Death by hanging

posted in: History | 2
Detail from a painting by Pisanello, 1436–1438

Once Pelsaert had finished his trial of the conspirators who had been responsible for the deaths of nearly one hundred people on the Abrolhos islands where they had hoped for rescue, he passed sentence.

The ring leader, Jeronimus Cornelisz, along with six of his lieutenants, was hanged at the islands. In comparison with what they would have received had these men been taken to Batavia, their end was lenient. (We’ll get to that in another post.)

That said, hanging wasn’t the relatively merciful noose with a short drop when a trapdoor opens, which effectively breaks the victim’s neck. Death by hanging in those times was simply slow strangulation. Pelsaert’s men built a scaffold from driftwood at one end of the long island known as Seal’s Island and the condemned were strung up. In more civilised parts, hangings were sport with no doubt money changing hands over how long a man might struggle. Mike Dash speculates (Batavia’s Graveyard, p230) that Jeronimus would have taken some time to die because he wouldn’t have weighed much when he was strung up.

A number of the condemned were sentenced to have a hand cut off before they were hanged. Jeronimus was to lose both hands but Pelsaert stopped at one. It’s hard to imagine Pelsaert was being nice. Perhaps he felt that dying from blood loss was far too merciful.

It’s interesting to speculate on what caused Pelsaert to mete out punishment at the islands, rather than take the men back to Batavia. Maybe the best answer is that all these desperate men became a risk factor in a small ship carrying too many people and a lot of wealth. Apart from rescuing the survivors from the Batavia, Pelsaert had also been charged with recovering as much as he could of the silver and cargo the ship had carried, and this he had done with considerable success.

The seven bodies were, in all likelihood, left to hang, as was the normal practice throughout Europe. Apart from those executed, Pelsaert sentenced a number of Cornelisz’s thugs to ‘lesser’ punishment. I’ll talk a little about that next time.

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