Tag Archives: 17th century weapons

Murder by decapitation

Picture of pappenheimerHave you ever wondered about how easy it is to cut off somebody’s head with one blow of a sword? No, I hadn’t either until I wrote ‘Die a Dry Death’. It’s one of the most famous of the many murders, often quoted, how with just one blow with a sword, one of the murderers struck off the head of a lad about twelve years old simply for amusement.

This event happened towards the end of Cornelisz’s reign of terror after the sinking of the Batavia and I thought it was an excellent opportunity to show both the depravity of the murderers and the pervading terror in the hearts and minds of the few remaining potential victims, forced to witness the killing. I also wanted to get my facts straight.

A careful check of Pelsaert’s journal (translated in Henrietta Drake-Brockman’s ‘Voyage to Disaster’) revealed that Mattijs Beer did not decapitate the boy with one blow. To quote the transalation,

Meanwhile Jan van Bemel was busy to blindfold the boy and Jeronimus, who stood next to him, said, “Now boy, sit still, we are only having some fun with you,” and Mattijs Beer with one blow near enough struck off his head. (p181)

Near enough to one blow is not one blow. So I asked a friend, Anthony Saunders PhD, who is an expert in military history, a fencer and swordsman, whether this was possible. I told him that the sword was probably like one used in the Thirty Years War and would have been a soldier’s weapon, not naval.

This is what he told me.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a sword was more often used for executions in Germany and central Europe than the axe. Anne Boleyn was beheaded with a sword. The victim knelt, as did Anne, or sat in a chair or a stool, eyes bound, and the sword was swung horizontally. But these were executioners’ swords. That is not to say that a broad-bladed weapon would not serve equally well. With that in mind, I would suggest that the sword is one typical of the Thirty Years War period (1618–48). For example, a schiavona-style basket hilt (used by Croatian mercenaries) but this might be a bit late for 1629, or a broadsword with a swept hilt or a Pappenheimer (with a shell inside the guard). Broadswords were military swords, of course, so their hilts varied more in style than the civilian rapier. Some had a curved down crosspiece (quillon) on one side of the hilt which turned up into a knuckleguard on the other side, with a large shell guard to cover the rest of the hand. Here are some swords of the right period. To be honest, to be effective for execution, the short-handled weapons would be of less use as looking at contemporary engravings of sword executions, the executioner used a two-handed grip.

So I went with the experts. In my version, Cornelis Aldersz’s head was almost (but not quite) removed with one blow.

Doctor Saunders was also able to give me valuable insight into what happens to the human body when such a blow is delivered. Lots of blood as the pressure is released from the arteries and often some twitching and jerking.

Once I’d written the scene, I sent it to him to check my description. He approved. So now you know a little more about swords than you did before. Fascinating stuff.

Why didn’t he use the muskets?

Jeronimus Cornelisz, arch-villain of the Batavia tragedy, wasn’t a soldier or a sailor but when he divided the survivors of the shipwreck and sent them of to the several islands of the Houtman Abrolhos in the vicinity of Batavia’s Graveyard, where he was based, he made sure they left their weapons behind. His intention with the soldiers he sent to the High Island was that they would die of hunger and thirst. They were lucky; they found the only source of fresh water in the group and an extra food source in the native wallabies. Eventually, Cornelisz realised he’d have to deal with them (aka kill them) and take over the water and food they had found.

Cornelisz’s group had swords, pikes and muskets. Wiebbe Hayes’s group on the High Island had none of these things. To be sure, they were clever, resourceful men who were able to use flotsam from the wreck to build makeshift weapons. Six inch nails can be formidable, after all. But the modern-day reader is going to be thinking – how do you beat muskets?

The 17th century musket is a long way from a modern rifle. The illustration at left shows the process of loading and firing. The cartridges around the musketeer’s neck contain powder. He also carried musket balls (bullets) and what was known as a match. Not red-heads in little cardboard boxes; a coal or a glowing ember which had to be applied to the powder. Muskets were not accurate over any distance greater than one hundred yards or so and were supposed to be used en masse in a battle, a bit like machine guns might have been in the modern day. Evidence suggests Cornelisz only had a few muskets, two, maybe three, at his disposal.

We first hear of Jeronimus trying to use his superior firepower against Wiebbe Hayes’s group when Coenraat van Huyssen led an attack across the causeway between the two high islands at low tide. Despite several attempts, the muskets didn’t fire. The weapon wasn’t the most reliable, anyway. Add to this the fact that the attackers had to travel several miles in a small boat, keeping their powder dry and their ‘match’ lit, it is little wonder that they had difficulties.

The muskets came into their own at the final battle between Wiebbe’s defenders and the attackers under the command of Wouter Loos. Loos was a soldier and that may have been the difference, because he was still faced with the problems outlined above. He attacked from a different direction, not across the causeway. There is a tiny island about four hundred yards off the coast but that is too great a distance for muskets to be effective and we know that one man was killed and another injured.

In my description of the battle, I had to account for the damage in a realistic manner.  Once again, I turned to Doctor Anthony Saunders, expert on weapons and military history, and discussed the use of muskets in warfare. In order to kill somebody, the muskets would have to be fired much closer to the target. That’s why I wrote the scene as I did, bringing two musketeers up onto a sandbar with a group of pikemen to defend them while they reloaded.