Tag Archives: Wiebbe Hayes

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.

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 hell below decks

Many of us have some idea of what it’s like when a ship goes down – if only from watching a movie such as Titanic. But what would it have been like for the people on the Batavia? Especially the soldiers below decks.

Like most merchant vessels of the era, the Batavia had three decks – the gun deck, the orlop deck and the hold, in that order below the main deck. Because of the prevalence of pirates and privateers, all merchant ships carried cannon on the gun deck. That’s where the sailors slept and lived, between the guns, along with their wives and children, if they had any. Beneath the gun deck and above the hold was the orlop deck, a low, dark area below the ship’s waterline where a man had to stoop, or crouch, to get around. The soldiers were kept down there for most of the day. They couldn’t do anything useful on the crowded ship and they tended to fight with the sailors, so they were only allowed to come up into the fresh air for a short time each day, under supervision. They’d get their chance at the heads to relieve themselves and then they’d head back down again. It doesn’t take much to imagine what might occur in heavy seas, with men being seasick or unable to wait to get up on deck to do their business. The stench must have been appalling.

Now imagine the scene when the Batavia hits morning reef in pitch darkness at around three in the morning. I tried to get a sense of that in a scene I subsequently deleted from ‘To Die a Dry Death‘. Here it is.

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Wiebbe Hayes jolted awake as his palliasse slid across the deck, his ears filled with grinding and smashing that finally died away. By the sound of it, he wasn’t the only one flung from his sleep. Throughout the deck, voices muttered, fearful. What was that? What’s happening? Why is everything sliding about? A sharp crack in the fetid darkness, followed by a muttered oath signalled that someone had sprung to his feet and bashed his head on a beam. Shouts. Running feet from up there on the gun deck. The ship seemed to have stopped and the sailors were running. Cautiously, he collected himself into the familiar crouch, his fingers measuring the head-room in the pitch darkness. Practised now, after many months, he sidled across the obstacle course of the deck by feel towards the nearest ladder. Nearby a heavy thud was followed by cursing. Somebody must have fallen. Wiebbe slid his feet along, feeling for objects with his toes.

“We’ll surely die,” someone muttered, voice cracking with fear. “Drowned with the rats. We must get out, before the ship sinks.”

No, thought Wiebbe. The ship wallowed from side to side but she wasn’t listing. No sound of water. Not sinking. Stuck? They’d been stuck once before, months ago, on a sandbar not long after they left Amsterdam. But the ship hadn’t sunk.

Someone jostled him. In this absolute blackness he had no idea who. Down here, a man could go insane inside his own head. If he allowed it.

The base of the ladder heaved with bodies. No order here, no discipline. The biggest and strongest trampled the others to clamber upwards. Air – clean, moist, salt air – drifted down into the miasma of the orlop deck. Wiebbe’s toes hit a struggling body. Groping, he found a shoulder, an arm. “Come on, friend, on your feet.” Just a lad, a stripling by the feel of him. Resisting the pressure from behind, he guided the boy to the steps and sent him up. And followed him, beyond the gun deck to the blessed fresh air.

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Why didn’t he use the muskets?

Jeronimus Cornelisz, arch-villain of the Batavia tragedy, wasn’t a soldier or a sailor but when he divided the survivors of the shipwreck and sent them of to the several islands of the Houtman Abrolhos in the vicinity of Batavia’s Graveyard, where he was based, he made sure they left their weapons behind. His intention with the soldiers he sent to the High Island was that they would die of hunger and thirst. They were lucky; they found the only source of fresh water in the group and an extra food source in the native wallabies. Eventually, Cornelisz realised he’d have to deal with them (aka kill them) and take over the water and food they had found.

Cornelisz’s group had swords, pikes and muskets. Wiebbe Hayes’s group on the High Island had none of these things. To be sure, they were clever, resourceful men who were able to use flotsam from the wreck to build makeshift weapons. Six inch nails can be formidable, after all. But the modern-day reader is going to be thinking – how do you beat muskets?

The 17th century musket is a long way from a modern rifle. The illustration at left shows the process of loading and firing. The cartridges around the musketeer’s neck contain powder. He also carried musket balls (bullets) and what was known as a match. Not red-heads in little cardboard boxes; a coal or a glowing ember which had to be applied to the powder. Muskets were not accurate over any distance greater than one hundred yards or so and were supposed to be used en masse in a battle, a bit like machine guns might have been in the modern day. Evidence suggests Cornelisz only had a few muskets, two, maybe three, at his disposal.

We first hear of Jeronimus trying to use his superior firepower against Wiebbe Hayes’s group when Coenraat van Huyssen led an attack across the causeway between the two high islands at low tide. Despite several attempts, the muskets didn’t fire. The weapon wasn’t the most reliable, anyway. Add to this the fact that the attackers had to travel several miles in a small boat, keeping their powder dry and their ‘match’ lit, it is little wonder that they had difficulties.

The muskets came into their own at the final battle between Wiebbe’s defenders and the attackers under the command of Wouter Loos. Loos was a soldier and that may have been the difference, because he was still faced with the problems outlined above. He attacked from a different direction, not across the causeway. There is a tiny island about four hundred yards off the coast but that is too great a distance for muskets to be effective and we know that one man was killed and another injured.

In my description of the battle, I had to account for the damage in a realistic manner.  Once again, I turned to Doctor Anthony Saunders, expert on weapons and military history, and discussed the use of muskets in warfare. In order to kill somebody, the muskets would have to be fired much closer to the target. That’s why I wrote the scene as I did, bringing two musketeers up onto a sandbar with a group of pikemen to defend them while they reloaded.