Tag Archives: Batavia wreck

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.

 

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.

It’s back!

PrintI’m delighted to announce that my historical fiction novel, To Die a Dry Death, is back on Amazon. Fingerpress has released to paperback first, but the e-book should be available shortly. It’s the same great, true story with a fabulous new cover.

280 survivors. One tyrant. The true story of the Batavia shipwreck.

The chilling, true story of the shipwreck of the Batavia could so easily have been the template for William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

In June 1629, the Dutch merchantman Batavia, laden with treasure and the riches of Europe, smashed into an uncharted reef thirty miles off the coast of Terra Incognita Australis-the unknown Great South Land. 200 survivors-women and children, sailors, soldiers and merchants-scrambled ashore on a small group of uninhabited, hostile islands, with little food or fresh water. Desperately seeking help, the ship’s officers set out in an open boat to make a two-thousand-mile journey to the nearest port. While they were gone, from the struggle for survival on the islands there emerged a tyrant whose brutal lust for power was even deadlier than the reef that wrecked the Batavia.

Amazon US and Amazon UK