Today’s tale begins in all but uncharted territory somewhere out in the Indian Ocean, at around 3am, 3rd June 1629. Aboard the Dutch East Indies new flagship – the Batavia – two men are having a furious disagreement. Launched 211 days earlier in the icy waters of Northern Europe; sailing southwards around the coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, then out towards the Spice Islands the Batavia had endured an epic voyage. Having withstood extremes of heat and cold, rough seas, and most recently terrible storms, the weather was just becoming temperate, the seas calm. One gets the sense life aboard the Batavia must have been hell. Historian Mike Dash, my primary source for this tale, states just how inhospitable ships of this era were. He states any fresh food they had was long gone by now, the water onboard had become a breeding ground for worms, and below decks would smell of a horrendous aroma of stale breath, unwashed bodies and urine. Knowing they were a month from their destination of Java, modern day Indonesia, had to be massively of comfort to all on board.
But, back to our two men. The ship’s lookout, Hans Bosschieter insisted he had seen white water in the distance – a sure sign they were at risk of running aground if they didn’t alter course. The other man was the skipper, Ariaen Jacobsz – a well thought of middle aged sailor, who had distinguished himself in several prior voyages east. Brilliant as he was, he was also a difficult and scary guy – quick to temper, and once he had made up his mind he would not be swayed. He was also quite lecherous towards female passengers, but more on that later. Jacobsz was convinced they were safe, as yesterday morning they were still 600 miles from known land. In his opinion that thin white line in the distance was nothing more than moonlight reflecting off the waves – so on they rolled.
The Batavia would roll on for a few moments more, suddenly – violently – brought to a bone crushing halt. With a deafening thud, the bottom of the ship collided with a coral reef, just 15 feet below the surface. A second and a half later the bow of the ship struck the reef proper. Lurching forward and to port; Jacobsz, Bosscheiter and the others who made up the midnight watch were tossed across the deck like rag dolls. Below decks the 270 crew and passengers were in for a rude awakening, as overhead compartments rained down their contents on them. They made their way up to the deck to find the Batavia stuck tight on the reef; bow all smashed up, perched over, with all the weight on the front of the boat – the back half now raised out of the water. They were shipwrecked, in the dark, and so far off the charts they had no idea where they even were. Little did they know just how awful things would get for them soon however. Welcome everyone to Tales of History and Imagination Episode 11, The Wreck of the Batavia.
Hi all just saying up front, this one is going to run over three podcast episodes, running to half a dozen blog posts. There is quite a bit of background needs to go into this tale to really make sense of it. In the first (podcast) episode I want to set the scene, and introduce the main characters. In Episode two we’ll look at the voyage, then in the third what happened to the survivors on the Houtman Abrolhos chain. I will also say up front that this is probably the most bloodthirsty tale I have told yet, either on the podcast or on the blog. I feel I need to mention this as I know I have some readers on the blog do follow for the quirkier character pieces, while some like the horrible history content. Believe me there is no offense taken if the Batavia is not your cup of tea.
That said I do need to cover off a few things before we start getting into background information, and pick up from before the theme music.
In the immediate aftermath of the crash, everyone on board would have been absolutely shocked and horrified. In the first instance all hands were on deck, tossing anything with any significant weight overboard, to try to stop the ship from snapping in half. Measurements of depth were taken from all around the Batavia to try and work out if they could manipulate her backwards off the reef. They hoped dangling their two heaviest anchors off the elevated stern of the ship might tip them back into the sea, and allow them to sail away. The water however was just as shallow all around them, no more than 16 feet deep. If at low tide they might have a chance later in the day. It turned out they had crashed, and plumbed the depths, close to high tide.
Their next concern was to try to stop the ship springing a leak. The sea was rough, and bouncing the Batavia up and down onto the reef with great force. Their mainmast was acting as a force multiplier. 180 feet long, made of one massive piece of Scandinavian pine – the mainmast ran through the middle of the boat through four levels, and settled atop the ship’s keel. Every time the ship hit the reef, the mast acted like a jackhammer on concrete. The decision was made to chop the mainmast down from the upper deck. Using an axe they chopped through the mast, which came down with a heavy thud, not into the water but straight onto the deck. No one was killed but they now had a tangle of ropes, damaged decking and sails to work around.
