Tag Archives: abrolhos

Maybe now the ghosts will rest in peace

Beacon island, Traitor's Island and Morning Reef from the air

Beacon island, Traitor’s Island and Morning Reef from the air

I read today in a newspaper article that systematic excavation of Beacon Island in the Abrolhos group off the West Australian coast has begun with the discovery of a new grave.

That might not mean much to many of you, but it does to me. Beacon Island is the modern name for Batavia’s Graveyard, the site of one of the most despicable episodes in Australian maritime history. In 1629 the Dutch merchantman Batavia was wrecked on a nearby reef. One hundred and eighty survivors managed to make their way to the tiny, desolate coral outcrop we call Beacon Island. The ship’s captain and most of the officers took the Batavia’s long boat and made a perilous journey over uncharted waters to the city of Batavia (now Jakarta) to fetch help. When rescuers returned five months later, they discovered that in their absence about one hundred men, women and children had been murdered. Jeronimus Cornelisz, who had been the Batavia’s undermerchant ( a senior position in the Dutch East India Company), recruited a group of thugs who systematically did away with the old, the inform and the very young. I’ve written more about the history here.

Although many victims were drowned, or were killed and their bodies disposed of in the sea, some were buried. We know this because the facts were recorded in a journal, and some remains had already been found on Beacon Island. However, over the years the wreck of the Batavia passed into the pages of history and the location of the ship, and the island where the subsequent events took place, were forgotten.

The wreck site was finally located in 1963. But by then, fishermen had discovered the rich grounds around the Abrolhos Islands and built shacks on some of them – including Beacon Island. If I remember correctly, one victim’s skull was found when a clothesline was being erected. So excavating this important historical site had to be balanced against the rights of the fishermen who used their shacks in the few months of the fishing season to earn their livelihood.

Now, at last, the shacks are gone.

I’ve heard Beacon Island is not a comfortable place to be, especially at night. It has been called the island of angry ghosts for a reason. I hope the archaeologists find the graves of the Predikant’s wife, six of his children and their maid. They were slaughtered in one hideous attack, and (according to the journal) their bodies buried somewhere in the shallow ‘soil’ of Beacon Island.

Congratulations to the powers that be in Western Australia. Beacon Island should be preserved as a historical site, no less important than places like Port Arthur in Tasmania. Perhaps with some recognition, some of those angry ghosts will rest in peace.

I’ve written a book about the wreck of the Batavia. You’ll find links to the book, an article about why I wrote the book, and a number of historical articles.

I’ve also been privileged to visit the Abrolhos Islands Wallabi Group, where the drama unfolded. Here’s my description.


The first murders

Picture of Abrolhos killingsIn my last post, I described how Jeronimus Cornelisz, arch-villain of the Batavia shipwreck survivors, divided his flock by setting up settlements on different islands. He’d promised all of them to supply them with provisions from the central store, a promise he never intended to keep.

Before he could do much more, however, Cornelisz needed support, and he found willing conspirators amongst the young men who had shared the stern section of the Batavia with him. Several were younger sons of noblemen, sent off to make a name for themselves in the Indies.

Now to gradually reduce the number of people on Batavia’s graveyard in more permanent ways, while at the same time cementing his authority.

The first death was an apparently legal execution and demonstrates how Cornelisz used the authority he had gained as leader of the Island Council to do what he wanted. A soldier and his friend were accused of secretly tapping a keg of wine for their own use. This was theft of communal goods and Cornelisz sentenced the pair to death by drowning. While the island Council supported the judgement on the thief, councillors felt his companion, who had not stolen the wine although he’d helped consume it, should receive a lesser punishment. The thief was duly drowned, but Cornelisz used the councillors’ dissension as an excuse to dismiss then, and appoint men who supported him. The very fact that Cornelisz was able to take this radical step was an indication of the strength of his position.

That very night, four men were secretly taken away on a raft . Anyone who asked was told the men had joined the soldiers on the High Islands. In fact, three of them were drowned. A fourth was spared, on condition that he joined the gang, which, of course, he did. This became a pattern in the gang’s dealings with people on the islands. They often forced people to join them or die, and often forced otherwise innocent folk to kill or be killed. I’ve referred to this practice in an earlier post, entitled ‘kill or be killed’.

Cornelisz was becoming increasingly confident. The clandestine killings continued but the first broad daylight massacre was coming soon.

The mind of a psychopath

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-S33882, Adolf Hitler retouchedQuite a number of psychopaths have made a name for themselves. Hitler, Napoleon, Stalin. Ted Bundy is another, more recent, example, as is Hannibal Lecter, featured in the movie The Silence of the Lambs. What about Jeronimus Cornelisz, erstwhile under merchant on the merchantship Batavia, who for a few short months in 1629,  strode his tiny island like a colossus, or a God, dealing out death and destruction on a whim. What makes a person a psychopath? How do you pick them from the rest of humanity?

In my novel To Die a Dry Death, I had to try to get into Jeronimus Cornelsiz’s head and understand – or at least explain – his behaviour. So – to try to understand.

To quote from a handout produced by Oregon Counseling;

The psychopath is one of the most fascinating and distressing problems of human experience.  For the most part, a psychopath never remains attached to anyone or anything. They live a “predatory” lifestyle. They feel little or no regret, and little or no remorse – except when they are caught. They need relationships, but see people as obstacles to overcome and be eliminated.   If not,  they see people in terms of how they can be used. They use people for stimulation, to build their self-esteem and they invariably value people in terms of their material value (money, property, etc..).

