Water torture the Dutch way

posted in: History | 2

In the seventeenth century the use of torture to extract confessions and the like was de rigeur. Everybody did it. The rack, thumb screws, weights on chest – you name it. You’ve all seen these things in the horror movies.

In these more enlightened times we don’t do things like that, restricting ourselves to more humane activities like water boarding, or deprivation of sensory stimuli. At least we have the sense to know that torture doesn’t necessarily illicit the truth. Be that as it may, in 1629 torture was routinely used when criminals were brought to trial and the Dutch were actually rather good at it. I’ll share a few of their inventions over the next few posts, but I’ll start with Pelsaert’s interrogation techniques when he brought Jeronimus Cornelisz and his cronies to trial for the murder of the Batavia’s survivors.

In the better dungeons, such as those in Batavia’s castle, or back home in Holland, Pelsaert could have used some of the items mentioned above  and pictured at top but this was a bunch of arid islands in the middle of an uncharted ocean so he made do with what he had to hand.

He used a form of water torture. The prisoner was trussed up in an upright position with a waterproof canvas collar in the shape of a cone fastened around his neck. It would have reached the level of the man’s eyes – that is, water poured into the funnel would cover the mouth and nose. The victim would have no choice but to drink the water to stop himself from drowning. But of course, a point would come where the person just couldn’t drink any more. Then the interrogation would cease so the victim could be forced to vomit, then they’d start all over again. Given the scarcity of drinking water both on the ship and on the islands, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Pelsaert used sea water for his interrogations. Stalwarts who hung out in the face of this technique could be bloated to twice their normal size, as well as exhausted and breathless.

Is this a good way of establishing facts? It would seem, reading Pelsaert’s journal of the trial, that it was a good way of getting the prisoners to condemn each other and an excellent way for the interrogators to apparently confirm any pre-conceived notions they might have had. I think they did derive some facts. Men dobbed each other in and activities such as the way in which their victims were murdered has been verified, in some cases, because the skeletal remains were found.

Still, I have my doubts. Me, I’d confess to anything to get them to stop pouring icky water into me.

  • Description from Mike Dash, Batavia’s Graveyard, (Phoenix, 2002) also see http://www.medieval-life-and-times.info/medieval-torture-and-punishment/water-torture.htm

2 Responses

  1. Gerry MacOstair (@macostair)

    That’s exactly the point, Greta: hearing the confession they need to hear in order to support (and justify) the prosecution. I’m not so sure about our ”more enlightened times” though. I guess torturers of old knew quite well that these confessions were far from the truth, but didn’t care. The times and techniques may be different, but the basic concept hasn’t changed, I’m afraid.

    It’s interesting that Captain Adriaen Jacobsz considered Pelsaert weak (for reference, see “Visualising historical characters”). Weakness (be it physical or in character) appears to be a feature quite a lot of cruel people in history had in common.

    Btw, I found your article through @MarshaAMoore

    • Greta van der Rol

      Rest assured, my comment about present-day torture was very much tongue in cheek. We’re just a bit more sophisticated these days.

      Yes, I think Jacobsz found Pelsaert weak but in certain respects, Pelsaert was gentler than many of his contemporaries. As you will discover as I write a few more bits about the punishments he used.

      Thanks so very much for reading and commenting.