I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Captain Ariaen Jacobsz eased his brand new ship out into the North Sea. The Batavia was heading from Holland to the Dutch East Indies. It was October 27, 1628 and it was the start of a voyage that featured heroism, betrayal, and murder.
Voyage into Danger
The Batavia weighed 650 tonnes and was bristling with 24 bronze cannons. There were about 322 people aboard, most of them crew, but also about 100 soldiers and a few civilians.
While the vessel was under the control of skipper Jacobsz, merchant Francisco Pelsaert was commander of the fleet of seven of which Batavia was part.
Another character we need to meet is Jeronimus Cornelisz, described as a “bankrupt pharmacist.” He becomes a prominent player later in the drama.
The ship was carrying, among other cargo, jewels and gold and silver coins, which were to be exchanged for the valuable spices.
The fleet put in to Cape Town for provisions. It was there that a dispute between the merchant Pelsaert and Captain Jacobsz broke into the open. Pelsaert was angry over Jacobsz’s drunken behaviour and gave him a public dressing down.
Batavia hull construction
The fleet left Cape Town, but the ships became separated and lost sight of each other. Commander Pelsaert was confined to his bunk with some unknown but serious illness. Meanwhile, Jacobsz and Cornelisz began hatching a plot to seize the Batavia and the treasure in her hold. The idea was to sail off to somewhere and live like kings, but the Australian continent foiled these plans.
Captain Jacobsz was on deck on the night of June 4, 1629. Two hours before dawn, the Batavia slammed into a reef about 40 miles off the coast of Western Australia. The obstruction in the way was the Houtman Abrolhos chain of islands.
Most of the passengers and crew were ferried off the stricken vessel to nearby Beacon Island (later to be known as Batavia’s Graveyard) and Traitor’s Island. Some crew and soldiers were left aboard the Batavia presumably to guard its treasure. Supplies, including water, were rescued, but it was obvious the survivors were in peril because there was no fresh water on either island.
A Desperate Gamble
The Western Australian Museum picks up the story “… Commander Pelsaert, all the senior officers (except Jeronimus Cornelisz, who was still on the wreck), some crew and passengers, 48 in all, deserted the 268 on two waterless islands, whilst they went in search of water.”
No water was to be found, so they set off in their 30-foot (9.1 m) longboat for Indonesia, some 1,200 nautical miles away, in search of help. In an extraordinary feat of seamanship and navigation they arrived in the Indonesian capital Jakarta (then called Batavia). They had spent 33 days at sea in a open boat and not a single life was lost.
However, the arrival on dry land was bad news for the Batavia’s boatswain; on Commander Pelsaert’s orders he was executed for outrageous behaviour prior to the shipwreck. Skipper Jacobsz was arrested for negligence.
The governor of the colony gave Commander Pelsaert another ship so he could return to rescue the rest of the Batavia’s stranded passengers and crew.
Diving on the Batavia Wreck
Return to the Shipwreck
During his absence Commander Pelsaert discovered that unspeakable events had taken place. The wrecked ship had broken up on the reef and 40 men had drowned.
On the islands even worse had happened. Jeronimus Cornelisz, the failed apothecary, had appointed himself leader of a gang of ruffians among the crew.
He commandeered all weapons and supplies, and he still had plans to recover the treasure. With his followers he expected to seize any rescue ship and make off to a life of ease and pleasure somewhere else.
In his 2003 book, “Batavia’s Graveyard,” Mike Dash describes what happened next: “With a dedicated band of murderous young men, Cornelisz began to systematically kill anyone he believed would be a problem to his reign of terror, or a burden on their limited resources. The mutineers became intoxicated with killing, and no one could stop them. They needed only the smallest of excuses to drown, bash, strangle, or stab to death any of their victims, including women and children.”
But, one group of survivors resisted and overwhelmed Cornelisz and five of his thugs. Cornelisz was taken hostage while his companions were executed.
Rescue and Retribution
Surveying the barbarity of the mutiny Commander Pelsaert acted swiftly. A trial of sorts was held.
Those found to be the worst offenders were hanged, but an additional punishment was reserved for Cornelisz. Commander Pelsaert recorded in his journal that the man was taken “… to a place made ready for it in order to exercise Justice, and there firstly to cut off both his hands, and after shall be punished on the Gallows with the Cord till Death shall follow …”
Two other men were marooned on the Australian mainland and were never heard from again. It’s been suggested they may have intermingled with Aborigines, among whom some have been found to have DNA coming from Leyden in Holland. But, that could have made its way into Aboriginals from the crew other Dutch ships that foundered on the Australian coast.
And, importantly for the Dutch East India Company, Pelsaert was able to salvage eight of ten chests of treasure from the shallow waters where the Batavia came to grief.
It’s estimated that about 200 of the original complement of the Batavia perished either from the wreck, the murders, or executions.
In June 1963, the Batavia, largely still intact, was located and much of the ship and its cargo retrieved including 7,700 silver coins and some ornate silverware.
Jeronimus Cornelisz was a follower of the Dutch painter Johannes van der Beeck who held what, for the 17th century, were heretical beliefs. Also known as Johannes Torrentius, he taught that god put people on Earth to enjoy themselves and that Christianity was a perversion of god’s teaching because it restricted pleasure. Not surprisingly, he was persecuted for heresy and devil worship. All but one of his paintings was destroyed.
- “Batavia’s History.” Western Australian Museum, undated.
- “The Batavia.” The Grey Company, undated.
- “Batavia.” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2003.
- “National Heritage Places - Batavia Shipwreck Site and Survivor Camps Area 1629 - Houtman Abrolhos.” Australian Government, undated.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor
Glen Rix from UK on October 07, 2016:
A very interesting article. Extraordinary that the ship was located after such a long time. Voted up and sharing