Tag Archives: Cornelisz

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.

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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.

The first murders

Picture of Abrolhos killingsIn my last post, I described how Jeronimus Cornelisz, arch-villain of the Batavia shipwreck survivors, divided his flock by setting up settlements on different islands. He’d promised all of them to supply them with provisions from the central store, a promise he never intended to keep.

Before he could do much more, however, Cornelisz needed support, and he found willing conspirators amongst the young men who had shared the stern section of the Batavia with him. Several were younger sons of noblemen, sent off to make a name for themselves in the Indies.

Now to gradually reduce the number of people on Batavia’s graveyard in more permanent ways, while at the same time cementing his authority.

The first death was an apparently legal execution and demonstrates how Cornelisz used the authority he had gained as leader of the Island Council to do what he wanted. A soldier and his friend were accused of secretly tapping a keg of wine for their own use. This was theft of communal goods and Cornelisz sentenced the pair to death by drowning. While the island Council supported the judgement on the thief, councillors felt his companion, who had not stolen the wine although he’d helped consume it, should receive a lesser punishment. The thief was duly drowned, but Cornelisz used the councillors’ dissension as an excuse to dismiss then, and appoint men who supported him. The very fact that Cornelisz was able to take this radical step was an indication of the strength of his position.

That very night, four men were secretly taken away on a raft . Anyone who asked was told the men had joined the soldiers on the High Islands. In fact, three of them were drowned. A fourth was spared, on condition that he joined the gang, which, of course, he did. This became a pattern in the gang’s dealings with people on the islands. They often forced people to join them or die, and often forced otherwise innocent folk to kill or be killed. I’ve referred to this practice in an earlier post, entitled ‘kill or be killed’.

Cornelisz was becoming increasingly confident. The clandestine killings continued but the first broad daylight massacre was coming soon.

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?

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.

The mind of a psychopath

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-S33882, Adolf Hitler retouchedQuite a number of psychopaths have made a name for themselves. Hitler, Napoleon, Stalin. Ted Bundy is another, more recent, example, as is Hannibal Lecter, featured in the movie The Silence of the Lambs. What about Jeronimus Cornelisz, erstwhile under merchant on the merchantship Batavia, who for a few short months in 1629,  strode his tiny island like a colossus, or a God, dealing out death and destruction on a whim. What makes a person a psychopath? How do you pick them from the rest of humanity?

In my novel To Die a Dry Death, I had to try to get into Jeronimus Cornelsiz’s head and understand – or at least explain – his behaviour. So – to try to understand.

To quote from a handout produced by Oregon Counseling;

The psychopath is one of the most fascinating and distressing problems of human experience.  For the most part, a psychopath never remains attached to anyone or anything. They live a “predatory” lifestyle. They feel little or no regret, and little or no remorse – except when they are caught. They need relationships, but see people as obstacles to overcome and be eliminated.   If not,  they see people in terms of how they can be used. They use people for stimulation, to build their self-esteem and they invariably value people in terms of their material value (money, property, etc..).

A psychopath can have high verbal intelligence, but they typically lack “emotional intelligence”. They can be expert in manipulating others by playing to their emotions. There is a shallow quality to the emotional aspect of their stories (i.e., how they felt, why they felt that way, or how others may have felt and why). The lack of emotional intelligence is the first good sign you may be dealing with a psychopath.  A history of criminal behavior in which they do not seem to learn from their experience, but merely think about ways to not get caught is the second best sign.

The following is a list of items based on the research of Robert Hare, Ph.D. which is derived from the “The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, .1991, Toronto: Multi-Health  Systems.” These are the most highly researched and recognized characteristics of psychopathic personality and behavior.

  • glibness/superficial charm
  • need for stimulation/prone to boredom
  • conning/manipulative
  • shallow emotional response
  • parasitic lifestyle
  • promiscuous sexual behavior
  • lack of realistic long term goals
  • irresponsibility
  • many short term relationships
  • revocation of conditional release
  • grandiose sense of self worth
  • pathological lying
  • lack of remorse or guilt
  • callous/lack of empathy
  • poor behavioral controls
  • early behavioral problems
  • impulsivity
  • failure to accept responsibility for their own actions
  • juvenile delinquency
  • criminal versatility

Michael G. Conner, Psy.D Has this to say.

