Tag Archives: marine archaeology

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.

 

Hiding in plain sight

At last, the mystery of the Aagtekerke  which disappeared after sailing from Table Bay in 1726, may have been solved. It has long been believed that the Aagtekerke, like the Batavia and the Zeewijk, met its end on the reefs of the Abrolhos islands, sixty kilometres or so off the west coast of Australia. Ironically, it was hiding in plain sight, as they say. This article explains.

It’s now thought that the Aagtekerke may well have met its end in the same place as the Zeewijk, near Pelsart Island in the Pelsart group of the archipelago. In another piece of irony, the Zeewijk survivors reported seeing wreckage and assumed (incorrectly) that this was the place where the Batavia was sunk – hence the name. Pelsart was the senior merchant in command of the Batavia and its fleet. The Zeewijk was wrecked in 1727.

To me, it seems odd that it has taken so long. The dead giveaway had to be the discovery of elephants tusks at the site. The Zeewijk didn’t carry ivory, but the Aagtekerke did.

I’ll be most interested to hear what transpires.