ll see on the map that the quickest approach to the Sardam would be along the front of the islands. The reason for them taking the much longer way is not explained. So it’s a fact, but it had to make sense in the context of events.

I thought long and hard about this, trying to come up with a reasonable answer.

I came to the conclusion that the final battle between Hayes’s defenders and Wouter Loos and the gang was still in progress when Sardam arrived. I’ve marked what is believed to be the site of the battle with an X. From their higher vantage point, Hayes’s men would have seen the ship before the gang. Hayes has a boat (the little yawl mentioned) but if he takes the direct route, the gang is sure to see him and give chase. So Hayes grabs a couple of his best men, grabs the boat, and rows around the island so the gang is not aware of his absence.

Works for me.

* Drake-Brockman, H. “Voyage to Disaster”, p130

To the victors the spoils? Or maybe not

Batavia riggingI’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. (see death by hanging) 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?

Pelsaert, his reputation in tatters, was shunted off to Surat as second in command of an expedition, while his case was considered. He was dead by September 1630, having survived Jeronimus Cornelisz by less than a year. Evidence indicates he probably died of the same disease that had kept him in his bunk on both the Batavia and the Sardam.

Wiebbe Hayes, unlikely leader of the band of soldiers Cornelisz had contrived to isolate so he could carry out his plans, was promoted to officer. Given his stirling performance in leading the soldiers and later refugees from Cornelisz’s excesses, the promotion was a no-brainer (IMO). Members of his band were given a small reward for services rendered. But from there, the record ends. Most likely Hayes went off to the Company’s wars and died of wounds or maybe disease.

Predikant Bastiaensz, whose wife and all but one of his seven children were murdered, did not impress the church with how he had led his flock. In particular, questions were aksed about how he had come to sign his allegiance to a heretic. Batavia’s Governor Specx was very critical of Bastiaensz’s record and it tool some time before the cleric was absolved of all blame for the events on the Abrolhos. He remarried two years after his wife’s death but died of dysentery, still in the islands, in 1633.

Judyck, the predikant’s only surviving child, who was effectively given as a sex slave to one of Cornelisz’s main accomplices, had little choice but to find a husband as soon as possible. She married soon after her arrival in Batavia, but her new husband died within 3 months. Two years later she married again, moving with her husband to the island of Ambon. This marriage also ended in widowhood. Finally, the VOC repatriated her to Dordrecht in 1634, where she lived in relative comfort. There is no record of her death.

Lucretia van der Mijlen, the beautiful woman Cornelisz had lusted after, was in a different situation. Unlike Judyck, she had means as well as beauty. She married a soldier – a sergeant who Mike Dash speculates was Lucretia’s step brother-in-law– and remained in Batavia until 1635, when they returned to Holland.

And what of Adriaen Jacobsz, captain of the Batavia?

He was imprisoned almost immediately on his arrival in the longboat, accused by Commandeur Pelsaert of plotting mutiny, intending to steal his own ship. Pelsaert also implicated him in a crude attack on Lucretia van der Mijlen. There is no doubt he was tortured but resolutely proclaimed his innocence of all charges. The last reference to him was a letter written by Governor Specx in June 1631, in which he noted Jacobsz’s refusal to admit any guilt and asking to be released. There is no record of the captain’s death. I have noted elsewhere that given the VOC’s penchant for revenge, it’s an interesting omission. That he survived the dreadful, malaria-ridden dungeon of the fort of Batavia for nearly a year is remarkable in itself. However, much as I’d like to give at least one happy ending, he probably died of disease. Similarly, his girlfriend Zwaantie was tortured without result. History has not recorded what happened to her after she left the fort.

There are no happy endings in this dreadful tale of human misery. But that was life in the seventeenth century.

As usual, I’m indebted to Mike Dash “Batavia’s Graveyard”, Orion Books, 2002 and Henrietta Drake-Brockman’s ‘Voyage to Disaster’, UWA Press, 2006 for having researched the lives of these people.

Hiding in plain sight

At last, the mystery of the Aagtekerke  which disappeared after sailing from Table Bay in 1726, may have been solved. It has long been believed that the Aagtekerke, like the Batavia and the Zeewijk, met its end on the reefs of the Abrolhos islands, sixty kilometres or so off the west coast of Australia. Ironically, it was hiding in plain sight, as they say. This article explains.

It’s now thought that the Aagtekerke may well have met its end in the same place as the Zeewijk, near Pelsart Island in the Pelsart group of the archipelago. In another piece of irony, the Zeewijk survivors reported seeing wreckage and assumed (incorrectly) that this was the place where the Batavia was sunk – hence the name. Pelsart was the senior merchant in command of the Batavia and its fleet. The Zeewijk was wrecked in 1727.

To me, it seems odd that it has taken so long. The dead giveaway had to be the discovery of elephants tusks at the site. The Zeewijk didn’t carry ivory, but the Aagtekerke did.

I’ll be most interested to hear what transpires.

Blame it on the longitude

1628 map (National Library of Australia)

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?

The basic answer is longitude. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was no reliable way of calculating longitude because there was no sufficiently accurate means of calculating either time or distance travelled. Sailors used what means they had plus a lot of educated guess work to estimate where they were in the world. Latitude was not an issue; they had the means to find that value with precision but longitude could be off by many, many degrees and many miles.

On their journey from Amsterdam to Batavia, capital of what we now call Indonesia, the Dutch mariners sailed their ships south from the Cape of Good Hope and used the winds of the Roaring Forties to speed them on their way. When they estimated they were far enough east, they turned north, heading for the Sunda Strait and the gateway to Batavia. Remember, at that time they had very little knowledge of the coast of Australia. They knew something lay out there and had glimpses of its hostile shores but that was all. These seas were uncharted. Houtman had encountered the Abrolhos in 1619 – fortunately for him, in daylight – but even if the islands’ existence had been communicated to the skippers of the VOC’s fleet, the extent of the island chain was not known and they could not be accurately charted. The Abrolhos islands comprises no less than one hundred and twenty-two islands in four groups over a distance of about fifty miles, and they lie about fifty miles off the Australian coast – well out to sea.

So in 1629 Adriaen Jacobsz turned the Batavia north well off shore from the coast of the Unknown South Land. Little was he to know that out there in the depths of the Indian Ocean, the weathered remains of a coral reef still poked above the waves of high tide. Even after the events of the Batavia had been concluded and the islands marked on a map, the route was not safe. Nearly one hundred years later the Zeewijk ploughed into a different part of the island group, now known as the Pelsart group because it was assumed that these were the same islands the Batavia had struck.

Both ships ran aground at night, both lookouts reported ‘moonlight on the waves’ instead of the tell-tale surf on the reefs. I wonder how many ships actually sighted the islands as they sailed safely past in the full light of day?