The Wreck of The Batavia (part 3 – The Voyage to the Cape)

Hi all welcome back to the second part (third blog) of my podcast on the wreck of the Batavia, this is Tales of History and Imagination. My name is Simone. Before we delve into the voyage itself it bears talking quickly about why the Dutch sent ships 15 thousand miles out to South East Asia, laden with millions of dollars – in today’s money – of silver and jewels.


The short answer is rotten meat. Before we had methods of preserving meat, most butcheries in Europe sold rotten food. You rarely could sell a whole carcass before it started to turn. You could at least make rotting meat taste edible by masking its badness with spices.


For thousands of years, traders in the Spice Islands of South East Asia had traded with Chinese, Persians, and other Asian traders. For much of this time some of those goods would pass from trader to trader down the Silk Route till it arrived at Black Sea ports, or Constantinople, or Egypt where the goods would be sold to Europeans at a huge mark up. The price reflected the two year journey that bag of peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, mace or nutmeg had gone on – through many hands, to get there. This all began to change when, in 1498, Portuguese ships first sailed all the way down the East Coast of Africa, past the Cape of Good Hope, and on the riches of the East. There was a lot of risk in the journey, but the rewards made from cutting out the middlemen made it worth the risk. In 1494 Pope Alexander VI presided over the signing of the Treaty of Tordesillas – where Portugal agreed to dominate the world to the Eastern side of the Cape Verde Islands, Spain to the West.


Others, such as the Dutch and British would soon look to upset that treaty. Their first challenge however would be to get hold of the sea routes themselves – referred to by the Portuguese as ‘Rutters’. These maps were extremely well guarded, but in 1592 a young sailor named Jan Huyghen van Linschoten- who had found his way to India on his own, managed to finally seize a rutter from a Portuguese sailor. When he returned to Holland he wrote three books on what he knew of the region, between 1595 and 1596. People soon after began planning a commercial voyage to the Spice Islands.


The first fleet was a disaster, though more owing to the crew than anything else. The upper merchant on one of the four ships tried to kill the captain of another ship and was shackled for most of the voyage. The man he tried to kill, Cornelis de Houtman quite possibly deserved the attempt on his life. Upon first contact with the locals he became so enraged at the price of the spices that he ordered a volley of cannon fire into the town. Later he got several of his men cut to shreds in Java, then mistook a friendly welcome in Madura as an act of defiance – again firing on a town and killing the welcoming party. They still managed to make a good profit. Soon there were so many Dutch conglomerates sending ships out though that the competition began to drive up the price of spices. In 1602 the various groups colluded to form one authority, the VOC – and the rest is history. After voyages making up to 1000% profits on return, the Dutch economy boomed. They began to dominate the region. So what can we tell of the characters on the Batavia? How was their voyage up to the point they struck Houtman’s Abrolhos? Let’s find out. Welcome to Tales of History and Imagination Episode 12: The Wreck of the Batavia, Part 2, the Voyage..


(Theme music)


Hi all today we’ll look at the voyage, but first I should introduce some of our cast- beginning with Francesco Pelsaert.


The upper merchant, Francesco Pelsaert, was born circa 1595 into a Catholic family in Antwerp, Belgium. He had kept his Catholicism under wraps as the VOC only hired protestants. The company had sent him, aged 20, out to Surat, then Agra, India for nine years – where he showed a great talent for languages. He was well liked by the company, for having established trade for indigo dye with the Mughal Empire. He was, however, looked down on for his womanizing. Sleeping with servant girls would have been one thing, but Pelsaert carried on a number of affairs with married women. One affair in particular could have caused a major international incident, when a tryst with the wife of a powerful Mughal nobleman went disastrously wrong.


One night, at his lodgings the noblewoman drank from what she thought was a bottle of Spanish wine. It turned out to be a bottle of Oil of cloves. Today it is still used in tiny doses in a few countries to manage toothache (if anyone has seen the film Marathon Man, this is what the dentist Szell (Laurence Olivier) uses to numb the pain on Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy (Dustin Hoffman) before drilling another hole into his teeth in the torture scene.) It is highly poisonous, and is today a major cause of child poisonings in the land where everything is poisonous, Australia. The noblewoman died immediately. Pelsaert, fearing the fallout, buried her in the garden – leaving the poor husband and her family to wonder what had happened to her. Pelsaert’s commission in Agra would come to an end, not because of the poisoning, but because they felt he had not done enough to win favor in the Mughal court. This cleared the way for his role on the Batavia.

Pelsaert had first met the skipper of the Batavia, on his was back to Europe, as Ariaen Jacobsz just happened to be the captain of the ship bringing him home. The two men quickly grew to hate one another. As far as I can gather that hatred arose out of Pelsaert’s dislike for Jacobsz’s heavy drinking, an inebriated Jacobsz telling Pelsaert what he thought of what Pelsaert thought of him, and the fallout from the incident which saw Jacobsz being publicly told off by a senior VOC official. You could imagine neither would have been overjoyed to find they were to share a cabin even if it was the biggest cabin by far, let alone that they would have to spend several months at sea together.

