Tag Archives: Batavia’s graveyard

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.

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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.

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.

 

The tents on Batavia’s Graveyard

When you’re writing about a particular time in history, it’s important to get the details right; what people wore, how they thought, what they ate. The life of the Dutch in the seventeenth century is well documented through the wonderful artists of the ‘Golden Age’ – painters like Rembrandt, van Dijk, Brueghel, van de Velde and the like. But one thing they could not cover was what was life like on those desolate islands off the coast of Western Australia after the Batavia was wrecked in 1629.

Pelsaert’s journal is light on detail. He was documenting a trial, not living conditions. But he mentions tents and it’s obvious the survivors would have constructed them. It was winter in the Southern Hemisphere and the wind blows cold and constantly.  In this respect, the journal becomes a little bit hard to follow. Pelsart often mentions men going to an individual’s tent and it is easy to fall into the notion that the tiny island was littered with small tents, one per family. But that’s probably wrong.

The survivors had to rely on the wrecked Batavia for building materials and for fuel because the islands are treeless. So they would have collected flotsam or eventually actually went out to the wreck to bring back timber and sails. We know these ingenious people fashioned a number of small boats as well as rafts. But the tents would most likely have fitted in with how they perceived life. Remember, they came from crowded towns and an even more crowded ship. Even the stern where Pelsaert and the senior people lived, was terribly crowded by our standards. It’s more than likely that their tents would have been simple affairs – pillars and a beam with a sail draped over it. And there wouldn’t have been many. One or two for the senior people and a couple more for the ordinary folk.

The picture at left says it all, really. It’s an illustration from the first book about the Batavia, entitled ‘an unlucky voyage’, from 1647. By then, survivors would have been back home, telling their stories and while I imagine some were embroidered, this illustration depicts the island itself (tiny and flat) accurately and no doubt that’s how the tents looked, too. Notice one large tent has a portico, while the other three are quite simple – a way of differentiating the rank of the occupants. So the survivors did what people far from home always do – emulate what they know as best they can.