Tag Archives: VOC

To the victors the spoils? Or maybe not

Batavia riggingI’ve written at some length in previous posts about how punishment was meted out to Cornelisz’s band of cut throats. The lucky ones, you might say, met their end at the Abrolhos Islands. (see death by hanging) The VOC took its vengeance on those unfortunates who made it back to Batavia. It is hard to imagine anyone surviving the aftermath of any but the mildest of punishments such as keelhauling or dropping from the yard in the tropical heat of the Indonesian islands.

But what of the survivors, the innocents?

Pelsaert, his reputation in tatters, was shunted off to Surat as second in command of an expedition, while his case was considered. He was dead by September 1630, having survived Jeronimus Cornelisz by less than a year. Evidence indicates he probably died of the same disease that had kept him in his bunk on both the Batavia and the Sardam.

Wiebbe Hayes, unlikely leader of the band of soldiers Cornelisz had contrived to isolate so he could carry out his plans, was promoted to officer. Given his stirling performance in leading the soldiers and later refugees from Cornelisz’s excesses, the promotion was a no-brainer (IMO). Members of his band were given a small reward for services rendered. But from there, the record ends. Most likely Hayes went off to the Company’s wars and died of wounds or maybe disease.

Predikant Bastiaensz, whose wife and all but one of his seven children were murdered, did not impress the church with how he had led his flock. In particular, questions were aksed about how he had come to sign his allegiance to a heretic. Batavia’s Governor Specx was very critical of Bastiaensz’s record and it tool some time before the cleric was absolved of all blame for the events on the Abrolhos. He remarried two years after his wife’s death but died of dysentery, still in the islands, in 1633.

Judyck, the predikant’s only surviving child, who was effectively given as a sex slave to one of Cornelisz’s main accomplices, had little choice but to find a husband as soon as possible. She married soon after her arrival in Batavia, but her new husband died within 3 months. Two years later she married again, moving with her husband to the island of Ambon. This marriage also ended in widowhood. Finally, the VOC repatriated her to Dordrecht in 1634, where she lived in relative comfort. There is no record of her death.

Lucretia van der Mijlen, the beautiful woman Cornelisz had lusted after, was in a different situation. Unlike Judyck, she had means as well as beauty. She married a soldier – a sergeant who Mike Dash speculates was Lucretia’s step brother-in-law– and remained in Batavia until 1635, when they returned to Holland.

And what of Adriaen Jacobsz, captain of the Batavia?

He was imprisoned almost immediately on his arrival in the longboat, accused by Commandeur Pelsaert of plotting mutiny, intending to steal his own ship. Pelsaert also implicated him in a crude attack on Lucretia van der Mijlen. There is no doubt he was tortured but resolutely proclaimed his innocence of all charges. The last reference to him was a letter written by Governor Specx in June 1631, in which he noted Jacobsz’s refusal to admit any guilt and asking to be released. There is no record of the captain’s death. I have noted elsewhere that given the VOC’s penchant for revenge, it’s an interesting omission. That he survived the dreadful, malaria-ridden dungeon of the fort of Batavia for nearly a year is remarkable in itself. However, much as I’d like to give at least one happy ending, he probably died of disease. Similarly, his girlfriend Zwaantie was tortured without result. History has not recorded what happened to her after she left the fort.

There are no happy endings in this dreadful tale of human misery. But that was life in the seventeenth century.

As usual, I’m indebted to Mike Dash “Batavia’s Graveyard”, Orion Books, 2002 and Henrietta Drake-Brockman’s ‘Voyage to Disaster’, UWA Press, 2006 for having researched the lives of these people.

The mystery of the breech blocks

Picture of Zuytdorp cliffsI alluded in a previous post to the events surrounding the loss of other VOC merchantmen and the fact that quite a few Dutchmen actually reached land in Australia, then vanished. Of all the stories, that of the Zuytdorp is perhaps the most mysterious. And those breech blocks in the title of this post play an important role in the mystery.

The Zuytdorp was wrecked at the base of the cliffs that now bear her name. There they are at left. They stretch for hundreds of kilometers along the western australian coast, towering into the air, their bases battered by waves rolling in from the Indian Ocean. The west coast is still rising out of the sea. That’s how those cliffs were formed. High as they are, the weather has made its mark. There’s a shallow rock shelf extending maybe one hundred meters or so before the water falls away to depth, just like going over a cliff.

