Blood on the reef

Mutiny, rape and murder of the most horrific kind marked the loss of the Batavia in 1629.  The details of the wreck and the events that followed brought shudders of revulsion from seamen and landsmen alike, and precipitated the harshest of brutal punishment for the mutineers.

Image, The Batavia (replica) at sea.
The Batavia (replica) at sea.

The Batavia was a fine new vessel, the flagship of the Dutch East India Company, 43 metres long with a 12-metre beam. Carefully stowed in her hold were 610 tonnes of cloth, cheese, wine and a variety of general and trade goods. In a specially constructed safe room lay twelve iron bound chests of silver coins, and a casket of precious jewels.

The Master, Commander Francisco Pelsaert, was not a sailor but a merchant, and a faithful servant of the most powerful shipping company in the world. Skipper Ariaen Jacobsz, who navigated and sailed the ship, was second in seniority. There had been some sort of disagreement between the two men many years before and Jacobsz still held a smouldering hatred for his superior that was to ferment during the voyage. They were very different characters. Pelsaert was cultured, with a very high standard of behaviour and impeccable manners. Jacobsz was a rough, bullying, drunken womaniser, with little to commend him except that his personality allowed him to control the equally rough and tough crew. The third officer, Under Merchant Jeronimus Cornelisz, was different again. On the surface he was efficient, scholarly and polite, but he was also a physical coward who delighted in cruelty and death – personality traits that he kept hidden until later.

In 1628, when the vessel left Amsterdam for the nine-month voyage to Batavia (present day Jakarta), there were 316 souls aboard including many wives and children taking passage to join their husbands and fathers at the ship’s destination. In the fore-hold was a company of soldiers to protect the ship from pirates. One of these, Wiebbe Hayes, was to prove in time not only his loyalty to the company, but also his personal valour, one of the very few on board to do so.

On the first leg of the voyage, 13,000 kilometres, Batavia sailed together with other ships of the company. Apart from one that ran aground all arrived safely at Table Bay (present day Cape Town). While refilling their water barrels in the lee of Table Mountain, Skipper Jacobsz got roaring, fighting drunk. He disgraced himself by physically molesting some of the females on board, fighting with his own sailors who tried to prevent him, and finally taking the servant of one of the female passengers to his bunk for the night. When Commander Pelsaert heard of this outrage against the company rules he berated Jacobsz, threatening demotion and disgrace when they reached their destination. It may well have been this threat that decided Jacobsz to plan a mutiny and take over the ship from his long-hated superior.

After the vessels left the Cape and headed east for Java, Jacobsz took advantage of the first bit of bad weather to ease his vessel to the south, losing contact with the convoy. A conspiracy of mutineers now developed. Led by Jacobsz and Jeronimus Cornelisz and including many of the officers and certain key men, the band decided that when they caught sight of the coast of the Unknown Land (now Australia) they would strike in the unguarded hours of night. First, the soldiers who were thought to be too loyal to the Dutch East India Company would be locked in the hold to be dealt with later. Next, the commander and the other officers would be killed as they slept and the passengers would be brought on deck in groups. The pretty wives and young girls were to be kept for pleasure, and the older women, all the children and the men would be thrown over the side to drown. Cornelisz, his evil personality coming to the fore, suggested it would be more amusing to make them walk the plank, or to cut their throats as an entertainment for the mutineers.

After seven months at sea, tension amongst the mutineers was high. They expected to soon sight the northernmost tip of the Unknown Land but Jacobsz did a poor job of the navigation. In order to avoid the other ships of the convoy he had taken the vessel too far south and the Batavia was heading straight for the Abrolhos Archipelago, a low lying group of small islands, rocks and hidden reefs. From a ship, especially at night, these were almost impossible to see. In the early hours of the morning the vessel came to a crashing, grinding halt on what is now Morning Reef. The Batavia’s people came to know it as Batavia’s Graveyard. For a while all thoughts of mutiny were put aside in an attempt to save the ship, but the hopelessness of the situation became apparent at daylight. The ship was high on the rocks with holes in her hull below the waterline, allowing the sea to wash through her.

