Tag Archives: Australian history

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.

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.

‘Justice’ for the gang

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

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

Five more men were hanged, most of them deservedly. But Cornelisz was a truly evil man. He killed no one himself, just caused them to be killed. A favourite technique was to give a man a choice; kill or be killed. Salomon Deschamps, Pelsaert’s clerk, had been made to strangle a half-dead baby. Deschamps was one those hanged, while some enthusiastic murderers were at least allowed to live. One man who had killed three men was severely flogged and made to wear a heavy wooden halter around his neck. Why he escaped the gallows is hard to understand.

Then there is the case of Claas Harmansz, a fifteen year old lad. He and two other cabin boys managed to avoid the slaughter of the people on Seals Island (it’s the long, narrow island directly across the deep channel from Batavia’s Graveyard) by hiding in the shrubs. But the day came when Cornelisz ordered them caught, and drowned. In the boat on the way back from Seals Island Harmansz, tied up and awaiting death, was given a choice; throw the other two overboard, or die himself. He chose to live. Pelsaert sentenced him to 100 lashes after being dropped from the mast three times. The lad received a further flogging in Batavia.

The courts could not decide what to do with two of the youngest, most impressionable of the gang, two lads aged seventeen and fifteen. In a truly twisted piece of logic, they had the two draw lots. The loser was hanged, while the other was severely flogged and made to watch the hanging with a noose around his neck.

I’ve mentioned Jan Pelgrom, the eighteen year old who was spared the death sentence at the last moment, and was marooned instead. I wonder if he ever realised how lucky he was?

* Mike Dash, “Batavia’s Graveyard” , 2002, and Henrietta Drake-Brockman, “Voyage to Disaster”, 1963

The mystery of the breech blocks

Picture of Zuytdorp cliffsI alluded in a previous post to the events surrounding the loss of other VOC merchantmen and the fact that quite a few Dutchmen actually reached land in Australia, then vanished. Of all the stories, that of the Zuytdorp is perhaps the most mysterious. And those breech blocks in the title of this post play an important role in the mystery.

The Zuytdorp was wrecked at the base of the cliffs that now bear her name. There they are at left. They stretch for hundreds of kilometers along the western australian coast, towering into the air, their bases battered by waves rolling in from the Indian Ocean. The west coast is still rising out of the sea. That’s how those cliffs were formed. High as they are, the weather has made its mark. There’s a shallow rock shelf extending maybe one hundred meters or so before the water falls away to depth, just like going over a cliff.

The geography is important. There are only two places along those kilometers where the cliffs dip a little so that a person can get down to a tiny beach, and the wreck of the Zuytdorp was found at one of those spots. We don’t know if the Zuytdorp’s captain sent one of his boats to Batavia for help, but if he did, it never arrived. The Zuytdorp disappeared sometime in the winter of 1712. It’s agreed that a large number of people, perhaps as many as fifty or sixty, made it ashore and in fact eventually journeyed inland, in an attempt to find water. This is one of the driest coastal spots in all of Australia. Their fate is unknown. No bones were ever found and the aboriginal people who undoubtedly knew about the wreck and the survivors have died, their word-of-mouth histories dying with them. We know they knew of the wreck. Stories were told in Perth (capital of the then colonised state of Western Australia) in 1834, related by the aborigines, of a shipwreck many miles north of Perth. At the time, it was believed the wreck was recent and a ship was sent to look for survivors. Later it was known that the story had been passed down, about a wreck 120 years earlier.

So what about the breech blocks?

The thing about wrecks is, why do they happen? The Batavia and the Zeewyck both hit low reefs at night, the lookouts mistaking the white water for moonlight on the waves. But the Zuytdorp cliffs were well known to the Dutch mariners for a hundred years and the captains kept away. Despite the vexed problem of longitude, which made it impossible for them to fix their position exactly, you don’t mistake towering cliffs for anything but what they are – even at night.

The obvious answer is a storm. The ship was driven up onto the reef at the base of the cliffs, which gave the crew the opportunity to get off the stricken vessel and cover the short distance to the shore. In that case, the captain was very lucky to be washed up on one of the only two low parts of the cliffs – unless he aimed at it. Leaving that interesting thought aside, let’s assume the storm has blown over and the boats are used to ferry those people who were still alive, ashore. They presumably would have taken what they could find in the way of food and water, sailcloth, clothing and so on. But why take the breech blocks?

Like all Dutch ships, the Zuytdorp was well armed against pirates. Most of its formidable complement of cannons were muzzle loaders, made of cast iron. But it also carried eight swivel-cannon, which were made of bronze and used breech loading mechanisms. How it works is described here. The breech blocks were solid pieces of bronze, and very heavy, each weighing about 13 kg (25 lbs). Yet eight breech blocks were found on the beach at the wreck site. Why? In Philip Playford’s fascinating book “Carpet of Silver: the wreck of the Zuytdorp” (UWA Press, 1996) he speculates that the survivors may have intended to bring ashore one of the swivel cannon, then use the eight breech blocks to fire the gun several times in rapid succession to attract a passing ship. There’s evidence they lit signal fires on the cliffs, presumably with that intention. But no Dutch sea captain was going to risk his ship on that shoreline, even if he had realised the fires were not a local bushfire.