A psychopath is usually a subtle manipulator. They do this by playing to the emotions of others. They typically have high verbal intelligence, but they lack what is commonly referred to as “emotional intelligence”. There is always a shallow quality to the emotional aspect of their stories. In particular they have difficulty describing how they felt, why they felt that way, or how others may feel and why. In many cases you almost have to explain it to them. Close friends and parents will often end up explaining to the psychopath how they feel and how others feel who have been hurt by him or her.

They can do this over and over with no significant change in the person’s choices and behavior. They don’t understand or appreciate the impact that their behavior has on others. They do appreciate what it means when they are caught breaking rules or the law even though they seem to end up in trouble again. They desperately avoid incarceration and loss of freedom but continue to act as if they can get away with breaking the rules. They don’t learn from these consequences. They seem to react with feelings and regret when they are caught. But their regret is not so much for other people as it is for the consequences that their behavior has had on them, their freedom, their resources and their so called “friends.”

They can be very sad for their self. A psychopath is always in it for their self even when it seems like they are caring for and helping others. The definition of their “friends” are people who support the psychopath and protect them from the consequence of their own antisocial behavior. Shallow friendships, low emotional intelligence, using people, antisocial attitudes and  failure to learn from the repeated consequences of their choices and actions help identify the psychopath.

______________________________________________________________

Armed with a description like this, it wasn’t so hard to get into Cornelisz’s head. In some ways it was more difficult to sort out Lucretia, who had to deal with this man at a very intimate level, always conscious that the slightest mistake may have cost her her life.

It still stops me in my tracks to think that this one man was effectively responsible for the deaths of around one hundred people. Put that into perspective. There were about one hundred and eighty people on Batavia’s Graveyard when Pelsaert and Jacobsz  headed for Java. Cornelisz’s thugs killed over half of them. Yet Cornelisz never accepted responsibility, never showed any remorse, always kept coming back to the fact that he himself never killed anybody.

But you know what? The most frightening thing of all was how easy it was for him to recruit people more than willing to carry out his orders.

Ah, the frailty of the human psyche.

Of God and Demons

Picture of a sea monster from Wikipedia

I have always felt that one of the most important aspects of writing historical fiction is getting the mindset right. People in the seventeenth century had different beliefs, different sensitivities to ours. Things like torture, which we find reprehensible, was an accepted means of extracting the truth. Infant mortality was a fact of life; if a child died, parents routinely used the same name for a child born later. God was real, up on a cloud somewhere up there above the stars and demons caused much of the mischief in the world.

I wanted to show a little of the superstition of the time in my novel so you’ll find a reference to sea monsters when the Batavia hit the reef on the Abrolhos islands in 1629. They weren’t there (of course) but the fear that they might be was no less real for all that. Then I expanded. I think it’s fair to construe that Jeronimus Cornelisz, like most people of the time, could not swim. I used poetic licence to add a near-drowning episode in his past so that his fear of drowning was almost pathological. When the ship begins to break apart, he finally is forced to face the water.

Without warning the bowsprit broke away. The impact from the plunge dislodged him. Water rushed up and filled his mouth, stifling his cry. He tried to push himself up, back to the surface but something wrapped around his leg. Sobbing with fear he kicked. Dear God, please, God. Don’t let me drown, don’t let me drown. I’ll do anything, don’t let me drown. The grip on his leg disappeared. He groped upward, lungs bursting and his hand struck something solid. His fingers caught hold of wood just as his mouth opened to gulp. Air. He could still breathe. The bowsprit bobbed beside him. Weak with relief, he pulled himself up until he sat astride the floating timber. The water lapped around his thighs, the rain poured down but he was alive and beyond the pounding reef. His God had not deserted him.

And then at the end, at the moment when Cornelisz breathes his last “a shadow passed across the island. Lucretia started, heart jolting. A cloud, that was all. A fast-moving outrider of a bank gathering in the west.”

Just hints, just a feeling for the times. I felt it worked. I hope you do, too.

‘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.