It’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.
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.
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.
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 also been privileged to visit the Abrolhos Islands Wallabi Group, where the drama unfolded. Here’s my description.
Many ships have been wrecked over the centuries. Most of their names became nothing more than ciphers in the ocean of history. But the wreck of the Dutch East Indies merchantman Batavia on remote islands off the coast of Australia in 1629 is well known in Australia and Holland. Why? Because over half of the people left on the desolate islands of the Abrolhos group awaiting the return of rescuers, were murdered by a group led by a psychopath. Throw into that the incredible journey of forty-eight people crammed into the Batavia’s longboat, sailing from the wreck site two thousand miles over uncharted waters to the city of Batavia (now Jakarta) to seek help.
How do we know all this? Any book about the Batavia is based on one main account of the events – Pelsaert’s journal. Francisco Pelsaert was an employee of the Dutch East India Company, the Upper Merchant in charge of the fleet of which the Batavia was the flagship. So while Adriaen Jacobsz, the ship’s captain, was in command of the ship he was beholden to Pelsaert. (Who was not a sailor.) After the Batavia was wrecked, Pelsaert started a journal to record events. On his return to the Abrolhos islands to rescue the remaining survivors, he documented the trial of Cornelisz and his band of thugs. To read a brief overview of what happened, click here.
Most historians support the notion that the Batavia’s captain, Adriaen Jacobsz, was in a plot with Under merchant Jeronimus Cornelisz, who became the leader of the murderers, to hijack the Batavia, kill Pelsaert and go pirating. But it seemed strange to me for many, many reasons, not least because there is no record of Jacobsz having been executed. Although the journal is that most precious of items, a contemporary source, it’s important to consider the bias of the writer. Pelsaert had a vested interest in recording events in a way that would put him in a good light. After all, as the man in charge, he had ultimate responsibility. If he could blame the captain for being involved in a mutiny, much of the blame could be turned away from himself.
As I read the journal, my picture of Pelsaert soon became one of a man trying to salvage his own reputation. He and Jacobsz had a history, they despised each other. Reading the early part of the journal, where Pelsaert describes the initial wreck, I raised an eyebrow as Pelsaert used ‘I’, implying he gave orders that would have been given by the captain. The same thing happened during the longboat’s journey as Pelsaert claimed credit for things I felt were beyond his knowledge. Jacobsz deserved the credit and received none. It was also important to remember the man for whom Pelsaert was writing this journal – the formidable Jan Pieterszoon Coen, Governor of the Indies. A harsh and puritanical man, he was unimpressed (to say the least) at the loss of a ship and its cargo. One could expect Pelsaert to be at pains to present his own actions in the best possible light.
In contrast, my picture of the captain was of a tough, strong, capable man. A hard drinker, a womaniser sure enough. But a true leader, somebody these hardened seamen would follow. Zwaantie, the young woman who won Jacobsz’s affection, is depicted in the journal as a tart. But again, some of the evidence for that conjecture comes from Cornelisz. I think the mere fact that Jacobsz took Zwaantie with him in the longboat indicates a little more than a casual fling.
The journal reveals Cornelisz as a psychopath, silver-tongued, charismatic and an accomplished liar who would say anything to save himself. The main evidence for the existence of the piracy plot implicating Jacobsz comes from Cornelisz. There is corroborating evidence given by some of the other henchmen, but men said things like “I didn’t know about a plot until after the wreck” or evidence was extracted through torture. I began to wonder if I could build a case that Cornelisz deliberately wove a tale of a plot to seduce his followers. He needed sailors to pull off his plan to capture a rescue ship and he was a merchant. What better way to add validity to his plan than to implicate the popular captain? Pelsaert, of course, jumped at the notion of a plot.
Many books have been written about the Batavia, both non-fiction and fiction. There has even been an opera. Most writers agree with the notion of a mutiny involving the captain. As I said, I don’t. So my book, To Die a Dry Death, doesn’t quite sing along with the chorus. I’m absolutely delighted to announce, after a considerable delay, the novel is once again available as an ebook. Please do take a look.
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.
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.
I’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.
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?
I’m one of those people who believes that when you write about real historical events, it isn’t your place to change facts. For example, unless you’re writing alternative history, you can’t move the Battle of Waterloo from 1815 to 1820, or 1795 simply because it suits your story better. In my novel, I’ve stuck to the facts. If people died, they die. If they survived, they survive. There’s plenty of room for drama and motivation without messing with reality.
However… (you knew there’d be one, didn’t you?)
Sometimes the facts as recorded in Pelsaert’s journal are imprecise or… odd. This is one such instance. Upon his return to the islands from Batavia in the yacht Sardam, the vessel approached from the north, coming up next to the High Island in the deeper water. Pelsaert took the boat to that island, having seen smoke. At this point he was searching for the survivors from the wreck. His journal states that “I sprang ashore, and at the same time we saw a very small yawl with four men rowing around the Northerly point.”* This was Wiebbe Hayes and three of his men, coming to warn Pelsaert about the gang of cut-throats, now led by Wouter Loos.
