Part Four – The Turn of the Screw.
Hi all welcome back. We just left the tale in the wake of the public embarrassment of skipper Ariaen Jacobsz for his drunken pleasure cruise around the bay. This incident would escalate quickly, in a way that no-one expected.
Furious over being chided by Upper-merchant Pelsaert; Jacobsz, with aid by Jeronimus Cornelisz began to plot a mutiny. If the crews of ships like the Batavia were well treated, or even well rewarded for their efforts it may have been a difficult task to sow dischord and cause a rebellion. However this was far from the case. The men onboard the ship would risk their lives on these voyages for very little in pay. They were sent out carrying well upwards of $10 Million, in modern dollar value, in silver. They came back with $100 Million in goods. The voyage was grueling, and the job in general was a death sentence for most. All of the risk was on them, next to none of the profits.
At least the merchants could make questionable side deals, take bribes – even discreetly borrow company funds, lending it out to local farmers at rates of 18% per annum; pocketing the profits – as Pelsaert himself had done in Agra. If Jacobsz and Cornelisz could gather enough disgruntled men together they could seize the ship, then turn pirate for a few years- making everyone rich beyond their wildest dreams. After that a comfy retirement outside the bounds of the VOC would beckon.
A number of attempts to mutiny aboard VOC ships had been made in the past. The vast majority failed for the same reasons – a large ship like an East Indiaman needed a lot of skilled sailors, meaning going outside of your trusted circles, and often speaking to someone you could not trust to keep quiet. Mutineers often misjudged someone completely and found themselves turned in. The sailors and soldiers rarely had ready access to the weapons. Sometimes, the ships travelling in large convoys – The Batavia was in a group of 18 herself – other ships intervened. In 1615 a ship named the Meeuwtje became one of a select few to pull off a successful mutiny. After a failed first attempt they found themselves blown off course by a heavy storm. At first the VOC believed the Meeuwtje had gone to Davy Jones’ locker – but a few years later one of the mutineers was captured, having clandestinely re-entered Holland. The mutineers took control of the ship – looted all of value – then settled in France with their ill gotten gains. The conspirators knew all this only too well. They knew also a failed mutiny meant certain death. Within a few days Jacobsz and Cornelisz had recruited 18 men to the cause, and were quietly sounding out other crew.
This all came to a grinding halt however when Francisco Pelsaert suddenly fell ill, struck down, it would seem with a sudden mystery illness.
For a month the conspirators watched and waited, as Upper-merchant Pelsaert remained on death’s door. If he dies Jacobsz and under-merchant Cornelisz take the ship by proxy. The longer they wait however, if he does pull through, the more likely they won’t have collected the requisite numbers. The mutineers, including boatswain Jan Ezertsz, Allert Janssen – a thug with one murder conviction already, Ryckert Woutersz – another roughneck, and a handful of soldiers including lance corporal ‘Stone Cutter’ Pietersz – all waited. Recruitment and planning put on hold. A month went by and as suddenly as the illness set on, a weak but very much in the land of the living Pelsaert emerged from his cabin. All was lost – unless the conspirators could come up with a plan as audacious as it was just plain odd.
The conspirators agreed they needed an inciting moment – an anonymous crime so egregious Pelsaert would be honour bound to punish everyone on board till the perpetrators owned up. His punitive, malicious action would turn the entire crew against him, fuelling the mutiny. Who or what, they asked would drive him to such unrestrained anger? Conspirators decided they had to target the beautiful, patrician Creesje Jansdochter late at night as she left dinner for her own cabin. The bulk of the crew would be below decks as she left the main cabin. There would be no witnesses to the attack. The conspirators first plan was to slash her cheeks with a knife, though they settled on something less physically disfiguring.
On the evening of 14th May 1629 Lucretia Jansdochter left the company of Upper-merchant Pelsaert, the Bastiaensz’s, and other assorted senior officers. As she strolled through the murky darkness Creesje was forcefully seized by a group of hooded men. Dragged swiftly and violently onto the main deck, she felt her skirts being pulled up and the rough, yet wet and sticky sensation of hands going up and down her legs and face. In an instant her attackers had dispersed – leaving Creesje violated; smeared in a foul concoction of tar and dung.
Not unsurprisingly Pelsaert was furious, and investigated immediately – but when his investigations brought up naught he didn’t escalate as Jacobsz and Cornelisz expected. Unbeknownst to the conspirators, Pelsaert had begun to pick up hints a plot was underway to bring him down. Still weak, and with no idea how big the threat against him was, Pelsaert decided the most sensible plan was to bide his time. In a month they would arrive in the boat’s namesake, the port of Batavia – modern day Jakarta, Indonesia. Once on land he would punish Creesje’s attackers.
Jacobsz, no doubt had similar thoughts. If the ship got to Batavia he, Evertsz and all the others would be arrested, tried for attempted mutiny, then hung from the gallows. The conspirators, had put the ship on course for the rarely sighted continent we now call Australia. As soon as they could see the lucky country the mutineers would spring into action. They would take over the ship, feeding Pelsaert and the other loyalists to the sharks.
So it was the two men maintained a holding pattern. Little did either expect the coming spanner soon to be thrown into the works. They had been guesstimating just how far they had travelled. 1629 was well before marine chronometers could accurately plot longitude. Sailors estimated largely on hunches, something they referred to as ‘dead reckoning’ – if experienced they knew the kind of animal life you would see in different regions. The color of the sea gave them further clues. They would take regular estimates of their speed and extrapolate from there. All knew they were headed towards the mysterious Terra Australis, and should turn due north soon. Jacobsz knew they were a little further south than planned. No-one knew they had travelled 500 miles
At 3am, 3rd June 1629, The Batavia ploughed full speed into the Abrolhos. In an instant any sense of a either man’s plan to get out of this mess was cast, violently across the wicked, and expedient coral below.