Tag Archives: shipwreck survivors

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.

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?

Why approach from the North?

Picture of map of Wallabi group islandsI’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

The mystery of the breech blocks

Picture of Zuytdorp cliffsI alluded in a previous post to the events surrounding the loss of other VOC merchantmen and the fact that quite a few Dutchmen actually reached land in Australia, then vanished. Of all the stories, that of the Zuytdorp is perhaps the most mysterious. And those breech blocks in the title of this post play an important role in the mystery.

The Zuytdorp was wrecked at the base of the cliffs that now bear her name. There they are at left. They stretch for hundreds of kilometers along the western australian coast, towering into the air, their bases battered by waves rolling in from the Indian Ocean. The west coast is still rising out of the sea. That’s how those cliffs were formed. High as they are, the weather has made its mark. There’s a shallow rock shelf extending maybe one hundred meters or so before the water falls away to depth, just like going over a cliff.

The geography is important. There are only two places along those kilometers where the cliffs dip a little so that a person can get down to a tiny beach, and the wreck of the Zuytdorp was found at one of those spots. We don’t know if the Zuytdorp’s captain sent one of his boats to Batavia for help, but if he did, it never arrived. The Zuytdorp disappeared sometime in the winter of 1712. It’s agreed that a large number of people, perhaps as many as fifty or sixty, made it ashore and in fact eventually journeyed inland, in an attempt to find water. This is one of the driest coastal spots in all of Australia. Their fate is unknown. No bones were ever found and the aboriginal people who undoubtedly knew about the wreck and the survivors have died, their word-of-mouth histories dying with them. We know they knew of the wreck. Stories were told in Perth (capital of the then colonised state of Western Australia) in 1834, related by the aborigines, of a shipwreck many miles north of Perth. At the time, it was believed the wreck was recent and a ship was sent to look for survivors. Later it was known that the story had been passed down, about a wreck 120 years earlier.

So what about the breech blocks?

The thing about wrecks is, why do they happen? The Batavia and the Zeewyck both hit low reefs at night, the lookouts mistaking the white water for moonlight on the waves. But the Zuytdorp cliffs were well known to the Dutch mariners for a hundred years and the captains kept away. Despite the vexed problem of longitude, which made it impossible for them to fix their position exactly, you don’t mistake towering cliffs for anything but what they are – even at night.

The obvious answer is a storm. The ship was driven up onto the reef at the base of the cliffs, which gave the crew the opportunity to get off the stricken vessel and cover the short distance to the shore. In that case, the captain was very lucky to be washed up on one of the only two low parts of the cliffs – unless he aimed at it. Leaving that interesting thought aside, let’s assume the storm has blown over and the boats are used to ferry those people who were still alive, ashore. They presumably would have taken what they could find in the way of food and water, sailcloth, clothing and so on. But why take the breech blocks?

Like all Dutch ships, the Zuytdorp was well armed against pirates. Most of its formidable complement of cannons were muzzle loaders, made of cast iron. But it also carried eight swivel-cannon, which were made of bronze and used breech loading mechanisms. How it works is described here. The breech blocks were solid pieces of bronze, and very heavy, each weighing about 13 kg (25 lbs). Yet eight breech blocks were found on the beach at the wreck site. Why? In Philip Playford’s fascinating book “Carpet of Silver: the wreck of the Zuytdorp” (UWA Press, 1996) he speculates that the survivors may have intended to bring ashore one of the swivel cannon, then use the eight breech blocks to fire the gun several times in rapid succession to attract a passing ship. There’s evidence they lit signal fires on the cliffs, presumably with that intention. But no Dutch sea captain was going to risk his ship on that shoreline, even if he had realised the fires were not a local bushfire.

Eventually, the survivors gave up and journeyed inland. Where they disappeared. Without a trace.

What happened to the Dutchmen?

Picture of Zuytdorp cliffsFor many years, Australia was known as New Holland. Anything more different to the flat, verdant and continually damp polders of the Netherlands than the forbidding, parched land of the central west Australian coast is hard to imagine.

Be that as it may, two young Dutchmen from the Batavia were the first white inhabitants of Australia, set ashore in December 1629 as punishment for their part in the murders that took place on the Abrolhos Islands. I mentioned their fate in a previous post. It wasn’t until 1788 that the first (intended) settlement took place, on the other side of Australia at what was to become Sydney.

Wouter Loos and Jan Pelgrom weren’t the only Dutchmen stranded on the West coast, though. We know that seventy-five people survived the wreck of the Vergulde Draeck (Gilt Dragon) in1656 and came ashore on the coast near what is now called Ledge Point, a little north of Perth. We know this because seven men, under the command of one of the officers, sailed a small boat to Batavia to get help. The vessels sent to search for survivors found the landing site, but no trace of the people. More information about the wreck of the Vergulde Draeck is available on the VOC Historical Society site.

Then in 1712, the Zuytdorp sank in deep water just off the cliffs that bear her name, those same towering walls along which the Batavia’s longboat sailed in 1629. Unlike the other wrecks, no survivors ever reached Batavia, so the exact date, and the number of survivors, is unknown. However, there is clear evidence that there were survivors. The Zuytdorp, by accident or design, went down at one of only a few places where the cliffs are not sheer. I’ve been there. You can scramble down the limestone onto a tiny beach. On the way, there’s a large, open cave. A team from the West Australian museum excavated a multitude of artefacts there, including chunks of molten metal which suggested a huge bonfire had been burning. Evidence was found further inland to suggest the survivors moved away from the coast but what ultimately happened to them is a matter of conjecture. No human remains were ever found. Some believe the Dutch were assimilated into the aboriginal tribes in the area. If they were not, it’s hard to imagine they could have survived in such a desolate, barren area. Water is scarce, especially in the hot, dry, summer months. Recently, DNA tests have been conducted to try to find any trace of European ancestry in the aboriginal people that can be dated to before 1868, when the area was first settled.

Every one of the Dutch shipwrecks has its own story of ingenuity and survival, or a profound mystery. What happened to the Zuytdorp is a case in point. But that story deserves its own post.