If Pelsaert’s words are correct, Hayes and his men must have rowed around the outside of the High Island to reach that Northerly point. The obvious question is why? You’ll see on the map that the quickest approach to the Sardam would be along the front of the islands. The reason for them taking the much longer way is not explained. So it’s a fact, but it had to make sense in the context of events.
I thought long and hard about this, trying to come up with a reasonable answer.
I came to the conclusion that the final battle between Hayes’s defenders and Wouter Loos and the gang was still in progress when Sardam arrived. I’ve marked what is believed to be the site of the battle with an X. From their higher vantage point, Hayes’s men would have seen the ship before the gang. Hayes has a boat (the little yawl mentioned) but if he takes the direct route, the gang is sure to see him and give chase. So Hayes grabs a couple of his best men, grabs the boat, and rows around the island so the gang is not aware of his absence.
Works for me.
* Drake-Brockman, H. “Voyage to Disaster”, p130
In previous posts I spoke about the punishments meted out to the members of Cornelisz’s gang of cuthroats, starting with the execution of the main ringleaders and then the lesser punishments (if that’s what you want to call keel hauling and dropping from the mast) suffered by many of the others on the way back to Batavia.
I’ve also mentioned the horrible death of the remaining senior member of Cornelisz’s gang by breaking on the wheel. But the courts in Batavia were not finished with the miscreants. Reading about the punishments handed out* is a fascinating indictment of the concept of ‘justice’ at that time.
Five more men were hanged, most of them deservedly. But Cornelisz was a truly evil man. He killed no one himself, just caused them to be killed. A favourite technique was to give a man a choice; kill or be killed. Salomon Deschamps, Pelsaert’s clerk, had been made to strangle a half-dead baby. Deschamps was one those hanged, while some enthusiastic murderers were at least allowed to live. One man who had killed three men was severely flogged and made to wear a heavy wooden halter around his neck. Why he escaped the gallows is hard to understand.
Then there is the case of Claas Harmansz, a fifteen year old lad. He and two other cabin boys managed to avoid the slaughter of the people on Seals Island (it’s the long, narrow island directly across the deep channel from Batavia’s Graveyard) by hiding in the shrubs. But the day came when Cornelisz ordered them caught, and drowned. In the boat on the way back from Seals Island Harmansz, tied up and awaiting death, was given a choice; throw the other two overboard, or die himself. He chose to live. Pelsaert sentenced him to 100 lashes after being dropped from the mast three times. The lad received a further flogging in Batavia.
The courts could not decide what to do with two of the youngest, most impressionable of the gang, two lads aged seventeen and fifteen. In a truly twisted piece of logic, they had the two draw lots. The loser was hanged, while the other was severely flogged and made to watch the hanging with a noose around his neck.
I’ve mentioned Jan Pelgrom, the eighteen year old who was spared the death sentence at the last moment, and was marooned instead. I wonder if he ever realised how lucky he was?
* Mike Dash, “Batavia’s Graveyard” , 2002, and Henrietta Drake-Brockman, “Voyage to Disaster”, 1963
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
There is little doubt that Commandeur Pelsaert was much more lenient in his treatment of Cornelisz’s band of thugs than his masters in Batavia would have been. As mentioned in previous posts, Cornelisz and his major henchmen could count themselves lucky to just have been hanged. Others who were keelhauled or dropped from the yardarm were not necessarily considered immune from further punishment.
But perhaps the luckiest of Cornelisz’s cut-throats were two men who were marooned on the Australian mainland. They were Wouter Loos, who took over command of the gang after Wiebbe Hayes captured Cornelisz, and Jan Pelgrom, who had been a cabin boy on the Batavia‘s last voyage. Why Pelsaert took it into his head to spare these two is a moot point. Loos, a seasoned soldier, had taken part in more than one murder, including the slaughter of the predikant’s family. Pelgrom, a lad of eighteen or so, evidently became enamoured of being a part of the gang. In the blink of an eye he went from being one of the lowest on the social rank to a strutting young peacock, waving a sword around and threatening death to cowering survivors. Let’s not be too merciful, though. Eighteen was quite grown-up in Europe of the time; some of the lads forced to kill at Cornelisz’s command were thirteen or fourteen. Pelgrom wasn’t forced – he begged to kill and cried when one of the older men dealt the blow, instead.
He also cried and wet himself when they took him to the gallows. Maybe Pelsaert was sick of death because he granted Pelgrom a reprieve at the last moment. Pelgrom and Loos were taken to one of the estuaries Pelasert had discovered on his journey up the coast all those months ago in the longboat. The men were left with a skiff (one of those built by survivors on the islands), supplies and trinkets for the natives.
Exactly where they were left is debated. Some say it was at Wittecarra gully, near the Murchison River, others say the Hutt River estuary is more likely. Be that as it may, they were certainly the first white settlers to arrive in Western Australia. How long they lasted is a matter of conjecture. I’ll talk about that another time.