I saw in a Dutch paper that the statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen which has proudly stood in the square in Hoorn for several hundred years, was to be replaced with a less controversial figure. The reason, it seems, was that he wasn’t at all a ‘nice’ man and his treatment of the Javanese when he was Governor of Batavia was dreadful. The Indonesian branded him “the butcher of Banda”.
That’s true. But before we condemn the man outright, we need to consider him within his environment, that is, the early seventeenth century. Europeans saw themselves as better than everybody else, slavery was everywhere and treatment of defeated populations generally cruel. One has only to look at South America and the destruction of the Aztecs, or at the West African slave trade, as two obvious examples. Sure, Coen was tough and brutal, and during his rule he established the stranglehold the Dutch had over Indonesia until after World War 2 – which is why he was Hoorn’s favourite son.
However, it seems he was puritanical and brutal, as well. When he learned a (very) young couple had sex in the Governor’s quarters his retribution was awful. The 12-year-old girl was the half-Japanese daughter of Jacques Specx, a senior VOC official who would ultimately succeed him as Governor of Batavia. The 15-year-old boy was the nephew of the town clerk of Amsterdam. Despite their connections, and pleas for leniency on account of their youth, Coen had the lad beheaded and the girl flogged within an inch of her life*. And herein we have the overlap with the sinking of the Batavia.
Commandeur Pelsaert had to report the loss of his flagship to Coen as soon as he arrived at Batavia the city. Coen sent him out again, within days, to find the survivors and with orders to recover as much of the ship’s cargo as he could. Imagine his consternation when he arrived at the islands and learned of the debauchery and murder which had taken place. The main perpetrator, Cornelisz, had been the ship’s under merchant, Pelsaert’s 2IC. Pelsaert must have been beside himself at the prospect of taking that news back to Coen. It’s an important concern when considering the writing of the famous journal created from the proceedings of Pelsaert’s investigation, since Coen was the intended recipient of the report. I have no doubt Pelsaert was appalled at the suffering Cornelisz’s henchmen caused. His later treatment of the guilty was much more lenient than whatever Coen might have meted out. But I feel also that he would have been at pains to direct the Governor’s wrath anywhere but at himself.
As it turned out, Coen was dead before Pelsaert arrived back at Batavia. I suspect that was a matter of some relief to the Commandeur.
The statue? It’s back on it’s plinth in Hoorn.
* Mike Dash, ‘Batavia’s Graveyard’, p174