The story of the Batavia is the most incredible story I’ve ever heard. It’s the kind of thing you simply couldn’t make up. Mutiny, shipwreck on an uncharted island, sunken treasure, rape and murder, followed by over 300 years searching for the location of the wreck.
Long story short, it was found in 1963, off the Abrolhos Islands, and as part of my research I will be analysing silver coins and artefacts found with the wreck.
The following is a summary of the Batavia story, which I found in a pamphlet at the Geraldton Museum. Their shipwreck galleries pretty much blew my mind, all I could do was run from one case to another, squealing with delight like an idiot.
The reconstruction of the Batavia
It must have been a glorious sight on the Autmn morning of 27 October 1628, as the Dutch East India Company’s new flagship set sail from the Dutch port of Texel on its maiden voyage.
Commanded by Francesco Pelsaert, a senior merchant, and skipper Ariaen Jacobsz, the VOC Batavia was embarking on a long journey to its namesake port on the other side of the world.
The newly-built Batavia would have been flying all her colours, answered by flags raised along the shore, and hearty cheers would have rung out across the water, her crew just as proud of the new ship as those who had built her.
The United Dutch East India Company, Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC, was gathering wealth from the East Indies, today’s Indonesia, and the VOC Batavia was an expression of the company’s power.
Eight months later, on 4 June 1629, the proud ship carrying 322 people would founder on an unknown reef on a small and barren island.
A 1647 lithograph depicting the survivors leaving the Batavia
Some survivors would sail for help in a smaller boat, one of the longest open sea voyages in the annals of maritime history, others would be engulfed in a hellish episode of cruel barbarity.
A recreation of the yacht Pelsaert sailed in to Jakarta
Their suffering was recounted in the 1646 book Unlucky Voyage of the Ship Batavia, but it was not until the wreckage of the ill-fated ship was discovered in 1963 that the full story of the VOC Batavia began to finally unfold.
It has been widely chronicled that Pelsaert, Jacobsz and 44 others left in the ship’s 30-foot (9.1m) longboat in search of water and food. Their search proving unsuccessful, they set sail for the port of Batavia, now known as Jakarta, leaving behind a desperate group of survivors.
Unknown to Pelsaert, a mutiny had been planned by Jacobsz and the others aboard the ship since leaving Cape Town, a plan brought undone by the shipwreck.
With Pelsaert and Jacobsz gone, and the survivors thinking they had been deserted, control was seized by a senior merchant named Jeronimus Cornelisz, a bankrupt pharmacist who was fleeing the Netherlands because of his heretical beliefs.
Cornelisz soon revealed himself to be a murderous psychotic, persuading a band of young men to kill anyone he saw as a threat to his reign, or a burden on their limited resources.
A depiction of the mutiny that was carried out by Jeronimus Cornelisz (I’ve always thought that whoever drew this managed to make the mutiny look almost cute, with all the little people having their little fights all over the little island, aaaaw!)
The shallow grave of some of the victims of the mutiny (which coincidentally was the PhD project of one of my supervisors)
He took Lucretia van der Mijlen, a young married woman, as his unwilling concubine and allowed his man to have their way with the remaining unfortunate women.
Meanwhile, Pelsaert had successfully reached the port of Batavia, where he was ordered by the Governor to immediately return in the yacht Sardam to recover the precious treasure and rescue the survivors.
Navigators of the day were still unable to calculate longitude, and the first search for the Batavia shipwreck was actually by Pelsaert.
He crisscrossed the ocean in the general vicinity of the Abrolhos Islands, always in fear of being wrecked yet again – it is thought he may have travelled south, perhaps as far as Green Head, and to within sight of Point Moore.
It was not until 17 September, after one month of searching, that they found their way to East Wallabi Island, where they were warned of the mutiny by loyal soldier Wiebbe Hayes.
Pelsaert arrives in the Sardam and is warned of the mutiny
Justice was swift and complete for the mutineers, most of whom were tried and executed, while two minor mutineers were marooned on the mainland before the Sardam set sail once more for the port of Batavia.
The execution of the mutineers on the island
The stage had been set for 334 years of mystery and many searches for the Batavia shipwreck.
A large section of the hull of the Batavia is on display at the WA Maritime Museum Shipwreck Galleries (along with a poster I made about my research, hanging near the lift)