I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a bit sick of covid-19 restrictions and American politics. This week I thought I’d write about something completely different.
Three hundred and ninety-one years ago this month there was a bump in the night and the captain of the Batavia was heard to say, God verdomme. God vergloeiende, God verdomme. Which, loosely translated, means “Fuck!”
At any rate, that’s what I had him say in my book, To Die a Dry Death. His ship had just hit Morning Reef, a part of the Abrolhos Islands about thirty kilometres off the coast of Western Australia, so I expect a bit of bad language was appropriate.
I’ve written fifteen books but all the others are science fiction. So, why a book about the Batavia shipwreck? I suppose it’s part of my heritage.
I was born in Amsterdam and migrated with my family to Perth in Western Australia when I was just four years old. So, I grew up as an Aussie kid, in the sun and the surf. Being Dutch was an after thought. Yes, we learnt a little about the Dutch ‘explorers’ at school. Men like Dirk Hartog and Vlamingh, who accidentally bumped into the unknown south land. I recall visiting the museum and seeing a case containing a skeleton which (we were told) came from a murder victim who’d been on a ship called the Batavia. I must have been ten or twelve. A couple of years later the newspapers were full of the discovery of the wreck sites of the Batavia and the Vergulde Draeck (Gilt Dragon) after hundreds of years of mystery. But although the stories of finding the ships was interesting in itself, for the rest as far as I was concerned it was just ancient history.
And then years later I visited the WA Maritime Museum in Fremantle with overseas friends (as you do). So many people miss what’s in their own backyards. I looked at Batavia’s keel, rebuilt in the museum, and the portico intended for the fort at Batavia, whose stones had been her ballast. Then we went upstairs to the gallery where they displayed recovered artefacts from all four of the known Dutch wrecks – Batavia, Vergulde Draeck, Zuytdorp and Zeewijk. Jugs, plates, scrimshaw, pipes, buttons – all sorts of things ordinary people would have used. And I had an epiphany. I remember the feeling clearly. It was as though I was looking down a four-hundred-year time tunnel. I could have had a relative on one of those ships. Very easily.
I developed something of an obsession, looking up and reading what I could. Every single one of those wrecks has a mystery about it, or a story of enterprise and courage. I visited the Zuytdorp wreck site at the base of the cliffs that bear her name – cliffs known and avoided by the Dutch mariners after 1629. I have been to both sites regarded as possible candidates for the place where Pelsaert marooned two of the Batavia‘s miscreants. I’ve been on the Batavia replica twice – once in Holland, once in Sydney. And I’ve visited the Abrolhos Islands off the coast in Western Australia where the Batavia went down. I wrote about it in that’s one ticked off the bucket list.
I’m often surprised at how many Australians don’t know anything about the wreck of the Batavia. It’s a compelling event, a group of ordinary people trapped on a tiny island with a psychopath. It’s the quintessential horror plot, trapped in a lonely location with a killer who picks off the people one by one. The difference is – this story is true.
In summary, the ship Batavia struck the Abrolhos Islands on the night of 4th June 1629, on the last leg of its journey from Amsterdam, down around the Cape of Good Hope, sailing east and then heading north to the port of Batavia (now Djakarta) in the East Indies (now Indonesia). Most of the passengers and crew survived the initial impact and were ferried to two tiny, barren islets. Pelsaert, the merchant in charge of the voyage, along with the ship’s captain and all his officers, set off for Batavia in an open longboat to fetch help.
In their absence, the most senior remaining official, merchant Jeronimus Cornelisz, assumed leadership. He soon realised that the supplies and (especially) water available to him was insufficient to sustain the one hundred and eighty people on the island called Batavia’s Graveyard until they were rescued. To ensure that he himself would survive, he recruited a band of likely lads and with their help set about reducing the numbers. Clever and silver-tongued, at first Cornelisz used guile and deceit to trick people into going to other islands, intending they should die of hunger and thirst. Later, his henchmen murdered openly. In the course of three months, Cornelisz’s men murdered about ninety-six men, women and children.
Only a group of soldiers who Cornelisz had marooned on another island stood in his way. Led by Wiebbe Hayes, they had the good fortune to find the only water on that part of the archaepelago and a new source of food – the small wallabies native to the islands. As men escaped Cornelisz’s reign of terror, the numbers in Hayes’ group grew. On three occasions Cornelisz and his men tried to overwhelm the soldiers. The second time, Cornelisz himself was taken captive. Then, when his henchmen tried one final desperate time to rescue their leader, Pelsaert appeared in a rescue ship.
Pelsaert took Cornelisz and his followers prisoner and proceeded to try them. He recorded the facts as he saw them in a journal which he presented to the Governor at Batavia (the city) on his return after rescuing the survivors. This journal is the basis for any book about the Batavia.
It’s fascinating history and I feel I was well-equipped to tell the tale. I’m certainly not the only person who has done so. Quite a few books have been written, as well as documentaries and even an opera. But I reckon I’ve done a pretty good job.
To Die a Dry Death
Surviving the shipwreck was the easy part
1629. Shipwrecked on an uncharted reef thirty miles off the coast of Australia, two hundred men, women and children scramble ashore on tiny, hostile islands. There is no fresh water and the only food is what they can salvage from the wreck, or harvest from the sea.
The ship’s officers set out in an open boat on a two-thousand-mile journey across uncharted ocean to seek help. But there’s not enough food and water for everyone on the islands to last until a rescue ship arrives. One man will stop at nothing to ensure that he is among the survivors.
But adversity throws up heroes. Soon there’s war between two groups, both determined to be there to greet that rescue ship when it arrives. If it arrives.
The terrifying true story of the Batavia shipwreck. Contains graphic violence.