Eventually, the survivors gave up and journeyed inland. Where they disappeared. Without a trace.

‘Truth’ in historical fiction

To Die a Dry Death’ is certainly not the first and will not be the last, novel written about the loss of the Batavia in 1629. I recently had an email conversation with somebody who knows the history well and it got me thinking about the idea of ‘truth’ in history.

Conventional history states that the Batavia’s captain, Adriaen Jacobsz, plotted with Jeronimus Cornelisz as far back as when the ship called in at Table Bay to kill Commandeur Pelsaert, steal the vessel and make a fortune from piracy. Pelsaert’s journal includes his summary of the events that took place on the Abrolhos Islands, where Cornelisz and his thugs murdered around one hundred men, women and children. The executive summary hinges around the planned ‘mutiny’ by the skipper and despite his undeniable seamanship in getting the overloaded longboat to the city of Batavia without loss, Jacobsz is remembered as the architect of disaster and some go so far as to suggest that Cornelisz’s behaviour stemmed from Jacobsz.

I have always found that argument difficult to believe, for the following reasons:

  • Pelsaert and Jacobsz hated each other. Pelsaert would have readily believed the captain guilty of anything.
  • Evidence was extracted using torture and it’s easy enough to answer loaded questions with the expected answer.
  • If Jacobsz intended (with Cornelisz) to kill Pelsaert they had plenty of opportunity on the voyage (accidental fall overboard) or when Pelsaert was ill. Cornelisz was an apothecary, after all. Or even in the longboat. You could even ask why Jacobsz took him in the longboat at all.
  • Cornelisz was a liar and completely without conscience. He blamed everybody else and lied through his teeth to get out of everything. It was he who testified to the plot between him and Jacobsz at Table Bay, he said Zwaantie was a tart, he said Jacobsz offered Lucretia gold to sleep with him. He’d say anything to avoid torture, too.
  • The main players apart from Cornelisz were already dead before the journal was written and couldn’t defend themselves.
  • Pelsaert executed most of the more important of Cornelisz’s gang before returning to Batavia, so they couldn’t be interviewed, either.
  • We know what happened to all the members of Cornelisz’s gang who were returned to Batavia, so it seems odd to me, given their idea of justice, that Jacobsz was not put to death immediately and that his fate is unknown.

To a point, the journal itself is a work of fiction. I do not doubt that Pelsaert did his best to record the known facts and the interviews with the murderers. But it certainly wasn’t a transcript of a trial in the modern sense. And I have no doubt that Pelsaert had an eye on the person who would read the account – the formidable Governor of the Indies, Jan Pieterszoon Coen.

So my book is that little bit different. I applied a ‘what if’ question. What if the captain was innocent of a planned mutiny? Can the events recorded in the journal be interpreted in this way without fiddling with the facts? I felt it could and I guess my efforts were successful. One reviewer who knows the history described the book as a dramatisation, rather than fiction, which is exactly what I tried to achieve.

That’s the wonderful thing about history. We can (and should) reconsider events and what they meant. But of course, we’ll never know for sure.

Murder by decapitation

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

This event happened towards the end of Cornelisz’s reign of terror after the sinking of the Batavia and I thought it was an excellent opportunity to show both the depravity of the murderers and the pervading terror in the hearts and minds of the few remaining potential victims, forced to witness the killing. I also wanted to get my facts straight.

A careful check of Pelsaert’s journal (translated in Henrietta Drake-Brockman’s ‘Voyage to Disaster’) revealed that Mattijs Beer did not decapitate the boy with one blow. To quote the transalation,

Meanwhile Jan van Bemel was busy to blindfold the boy and Jeronimus, who stood next to him, said, “Now boy, sit still, we are only having some fun with you,” and Mattijs Beer with one blow near enough struck off his head. (p181)

Near enough to one blow is not one blow. So I asked a friend, Anthony Saunders PhD, who is an expert in military history, a fencer and swordsman, whether this was possible. I told him that the sword was probably like one used in the Thirty Years War and would have been a soldier’s weapon, not naval.

This is what he told me.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a sword was more often used for executions in Germany and central Europe than the axe. Anne Boleyn was beheaded with a sword. The victim knelt, as did Anne, or sat in a chair or a stool, eyes bound, and the sword was swung horizontally. But these were executioners’ swords. That is not to say that a broad-bladed weapon would not serve equally well. With that in mind, I would suggest that the sword is one typical of the Thirty Years War period (1618–48). For example, a schiavona-style basket hilt (used by Croatian mercenaries) but this might be a bit late for 1629, or a broadsword with a swept hilt or a Pappenheimer (with a shell inside the guard). Broadswords were military swords, of course, so their hilts varied more in style than the civilian rapier. Some had a curved down crosspiece (quillon) on one side of the hilt which turned up into a knuckleguard on the other side, with a large shell guard to cover the rest of the hand. Here are some swords of the right period. To be honest, to be effective for execution, the short-handled weapons would be of less use as looking at contemporary engravings of sword executions, the executioner used a two-handed grip.

