The History of the Wreck of the Batavia

It’s a true story and quite famous in Australia and Holland.

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. The ship’s captain and all his officers, with Pelsaert, the merchant in charge of the voyage, 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.

I’ve read just about everything published in book form but I particularly recommend the following:

  • Voyage to Disaster, Henrietta Drake-Brockman, (UWA Press, 2006). It was first published in 1963, the same year the Batavia wreck site was finally found. That book also contains a translation of Predikant Bastiaensz’s letter, and Coen’s orders to Pelsaert. Drake-Brockman includes considerable research about the backgrounds of the people on the ship, to better understand the characters of the individuals.
  • Batavia’s Graveyard, Mike Dash, (Phoenix, 2002). Dash used Drake-Brockman’s work extensively, as well as delving into the archaeological discoveries that had been made since 1963. Analysis of wound marks on skeletons, for instance, corroborated some of the descriptions of murders. He also was able to uncover more detail in the Dutch archives. He found some written accounts, produced much later presumably by survivors and he has added some of that narrative into his book. In particular, though, his work was invaluable to me because he described in some detail things like living conditions on the ship. He also made some educated assumptions about how life might have been organised on the islands, based on records from other Dutch wrecks like the Zeewyck.
  • The first and last voyage of the Batavia, Philippe Godard, (Abrolhos Publishing, 1993) provided me with photographs and illustrations of the Abrolhos islands, the Australian coast the longboat sailed along and other information about the VOC, Batavia the city and Batavia the ship.