Image, The author's impression of the Batavia as she may have looked at first light, on the rocks of the Abrolhos.
The author’s impression of the Batavia as she may have looked at first light, on the rocks of the Abrolhos.

Pelsaert ordered all the boats into the water and began landing the passengers on a small island not far away. Casks of water and bread were also rowed ashore, and it was at this point that the commander and skipper made the mistake of leaving the sailors with no one in charge. On board, with no senior officers other than Jeronimus, discipline broke down completely. Soldiers and crew plundered the hold for wine and liquor, and fighting and drunkenness prevailed. The would-be mutineers gathered in the commander’s cabin to enjoy the contents of his larder and wine cabinet, while the rest of the crew got drunk on deck.

On the island, Pelsaert and the skipper decided the only chance of survival was for someone to take the largest of the ship’s boats, a sloop, and sail the 24,000 kilometres to Java and return with a rescue ship. Early the next morning Pelsaert sailed away from the little island, leaving behind the people he should have stayed to lead and organise. Leaving them at the mercy of the cruel Jeronimus, he unwittingly condemned many of them to death. In the sloop with the commander were a few women and about 30 seamen. The second ship’s boat also slipped away in the night to catch up with the sloop, saving a total of 47 people from the horror of what was to come. After a month, the two ship’s boats finally made the coast of Java and an expedition was mounted to return and save the people left behind, led by Pelsaert in the Sardam. Skipper Jacobsz was immediately imprisoned, not for mutiny, as no hint of the plot had yet leaked out, but for his faulty navigation in stranding the ship.

Left on the island with little water or provisions were 180 people. On the wreck remained 90 or so soldiers and crew, now frustrated in their mutiny attempt. Content for the moment to drown their disappointment in wine, they began to plan their next move. People soon began to die. The weak and injured died from thirst, and for a while it seemed all those on shore would perish this way. But six days after the wreck it rained and sufficient water for survival was collected in the ship’s sails. Two days after that the would-be mutineers realised the wreck was beginning to break up. They put down their wine and headed for the island. Cornelisz, being unable to swim, remained on board until washed off the deck, and arrived onshore clutching a plank. There, he discovered to his horror that the details of the planned mutiny had got out. One or more of the conspirators had got drunk, blabbed the whole plot, and word had quickly spread.

Cornelisz held an emergency meeting. It was decided that to avoid being hanged for mutiny once they were rescued they would kill all who opposed them or were of no use to their plans. When eventually a rescue ship arrived they would overpower the crew, seize the vessel and sail away to become pirates. There was only one problem: the mutineers were outnumbered by the other survivors. Cunningly, Cornelisz persuaded the soldiers to be taken in one of the ship’s boats to a distant island to scout for water. The boat would then go on to other tasks, he told them, and return when they signalled for it. Without suspecting the subterfuge, the 20 unarmed soldiers allowed themselves to be marooned.

Cornelisz then explained to the remaining survivors that he was sending groups of people to other islands to ease overcrowding and assist with the water supply. The mutineers smiled inwardly while the survivors went trustingly to the new islands, supposedly safe in the protection of a trusted officer of the great Dutch East India Company. Meanwhile, Cornelisz had instructions for his conspirators. ‘Kill the strong men and husbands first,’ he told them, ‘and then you can take your time with the women and brats.’ Some of the young women were to be spared for the pleasures of the men, and Cornelisz had chosen the beautiful young Lucretia van der Mijlen as his own personal prize.

That night the survivors on one of the islands had their throats cut or were hacked down with sword or adze. By morning, the coral ran red with blood as the bodies were pushed unceremoniously into the tide. The young women who were allowed to live were allocated to the mutineers as wives. Those left over were herded into a makeshift tent for common use by the villains. Lucretia van der Mijlen found herself in the arms of Cornelisz and remained his slave for the following months, living a lonely existence in a large tent where no one was allowed to approach or speak to her.