A psychopath can have high verbal intelligence, but they typically lack “emotional intelligence”. They can be expert in manipulating others by playing to their emotions. There is a shallow quality to the emotional aspect of their stories (i.e., how they felt, why they felt that way, or how others may have felt and why). The lack of emotional intelligence is the first good sign you may be dealing with a psychopath.  A history of criminal behavior in which they do not seem to learn from their experience, but merely think about ways to not get caught is the second best sign.

The following is a list of items based on the research of Robert Hare, Ph.D. which is derived from the “The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, .1991, Toronto: Multi-Health  Systems.” These are the most highly researched and recognized characteristics of psychopathic personality and behavior.

  • glibness/superficial charm
  • need for stimulation/prone to boredom
  • conning/manipulative
  • shallow emotional response
  • parasitic lifestyle
  • promiscuous sexual behavior
  • lack of realistic long term goals
  • irresponsibility
  • many short term relationships
  • revocation of conditional release
  • grandiose sense of self worth
  • pathological lying
  • lack of remorse or guilt
  • callous/lack of empathy
  • poor behavioral controls
  • early behavioral problems
  • impulsivity
  • failure to accept responsibility for their own actions
  • juvenile delinquency
  • criminal versatility

Michael G. Conner, Psy.D Has this to say.

A psychopath is usually a subtle manipulator. They do this by playing to the emotions of others. They typically have high verbal intelligence, but they lack what is commonly referred to as “emotional intelligence”. There is always a shallow quality to the emotional aspect of their stories. In particular they have difficulty describing how they felt, why they felt that way, or how others may feel and why. In many cases you almost have to explain it to them. Close friends and parents will often end up explaining to the psychopath how they feel and how others feel who have been hurt by him or her.

They can do this over and over with no significant change in the person’s choices and behavior. They don’t understand or appreciate the impact that their behavior has on others. They do appreciate what it means when they are caught breaking rules or the law even though they seem to end up in trouble again. They desperately avoid incarceration and loss of freedom but continue to act as if they can get away with breaking the rules. They don’t learn from these consequences. They seem to react with feelings and regret when they are caught. But their regret is not so much for other people as it is for the consequences that their behavior has had on them, their freedom, their resources and their so called “friends.”

They can be very sad for their self. A psychopath is always in it for their self even when it seems like they are caring for and helping others. The definition of their “friends” are people who support the psychopath and protect them from the consequence of their own antisocial behavior. Shallow friendships, low emotional intelligence, using people, antisocial attitudes and  failure to learn from the repeated consequences of their choices and actions help identify the psychopath.


Armed with a description like this, it wasn’t so hard to get into Cornelisz’s head. In some ways it was more difficult to sort out Lucretia, who had to deal with this man at a very intimate level, always conscious that the slightest mistake may have cost her her life.

It still stops me in my tracks to think that this one man was effectively responsible for the deaths of around one hundred people. Put that into perspective. There were about one hundred and eighty people on Batavia’s Graveyard when Pelsaert and Jacobsz  headed for Java. Cornelisz’s thugs killed over half of them. Yet Cornelisz never accepted responsibility, never showed any remorse, always kept coming back to the fact that he himself never killed anybody.

But you know what? The most frightening thing of all was how easy it was for him to recruit people more than willing to carry out his orders.

Ah, the frailty of the human psyche.

Who was the other woman?

Picture of Batavia fort

Batavia – a painting from the Rijksmuseum collection

After the Batavia ran aground on Morning Reef before dawn on 4th June 1629, the captain ferried as many people as he could to nearby islands and then decided to head for Batavia to fetch help. When the Batavia’s longboat left the Abrolhos islands where the survivors from the shipwreck had been landed, she carried forty-eight passengers. The complement included Commandeur Pelsart and Adriaen Jacobsz, the Batavia’s captain, along with forty-three other officers and sailors – and two women and a babe in arms. One of the women we know was Zwaantie, Captain Jacobsz’s girlfriend. She was an important minor player in the drama of what took place on the Batavia before the shipwas wrecked and her place in history was cemented in Pelsart’s journal. But who the other woman was, is unknown.

Women were decidedly second class citizens at this time, although status mitigated their position to some extent. So Lucretia van der Mijlen, a woman of substance who consorted with the upper ranks on the vessel, was accorded respect, as was the wife of the predikant (preacher). The other women we only know about because they were murdered, or because they survived the horrors of the islands.

While Pelsart and history did not deign to mention why the ‘other woman’ was in the longboat or who she was, I did not have that luxury, so I had to work out a plausible reason for her presence. So I gave her a name (Saartje). I knew a lady of that name, a lovely person of whom I had fond memories. And then, why was she there? Zwaantie was a servant, employed by Lucretia van der Mijlen as a lady’s maid for the journey to Batavia, so her friends and confidantes were likely to have been of the same class. Any women not in the stern (where the privileged stayed) would have shared the accommodations with the sailors on the gun decks, who made themselves as comfortable as they could between the canons. I made Saartje the wife of a senior sailor and Zwaantie is the one who persuades a reluctant Jacobsz to bring her best friend and the babe with them on the perilous journey in the longboat.

Needless to say, history has not recorded what happened to mother and child – beyond the fact that both made it safely to Batavia with the other forty-six people.

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.