The hell below decks

posted in: History | 2

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.


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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