As the sun rose the crew could finally take a proper look at their predicament. They were on the southern end of a crescent shaped coral atoll. The only habitable land was at the other end, around six miles north. As rough as the sea was it did look possible they could lower one of the two boats onboard the ship and explore the reef. At around 7am Ariaen Jacobsz took a crew of men out on the yawl and explored their surroundings.
On exploration he discovered several of the northernmost islands shouldn’t disappear below the waves on high tide, giving a reasonable chance of saving the crew and passengers yet. Jacobsz first had to convince the ship’s upper merchant – and true head of the expedition – that this should be their first move. The upper merchant, Francisco Pelsaert, was a Belgian citizen with plenty of company experience, having worked for Dutch East India company in Agra, India – but little sailing experience. Less still of commanding a ship. While Jacobsz worried first and foremost about getting everyone to safety, Pelsaert insisted they first save the cargo, chests full of precious jewels and silver carried to trade for local goods. Common sense won out, Pelsaert was convinced by the reality he’d be murdered by the crew if he so much as moved a chest before everyone was safe. Thus they began the arduous process of moving the survivors through the choppy waters, to a flat, inhospitable lump of coral lacking cover, vegetation or water. A dozen crew tried to swim across, but were all pulled under and drowned by the currents.
Just as the first boatload left for the island, the Batavia finally sprang a leak, one which would prove too large to caulk up. By the end of the day 180 shivering souls were split across two coral islands; 150 pints of worm infested water, and 12 barrels of stale bread between them – and of course one casket of treasure – at Pelsaert’s insistence. Pelsaert had intended to go back for the rest, but weather worsened and a dozen chests of silver had to be left on the deck unguarded.
That evening the remaining crew still on the ship began to rebel. A gunner named Allert Janssen raided the officers’ liquor cabinet. Others soon joined, and – all having barely touched a drop for eight months – became violently drunk. A cadet named Lenert van Os broke open the chests of silver and threw handful after handful of silver coins overboard to spite the officers. Another sailor named Cornelis Janssen helped himself to rows and rows of knives and stalked the decks with his gleaming weapons on display. Another, Ryckert Woutersz, rifled through upper merchant Pelsaert’s belongings. The next morning several more survivors escaped to the island, leaving around 70 rebelling sailors still on the Batavia. Knowing he was risking his life going back for the silver, Pelsaert shouted orders to the men on ship to make a raft and make their own way to the island, and left them to it.
After a second night on the islands, Pelsaert and Jacobsz put their heads together and discussed scenarios. They were probably on an uncharted, but very occasionally sighted atoll known as Houtman’s Abrolhos, 2,000 miles south of Indonesia. They were miles from the west coast of Australia, but we are decades before anyone would add the lucky country to a map. Thirteen years earlier the adventurer Frederik de Houtman had almost wrecked on the Abrolhos. His story is one which bears telling sometime – but suffice to say for now, the guy was jailed by the Sultan of Aceh on Sumatra for two years. In that time he learned to speak Malay and Malagasy, gleaned much of their customs, and made several astrological observations then unknown to the Northern hemisphere. He didn’t pin down the exact location of the Abrolhos, but he brought a lot of other useful information back to the VOC. The two men made a prolonged search for water, to no avail. They then gathered a crew of 40, which included their best sailors, and began equipping their longboat for the 2,000 mile journey north.
Four days after washing up they set sail for Indonesia.
Meanwhile on board the Batavia several dozen desperate men remained. They honestly had to be desperate to set sail in the first place. The stakeholders of the VOC made a killing from Eastern trade, but the crew saw very little of that wealth. Furthermore, once you had signed up, the average life span of a VOC sailor was just three years. Sailors were often plucked from the criminal classes, or people who, for one reason or another, needed to abandon their former lives. All but one of the men still onboard were lowly ranked sailors, but the one officer which remained – the under merchant, second in charge to Pelsaert was a desperate man for his own reasons. A former apothecary lately out of Haarlem- Jeronimus Cornelisz paced alone with his dark thoughts. Though more typical of the class who sent men out to die on the other side of the world to make themselves wealthy, Cornelisz’ life had suddenly been thrown into turmoil. His business gone, he was possibly also a fugitive from the law back in Holland. I will discuss Jeronimus and his downfall next week, in episode two – The Heretic.