Cornelisz then sent boats to the islands where there were still survivors, instructing his men to ‘finish them all off.’ Some of the castaways had built a raft and on it they set out for the island where the soldiers were marooned. They didn’t get far. Cornelisz saw them setting out and sent a boat to upset the raft. The women and children drowned and the few men who could swim made it to Batavia’s Graveyard to seek the protection of Cornelisz, only to be killed on arrival. Their bodies were pushed back into the sea.

Still alive was Gysbert Bastialnsz and his wife, seven children and a servant girl. The eldest daughter, Judith, had been forced to ‘marry’ one of the mutineers, and Cornelisz decided there was no reason to allow the others to live. As an amusement, he invited the old man for a meal while his men entered the family tent and decapitated the women and children in their beds. They were left for the old man to find when he returned from dinner.

Pregnant women were butchered, babies were strangled, and a young boy had his head lopped off so that one of the mutineers could prove his sword was sharp. Eventually, only the soldiers on the distant island were any threat to the mutineers. Without muskets they could not attack, but they could warn any rescue ship of the mutineers’ intentions. Several attacks were made against them, but they successfully repulsed the mutineers under the guidance of the resourceful and determined Wiebbe Hayes. He had constructed defensive positions from lumps of coral, fashioned pikes and clubs from pieces washed up from the wreck and kept a constant vigil towards Batavia’s Graveyard. However, he knew that the battle could soon be lost without outside assistance.

Luckily, the Sardam was not far off. No one saw her approach while they were engaged in a ferocious battle. Although the mutineers were armed, their muskets had been neglected and were malfunctioning. Their attack failed and Wiebbe Hayes took Cornelisz prisoner. The mutineers were furious at losing their leader, and determined to mount an even bigger attack the next day, unaware that daylight would reveal the rescue ship at anchor off the island. When the ship was seen there was a mad dash by both parties to reach her first. Wiebbe Hayes wanted to warn the commander before the mutineers boarded and took over the ship.

Hayes won. The crew of the Sardam turned the ship’s swivel guns and muskets on the mutineers’ boat, forcing them to surrender. Pelsaert immediately formed a court to hear the truth of what had happened in his absence. As he listened to the admissions of murder and rape he must have realised what a terrible mistake he had made to leave the wreck.

The mutineers were put to torture and their confessions painstakingly written down, as required by the rules of the Dutch East India Company. The official method of torture, sanctioned by the company for obtaining the truth, was a form of controlled drowning. A canvas collar, like an upturned umbrella, was fitted around the suspect’s neck. It was then filled with water up to the nose and beyond. When the suspect passed out, some of the water was spilled and he was revived, a process that continued until a confession was made or the victim died. When all statements had been taken and checked, sentences were passed. Jeronimus Cornelisz, with five others, were sentenced to have their hands cut off for stealing and then hanged. Three others were also to be hanged. The remainder were to be returned to Batavia for trial.

One cold, wet morning the condemned stood before the chopping block under a hastily erected gallows. They died hard, struggling and screaming oaths, cursing the commander and one another until the rope silenced them. A young cabin boy, Jan Pelgrom, should have been the last to hang. Hysterical with fear and weeping pitifully, he begged the commander to spare his life and maroon him on the islands instead. Pelsaert, possibly sick at the sight of blood and severed hands, finally agreed. Wouter Looes, a soldier, and Pelgrom the cabin boy were to enter the pages of history as the first Europeans to set foot on the Great Unknown Land. Pelsaert gave them water and provisions for a week, and set them adrift in a small boat just off the coast, near a large river. As the first European Australians their story would be a fascinating one to hear, but they were never seen or heard of again.

Before leaving the bloodied sands of the islands Pelsaert used native divers – brought along for the purpose – to dive for the boxes of silver. Ten of the twelve boxes were recovered intact, as was the cask of jewels and every other item of value. These efforts to redeem himself with the masters of the shipping company, and perhaps with his own conscience, were of little avail. In fact, four more lives were lost during the operation when the ship’s boat was overcome by a sudden squall.