The geography is important. There are only two places along those kilometers where the cliffs dip a little so that a person can get down to a tiny beach, and the wreck of the Zuytdorp was found at one of those spots. We don’t know if the Zuytdorp’s captain sent one of his boats to Batavia for help, but if he did, it never arrived. The Zuytdorp disappeared sometime in the winter of 1712. It’s agreed that a large number of people, perhaps as many as fifty or sixty, made it ashore and in fact eventually journeyed inland, in an attempt to find water. This is one of the driest coastal spots in all of Australia. Their fate is unknown. No bones were ever found and the aboriginal people who undoubtedly knew about the wreck and the survivors have died, their word-of-mouth histories dying with them. We know they knew of the wreck. Stories were told in Perth (capital of the then colonised state of Western Australia) in 1834, related by the aborigines, of a shipwreck many miles north of Perth. At the time, it was believed the wreck was recent and a ship was sent to look for survivors. Later it was known that the story had been passed down, about a wreck 120 years earlier.

So what about the breech blocks?

The thing about wrecks is, why do they happen? The Batavia and the Zeewyck both hit low reefs at night, the lookouts mistaking the white water for moonlight on the waves. But the Zuytdorp cliffs were well known to the Dutch mariners for a hundred years and the captains kept away. Despite the vexed problem of longitude, which made it impossible for them to fix their position exactly, you don’t mistake towering cliffs for anything but what they are – even at night.

The obvious answer is a storm. The ship was driven up onto the reef at the base of the cliffs, which gave the crew the opportunity to get off the stricken vessel and cover the short distance to the shore. In that case, the captain was very lucky to be washed up on one of the only two low parts of the cliffs – unless he aimed at it. Leaving that interesting thought aside, let’s assume the storm has blown over and the boats are used to ferry those people who were still alive, ashore. They presumably would have taken what they could find in the way of food and water, sailcloth, clothing and so on. But why take the breech blocks?

Like all Dutch ships, the Zuytdorp was well armed against pirates. Most of its formidable complement of cannons were muzzle loaders, made of cast iron. But it also carried eight swivel-cannon, which were made of bronze and used breech loading mechanisms. How it works is described here. The breech blocks were solid pieces of bronze, and very heavy, each weighing about 13 kg (25 lbs). Yet eight breech blocks were found on the beach at the wreck site. Why? In Philip Playford’s fascinating book “Carpet of Silver: the wreck of the Zuytdorp” (UWA Press, 1996) he speculates that the survivors may have intended to bring ashore one of the swivel cannon, then use the eight breech blocks to fire the gun several times in rapid succession to attract a passing ship. There’s evidence they lit signal fires on the cliffs, presumably with that intention. But no Dutch sea captain was going to risk his ship on that shoreline, even if he had realised the fires were not a local bushfire.

Eventually, the survivors gave up and journeyed inland. Where they disappeared. Without a trace.

What happened to the Dutchmen?

Picture of Zuytdorp cliffsFor many years, Australia was known as New Holland. Anything more different to the flat, verdant and continually damp polders of the Netherlands than the forbidding, parched land of the central west Australian coast is hard to imagine.

Be that as it may, two young Dutchmen from the Batavia were the first white inhabitants of Australia, set ashore in December 1629 as punishment for their part in the murders that took place on the Abrolhos Islands. I mentioned their fate in a previous post. It wasn’t until 1788 that the first (intended) settlement took place, on the other side of Australia at what was to become Sydney.

Wouter Loos and Jan Pelgrom weren’t the only Dutchmen stranded on the West coast, though. We know that seventy-five people survived the wreck of the Vergulde Draeck (Gilt Dragon) in1656 and came ashore on the coast near what is now called Ledge Point, a little north of Perth. We know this because seven men, under the command of one of the officers, sailed a small boat to Batavia to get help. The vessels sent to search for survivors found the landing site, but no trace of the people. More information about the wreck of the Vergulde Draeck is available on the VOC Historical Society site.