So I went with the experts. In my version, Cornelis Aldersz’s head was almost (but not quite) removed with one blow.

Doctor Saunders was also able to give me valuable insight into what happens to the human body when such a blow is delivered. Lots of blood as the pressure is released from the arteries and often some twitching and jerking.

Once I’d written the scene, I sent it to him to check my description. He approved. So now you know a little more about swords than you did before. Fascinating stuff.

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

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

Having grown up in Western Australia, I heard about the Batavia and the other Dutch wrecks of the 17th and 18th centuries at primary school. That was a long time ago and I think I’ve read most of the non-fiction about all those wrecks. I’ve been to the maritime museum in Fremantle and seen the artefacts recovered from the site, including the Batavia’s actually keel, rebuilt in the basement. I’ve been on the Batavia replica built in Holland (there are some pictures on my website) and I’ve stood on the forbidding cliffs the longboat sailed along. So I’ve been immersed in the story for a long time.

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.

Apart from the journal, the only other known contemporary document is a letter written by Predikant Bastiaensz to his family. It is about the only source for what happened in the last few days when the thugs made their final attacks on the soldiers.

Henrietta Drake-Brockman’s ‘Voyage to Disaster’ (UWA Press, 2006) contains a translation of Pelsaert’s journal, Bastiaensz’s letter and other documents she was able to procure from Holland and Jakarta, such as Coen’s orders to Pelsaert. As an aside, Drake-Brockman, an amateur historian, actually deduced the whereabouts of the wreck from reading the descriptions of locations in the journal and the Predikant’s letter. Archaeologists had been looking on the wrong reef. The ship was finally found in 1963, when her book was first published.

Most historians support the notion that the Batavia’s captain, Adriaen Jacobsz, was in a plot with Cornelisz to hijack the Batavia, kill Pelsaert and go pirating. Drake-Brockman supported that belief, so did Mike Dash in his 2002 book ‘Batavia’s Graveyard’.

I have always found that argument difficult to believe, for the following reasons:

  • Pelsaert and Jacobsz hated each other. Pelsaert would have readily believed the captain guilty of anything.
  • Evidence was extracted using torture and it’s easy enough to answer loaded questions with the expected answer.
  • If Jacobsz intended (with Cornelisz) to kill Pelsaert they had plenty of opportunity on the voyage (accidental fall overboard) or when Pelsaert was ill. Cornelisz was an apothecary, after all. Or even in the longboat. You could even ask why Jacobsz took him in the longboat at all.
  • Cornelisz was a liar and completely without conscience. He blamed everybody else and lied through his teeth to get out of everything. It was he who testified to the plot between him and Jacobsz at Table Bay, he said Zwaantie was a tart, he said Jacobsz offered Lucretia gold to sleep with him. He’d say anything to avoid torture, too.
  • The main players apart from Cornelisz were already dead before the journal was written and couldn’t defend themselves.
  • Pelsaert executed most of the more important of Cornelisz’s gang before returning to Batavia, so they couldn’t be interviewed, either.
  • We know what happened to all the members of Cornelisz’s gang who were returned to Batavia, so it seems odd to me, given their idea of justice, that Jacobsz was not put to death immediately and that his fate is unknown.

To a point, the journal itself is a work of fiction. I do not doubt that Pelsaert did his best to record the known facts and the interviews with the murderers. But it certainly wasn’t a transcript of a trial in the modern sense. And I have no doubt that Pelsaert had an eye on the person who would read the account – the formidable Governor of the Indies, Jan Pieterszoon Coen.

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. Governor Jan Pieterszoon Coen was a harsh and puritanical man who 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.

The other two characters, Lucretia and Wiebbe Hayes, are merely bit players in the journal. Dash and Drake-Brockman gave me the wherewithal to paint Lucretia as a real woman, a grieving mother going off to join her husband in a far-off land. Combine that with the perilous situation of a high-born lady left with a mob of louts and it’s easy enough to imagine how difficult it would be for her. I took the opportunity to use her as the eyes of the victims, if you like, interpreting events on Batavia’s Graveyard from her point of view.

Of course I made some things up. It’s a novel, after all. I guess every historian has a duty to examine the facts and interpret them and in a way, that’s what I’ve tried to do in this book. One reader (who knew the history) describes the novel as dramatization rather than fiction. I’ll take that, with a bow.

PS. The book has recently switched to a new publisher, hence the change of name from ‘Die a Dry Death’ to ‘To Die a Dry Death’. The story is the same but the the new version has added bonus material.