A story you couldn’t make up

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Batavia’s Graveyard – an illustration from the first book about the ship wreck

It’s June, according to the calendar the beginning of Winter in Australia. For us it’s a time of cool-cold nights (by our standards) and warm days, low humidity and light winds. It’s our favourite time of year here on the East Coast. Walks on the beach are a pleasure. It’s different on the West Coast. Oh, they have their calm, cool, cloudless days. But Winter is the time when the wind blows from the west and the rain falls and my mind wanders back to events that took place over there 394 years ago.

It used to take a year or more to sail from Amsterdam to Batavia (now Djakarta) in the East Indies. Then in 1611 Hendrik Brouwer decided to take a counter-intuitive ‘long cut’. Instead of sailing north from the Cape of Good Hope, he sailed south, down into the latitudes known to this day as the Roaring Forties. He made great progress down there with the wind in his sails for about eight thousand kilometres and then turned north with the mysterious bulk of the unknown south land well over the starboard horizon. This tactic halved the time of the voyage from Amsterdam to the Indies and was followed by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) skippers from that time.

But the route was not without its dangers. The problem was determining exactly when to turn north. Longitude was not an exact measurement, and would not be for a couple of hundred years. Even so, most of the many, many ships that took the prescribed route arrived at Batavia without incident. But four didn’t make it. Of those, the Vergulde Draek (Gilt Dragon) and the Zuytdorp went too far and were actually wrecked on the Great South Land. The other two, the Batavia and the Zeewyck, can be counted as desperately unlucky.

A line of weathered islands, many barely a metre above the ocean’s surface, runs parallel to part of the Australian west coast about eighty kilometres offshore. The islands were first encountered by the Dutch in 1619 in daylight and named Abrolhos, Portuguese for ‘beware’.

Replica of the Batavia

On the night of 4th June 1629 the Batavia, the largest ship of the VOC’s fleet, was on her maiden voyage when, under full sail, she ploughed into a reef of the Abrolhos Islands. The lookout had mistaken the white water on the reef for moonlight on the waves.

The Abrolhos Islands from the air

Thus started the sort of story you couldn’t make up. The ship carried about three hundred people. About two hundred were ferried in the Batavia’s two boats to two nearby barren islets. All the ship’s officers then took the longboat and headed for Batavia, over two thousand kilometres away, to bring back help.

Batavia’s graveyard, with tiny Traitor’s Island just under the wing, the reef a line at the back. The fishermen’s shacks have been removed since that photo was taken.

The remaining survivors were fortunate that June is winter in those climes, and it rained. Otherwise they would soon have died of thirst. Being resilient and inventive, they built shelter and little boats from the ship’s timbers and sails, and caught fish and sea birds to eat. Even so, everyone was on short rations – especially when it came to water.

And then Jeronimus Cornelisz, who (with about seventy others) had remained on the ship until it crumbled on the reef, made the desperate journey from the ship to the island now christened Batavia’s Graveyard. He was the ship’s Under Merchant and the most senior officer of the survivors, since Upper Merchant Pelsart and Captain Jacobsz had gone off in the longboat and he soon became the man in charge.

These days we would recognise Cornelisz as a psychopath. He would stop at nothing to ensure that he was one of those to welcome the rescue ship from Batavia. At first he took ostensibly sensible measures, such as moving groups of people to other islands. But it was really about divide and conquer. He moved the ship’s contingent of soldiers to other islands, promising to provide supplies while they searched for water, while hoping they died of starvation. But they didn’t. On the so-called high islands they found the only fresh water on the archipelago and a species of wallaby to provide red meat. Meanwhile, Cornelisz began his reign of terror. He and his band of thugs murdered the young, the old, anyone who stood in their way and anyone else if it amused them. Any suitable women became sex slaves. Those who could escaped to join the soldiers, the only viable opposition to Cornelisz and his gang.

Due to Jacobsz’s skill  as a sailor, the longboat made it to Batavia. Pelsart was sent off immediately to return to the wreck site, mainly to recover as much of the cargo as he could. And rescue the people. The Sardam arrived in the middle of a battle between Cornelisz’s group and the soldiers. By then, Cornelisz and his gang had murdered at least eighty people.

It’s a fascinating story. Indeed, it has intrigued me since I was a young person living on the other side of Australia, where it was part of our local history, taught in schools. Being born in the Netherlands, of Dutch descent, it would have been plausible to have a relo on one of the VOC ships. I read what I could about the ship, I’ve been on the replica twice, I’ve visited the Zuytdorp cliffs where the survivors of that wreck came ashore and I’ve been to the Abrolhos Islands.

And I wrote a book.

Find out more.

And what’s the beach like in June in Hervey Bay? Very nice, thanks for asking. And not a psychopath in sight.

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