Then in 1712, the Zuytdorp sank in deep water just off the cliffs that bear her name, those same towering walls along which the Batavia’s longboat sailed in 1629. Unlike the other wrecks, no survivors ever reached Batavia, so the exact date, and the number of survivors, is unknown. However, there is clear evidence that there were survivors. The Zuytdorp, by accident or design, went down at one of only a few places where the cliffs are not sheer. I’ve been there. You can scramble down the limestone onto a tiny beach. On the way, there’s a large, open cave. A team from the West Australian museum excavated a multitude of artefacts there, including chunks of molten metal which suggested a huge bonfire had been burning. Evidence was found further inland to suggest the survivors moved away from the coast but what ultimately happened to them is a matter of conjecture. No human remains were ever found. Some believe the Dutch were assimilated into the aboriginal tribes in the area. If they were not, it’s hard to imagine they could have survived in such a desolate, barren area. Water is scarce, especially in the hot, dry, summer months. Recently, DNA tests have been conducted to try to find any trace of European ancestry in the aboriginal people that can be dated to before 1868, when the area was first settled.

Every one of the Dutch shipwrecks has its own story of ingenuity and survival, or a profound mystery. What happened to the Zuytdorp is a case in point. But that story deserves its own post.

Dropping from the yardarm

View of a mastContinuing with the concept of suitable punishments while at sea, if you weren’t keelhauled you could be dropped from the yard. Masts and the accompanying yardarms were common on all ships (of course) and they provided a venue for a simple and very damaging treatment. The victim’s arms were tied behind his back, lead weights were attached to his ankles. A long rope was tied to the wrists (which were behind the back, remember). The man was then thrown off a yardarm, falling fifty feet or so toward the sea. The fall was ended when he reached the end of the rope. Needless to say, the result was usually dislocated shoulders and quite often broken wrists and ankles. As with keelhauling, this punishment was delivered in threes, so the shattered victim was pulled back up on the yardarm and dropped again. And again.

Several of Cornelisz’s accomplices convicted of lesser crimes were sentenced to this punishment. As usual, having survived being dropped, they were then flogged, as well.

Oh, what a wonderful life sailors must have led, going with the bad food, ‘off’ water, cold, damp, crowding and general discomfort.

Blame it on the longitude

1628 map (National Library of Australia)

It’s an interesting fact that of the four Dutch sailing ships known to have been wrecked off the coast of Western Australia, two of them – the Batavia and the Zeewijk – struck the reefs of the Abrolhos Islands and there has long been speculation that a third ship, the Aagtekerk , lies in the deep water off North Island. The question is why? Why didn’t the Dutch navigators avoid these islands?

The basic answer is longitude. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was no reliable way of calculating longitude because there was no sufficiently accurate means of calculating either time or distance travelled. Sailors used what means they had plus a lot of educated guess work to estimate where they were in the world. Latitude was not an issue; they had the means to find that value with precision but longitude could be off by many, many degrees and many miles.

On their journey from Amsterdam to Batavia, capital of what we now call Indonesia, the Dutch mariners sailed their ships south from the Cape of Good Hope and used the winds of the Roaring Forties to speed them on their way. When they estimated they were far enough east, they turned north, heading for the Sunda Strait and the gateway to Batavia. Remember, at that time they had very little knowledge of the coast of Australia. They knew something lay out there and had glimpses of its hostile shores but that was all. These seas were uncharted. Houtman had encountered the Abrolhos in 1619 – fortunately for him, in daylight – but even if the islands’ existence had been communicated to the skippers of the VOC’s fleet, the extent of the island chain was not known and they could not be accurately charted. The Abrolhos islands comprises no less than one hundred and twenty-two islands in four groups over a distance of about fifty miles, and they lie about fifty miles off the Australian coast – well out to sea.

So in 1629 Adriaen Jacobsz turned the Batavia north well off shore from the coast of the Unknown South Land. Little was he to know that out there in the depths of the Indian Ocean, the weathered remains of a coral reef still poked above the waves of high tide. Even after the events of the Batavia had been concluded and the islands marked on a map, the route was not safe. Nearly one hundred years later the Zeewijk ploughed into a different part of the island group, now known as the Pelsart group because it was assumed that these were the same islands the Batavia had struck.

Both ships ran aground at night, both lookouts reported ‘moonlight on the waves’ instead of the tell-tale surf on the reefs. I wonder how many ships actually sighted the islands as they sailed safely past in the full light of day?