cover of To Die a Dry Death

This book is twenty five years in the making. Really. It’s kind of an immigrant’s tale.

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 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.

And I promised myself that one day, I’d write a book about one of those wrecks.

To Die a Dry Death is about the wreck of the Batavia and the subsequent events.

The facts are well known. You can find them on any number of web sites, or you could check my description. Let’s just hurry on to the bit where Pelsaert is conducting his trial of Undermerchant Jeronimus Cornelisz and his henchmen, who were responsible for the murder of around one hundred men, women and children, amongst other crimes.

Realising that this tale of murder and mayhem would have reverberations throughout the Company and Dutch society – and for himself – Pelsaert recorded the trial in a journal. That document and a letter written by a preacher who was on the island are the only eye-witness records of what happened, although Mike Dash has uncovered some later testimony. Cornelisz and his main lieutenants were executed for their crimes.

During his interrogation Cornelisz claimed that before the ship was wrecked, he and the captain, with many senior officers as willing participants, plotted to seize the ship, kill Pelsaert, and turn to piracy. Several of the accused men confirmed this assertion. On that basis, the captain has been accused of being, if you will, the instigator of the crimes that took place. In contrast, Pelsaert comes across as a genuine – if flawed – individual who tried to do his best.

That seemed strange to me and I’m not the only one to have thought it odd. So I re-read the journals, accepting the facts but trying to see how those facts could have occurred without the captain having been a conspirator to seize his own ship. Several things stand out;

·         Pelsaert and the captain hated each other
·         The accused were tortured to extract the ‘truth’ (confessions?)
·         Cornelisz tried everything he could to avoid admission of his guilt

And, of course, the main surviving document was written by Pelsaert, who would have been well aware of the impact of events on his reputation.

I felt that the captain’s astonishing feat of seamanship and leadership, in getting the overcrowded longboat to Batavia has been shoved into a corner and forgotten. In a time where longitude was at best imprecise, forty-eight people reached Batavia in a boat with a capacity of forty.

So in my book, the first story arc is about the wreck and the journey in the longboat. Sure, Cornelisz the murdering psychopath tends to steal the show (well, he would, wouldn’t he?), and his is the second story arc, which talks about the murders and his relationship with Lucretia Jansz. Where there is murder and greed, there is also heroism and altruism – and the influence of chance. And that is the third story arc, Wiebbe Hayes and his band of soldiers left without weapons on another island to die of thirst. Only they didn’t.

This is certainly not the first book about these events. I know of at least 4 other novels, an opera and a TV dramatisation. But I believe my translation of the events is a little bit different, perhaps a little bit controversial. I wrote this book with Adriaen Jacobsz, the Batavia‘s captain, sitting at my elbow, trying to set the record straight.