Tag Archives: Coen

A place like home

picture of map of BataviaAlthough the vast majority of the action in To Die a Dry Death happens on the Abrolhos Islands, some of it takes place in the city of Batavia itself. Pelsaert had a meeting with Governor Jan Pieterszoon Coen to inform him the ship Batavia had been wrecked, Pelsaert had a second meeting with the new governor, Jaques Specx, when he returned with the survivors, and there were some brief scenes involving Captain Adriaen Jacobsz and the people in the longboat, both within the city and in the fort. To write those scenes with any conviction, I needed to be able to visualise the rooms, the harbour, the town square, and the dungeons in the fort.

While I’d been able to find plenty of information about the ship, the longboat and the Islands, the 1629 city of Batavia was another matter. I gleaned what I could from reading, and visited the website of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to find maps and paintings of the period. Then I used Google Earth to find the remains of Old Batavia in the city of Djakarta, looking up landmarks in plans I found to get a realistic idea of how the city was laid out. The formidable fort in which Jacobsz and the surviving members of Cornelisz’s gang were incarcerated had been torn down in Indonesia’s wrestle for independence after WW2. There’s no trace of it, now. The site is a railway yard. But the sea is close by, now, as it was then.

So what did Batavia look like? Go to any city in the ‘new world’ that was colonised by Europeans and you’ll see the new settlers tried to transplant what they knew into their new surroundings. You’ll find terrace houses lining streets in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Fremantle, to name just a few. There are no doubt examples all over America, too. The Dutch were no different. They built the city in the Dutch style, although of course, they had to cater for the heat and humidity, so their houses were more open. They also dug canals, just like in Amsterdam. This turned out to not be the best move. Relatively still water in the tropics leads to mosquitoes and mosquitoes lead to malaria and other diseases, which led to the deaths of many, many people.sketch of a market scene in Batavia

As for clothing, the Indonesians themselves wore loose, light garments but the Dutch tried to hold onto the dark, stiff clothing they would have worn in Europe. This sketch I found in the Rijksmuseum’s catalogues illustrates the difference between the locals and the newcomers. The Dutch held onto the distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’. Dutch men who decided to marry a local at any of their trading ports could not bring the wife or any resulting children, back to Holland. Such a man was Governor Specx, who married a Japanese woman. His daughter, Saartje, was left in Batavia when he returned to Holland for a visit, where she became involved in a scandal with a young man.

So I had to show a city set firmly in Indonesia which was at the same time as close to ‘home’ as the Dutch could make it. I also had to take into account that the city of Batavia was besieged in 1629, while Pelsaert was off on his rescue mission to the shipwreck victims. Coen had the countryside past his city walls burnt. Unable to supply their troops, the besiegers withdrew – but this action had an impact on the food supply to the city. It’s a small detail, but small details matter. Don’t you think?

The Butcher of Banda

Picture of JP Coen statueI saw in a Dutch paper  that the statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen which has proudly stood in the square in Hoorn for several hundred years, was to be replaced with a less controversial figure. The reason, it seems, was that he wasn’t at all a ‘nice’ man and his treatment of the Javanese when he was Governor of Batavia was dreadful. The Indonesian branded him “the butcher of Banda”.

That’s true. But before we condemn the man outright, we need to consider him within his environment, that is, the early seventeenth century. Europeans saw themselves as better than everybody else, slavery was everywhere and treatment of defeated populations generally cruel. One has only to look at South America and the destruction of the Aztecs, or at the West African slave trade, as two obvious examples. Sure, Coen was tough and brutal, and during his rule he established the stranglehold the Dutch had over Indonesia until after World War 2 – which is why he was Hoorn’s favourite son.

However, it seems he was puritanical and brutal, as well. When he learned a (very) young couple had sex in the Governor’s quarters his retribution was awful. The 12-year-old girl was the half-Japanese daughter of Jacques Specx, a senior VOC official who would ultimately succeed him as Governor of Batavia. The 15-year-old boy was the nephew of the town clerk of Amsterdam. Despite their connections, and pleas for leniency on account of their youth, Coen had the lad beheaded and the girl flogged within an inch of her life*. And herein we have the overlap with the sinking of the Batavia.

Commandeur Pelsaert had to report the loss of his flagship to Coen as soon as he arrived at Batavia the city. Coen sent him out again, within days, to find the survivors and with orders to recover as much of the ship’s cargo as he could. Imagine his consternation when he arrived at the islands and learned of the debauchery and murder which had taken place. The main perpetrator, Cornelisz, had been the ship’s under merchant, Pelsaert’s 2IC. Pelsaert must have been beside himself at the prospect of taking that news back to Coen. It’s an important concern when considering the writing of the famous journal created from the proceedings of Pelsaert’s investigation, since Coen was the intended recipient of the report. I have no doubt Pelsaert was appalled at the suffering Cornelisz’s henchmen caused. His later treatment of the guilty was much more lenient than whatever Coen might have meted out. But I feel also that he would have been at pains to direct the Governor’s wrath anywhere but at himself.

As it turned out, Coen was dead before Pelsaert arrived back at Batavia. I suspect that was a matter of some relief to the Commandeur.

The statue? It’s back on it’s plinth in Hoorn.

* Mike Dash, ‘Batavia’s Graveyard’, p174