The Sardam sailed away, leaving the islands to the seabirds, seals and the ghosts of those who had perished there so horribly. She paused briefly to maroon the two mutineers and offer a prayer for their coming ordeal, then sailed on to Batavia where the remainder of the mutineers were put to trial. The population cried for revenge and most of the prisoners were hanged outside Batavia Castle. Some who were judged to be guiltier than the rest were broken on the wheel as a warning to all employees of the Dutch East India Company. This terrible punishment could last for hours or days. A man was spread-eagled on a wheel and every bone in his body broken with iron rods. The executioner started at the fingers and toes, and moved inwards to the wrists and ankles, leaving the head to scream for mercy in order that the crowds of spectators could enjoy the entertainment more fully.

Pelsaert, although not actually charged with any crime, was severely criticised by his superiors for leaving his people. The guilt and grief finally killed him the following year. Skipper Jacobsz still languished in prison and although what happened to him remains unrecorded it is more than likely that he was hanged. Gysbert Bastialnsz, the old man whose whole family was decapitated, recovered sufficiently to marry again, although he died two years later. His eldest daughter Judith, the only one of his children to live, fared little better than her father. Not long after her ordeal on the islands she married, only to be widowed in the same year. The following year she married again, and again was widowed within the year and left destitute. The High and Mighty Seventeen, as they were known, the all-powerful directors of the shipping company, heard of her plight. In a gesture of generosity they gave her a purse of 600 guilders (an enormous amount in those days) in recognition of her widowhood and her suffering at the hands of the mutineers.

Wiebbe Hayes was one of the few men who came out of the Batavia tragedy with honour. On board the rescue ship Sardam, Commander Pelsaert promoted him to sergeant. Then, once the full facts of the mutiny were reported, and while his former shipmates were swinging from the gallows, he was promoted to lieutenant and given a purse of gold. The case served as a vivid demonstration to all employees of the Dutch East India Company of how they could expect to be repaid for both loyalty and disloyalty. It was a lesson to be remembered.

And finally, what of Lucretia van der Mijlen? Hers was not a happy return to Batavia.  While she had suffered for four months in her tented prison on the island, her loving husband, Boudewijn, had caught a fever and died. Heartbroken at first, she stayed on in Java until eventually remarrying and returning to Holland. She lived to be a very old lady. As the one person who was, albeit briefly, closest to Jeronimus Cornelisz – the arch villain in the death of so many – it would have been interesting to read her story. But she never wrote it, nor did she have any children to pass it on to. It is reasonable to speculate that she was the last living person to hold the secrets of the Batavia’s tragedy tightly locked up in her heart.

In 1963 a large expedition was mounted to find the Batavia. Hugh Edwards, an Australian journalist and diver, who had spent many years researching the wreck site, was joined by a friend of mine called Max Cramer. Their expedition was assisted by Henrietta Drake-Brockman, a Dutch speaking scholar, who had correctly placed the site in the north of the Abrolhos Islands, against popular but mistaken belief that it was further south, where another Dutch ship lay wrecked.

The expedition divers found many interesting artefacts, skulls and a full skeleton on the islands, even identifying the coral prison built to accommodate Cornelisz on his last night on earth. When they finally located the wreck they uncovered an exciting treasure trove including many silver coins. The largest items were a number of beautiful bronze cannon, and underneath these were many items that they had protected. They found an astrolabe – the forerunner of the sextant – and the calibrated rim of a celestial globe along with other navigational instruments, china and more.

Image, A bronze cannon recovered from the wreck of the Batavia by the Edwards, Cramer expedition team. Photo by kind permission of Max Cramer, Geraldton, Australia.
A bronze cannon recovered from the wreck of the Batavia by the Edwards, Cramer expedition team. Photo by kind permission of Max Cramer, Geraldton, Australia.

These artefacts give us a tangible link with the tragic events that overtook the Batavia’s company all those years ago.


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