In October 1628 the ship loaded up it’s cargo, and crew – all up 340 souls – and prepared to sail. Afore the mast, packed in tightly were the sailors – mostly of the criminal under class of Dutch society. On the deck below them a squadron of soldiers, mostly of German extraction, though including a few Scots and one British mercenary. Mid ships you found the group referred to as idlers, as, all going well they would have very little to do on the voyage. Folk such as carpenters, doctors and the like. Out back, where the cabin space was bigger, and where the ship was less apt to rock about, were the officers, and any important travelers. I concentrate on this group a little more as this is where the authors who have written on the Batavia have concentrated most. Suffice to say one soldier in particular does play a huge role in this tale – but we go with what we’ve got – much as I’d like to get into the primary sources and find out a little more about the soldier, Wiebbe Hayes.
As aforementioned Pelsaert and Jacobsz were sharing the largest cabin at the very back of the boat – with it’s ample space, room for a large dining table and latticed windows. The two were neighbors with a few people we need to mention though.

First there was the under-merchant Jeronimus Cornelisz, then two cabins of important travelers. The first traveler was a Calvinist minister named Gijsbert Bastiaensz, his wife and seven children. Bastiaensz, like Cornelisz, had run his own business – in has case a flour mill, which had gone broke because his found itself a horse powered mill in a land of shiny new windmills. The cost of keeping a horse gradually made the mill uncompetitive, till Bastiaensz eventually had to close up and move on.

The other VIP was a woman named Lucretia Jansdochter – ‘Creesje’ to her friends. Creesje was a woman of around 28 years of age – stunningly beautiful by the accounts of all the authors (diminutive as it may be to relate the ladies looks, without some mention of the blokes – it is nice at least to have some physical description of someone on this voyage. It has been impossible to find even a portrait of anyone in this tale). Creesje was the wife of a merchant based in Burma at the time, and having lost all three of their children – some suggest to a pandemic of some description – she had decided to sell up and join her husband. She had no family to speak of in Holland as her parents had died young. Creesje had a servant with her named Zwaantie Hendricx, the two were temperamentally like night and day and disliked one another.


The voyage began on 29th October 1628, and immediately ran into problems. While still off the Dutch coast they were hit by a heavy storm and ran aground on the Walcheren sandbanks – a hazard which claimed around 1 in 5 VOC ships. With much effort Ariaen Jacobsz managed to free the Batavia and they continued, a little flustered but with next to no damage. From there they sailed for the Bay of Biscay, then out to the Atlantic Ocean.


The first leg of their journey would be cold, wet and the sea would be choppy as winter set in. Sea sickness would be rife among the less experienced on the boat. Cleanliness would also go out the window as water on board was for drinking only, and one learned how scarce the amenities were – there were four latrines for 340 people, two of which were reserved for the officers. The Batavia finally reached the North African coast, where calmer currents known as the Horse Latitudes made for calmer sailing – though this also meant a slower pace for a while. On the upside the Batavia would be regularly greeted by dolphins along this stretch, on the downside the days ambled slowly, one after another. Days would revolve around meal times – though the sailors would often break the monotony with singing, amateur theatre productions, gambling, prize fighting and – if the skipper allowed it, a game they called the ‘execution game’ which I gather was something like chicken, but with the loser being tarred.


There would be a lot of just sitting around and talking about whatever came to mind, which would give Jeronimus Cornelisz an opportunity to share his heretical views for the first time with the crew. This went surprisingly well for Jeronimus – he was extremely eloquent when he spoke and was said to have a hypnotic effect on his audience. Many of the men began to look up to him, and he became good friends with the Skipper, Ariaen Jacobsz. One cannot know for sure what the two men discussed, the authors generally believe the great riches to be made in the East, and how attracted the married Jacobsz was to Creesje were both regular topics of conversation.


The Batavia made an unauthorized stop at Sierra Leone, at the time a country rife with malaria and yellow fever, and from there they sailed on to a current known as the ‘wagenspoor’ or cart track. The wagenspoor would fast track them down to the Cape of Good Hope and their next stop – Cape town. The stop was probably to restock their water supplies, which all the same would get infected with algae and worms. They also picked up a 15 year old deserter from a previous ship named Abraham Gerritsz.

To sum up life on the Wagenspoor, three things are important to know. One, it was unbearably hot – so most nights everyone had to sleep up top in the open air. Bad cases of sunburn occupied the doctor’s time at this point. The decks warped in the heat. Two, scurvy kicked in. The Batavia would have started the voyage with some fresh fruit and vegetables, but their supply was gone by this point. In 1628 no-one knew for certain what caused scurvy – some suspected it had a connection to not eating enough greens, but opinion was divided. The more prevalent theory was scurvy was caused by the foul air below decks. Sailors would get bad gum infections, some would progress to having gangrene and septicemia then would die a painful death as their organs failed. The Batavia lost ten men to scurvy. Third, Ariaen Jacobsz made a pass for Creesje Jansdochter, who politely turned him down. In what seemed a combination of an effort to embarrass Creesje for daring to spurn his advances, and a case of if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with – to quote Stephen Stills – Jacobsz began a very public affair with Zwaantie Hendricx, Creesje’s maid.

On 14th April 1629 the Batavia arrived at the Cape.


Upon arrival upper merchant Francesco Pelsaert went about the task of topping up food supplies with the local Hottentots – who were well used to trading oxen and sheep for iron tools and copper bracelets. Though the terms of the trade was usually excellent in the eyes of both parties it would be hard, time consuming work owing to the massive language distance between any European language and the Khoekhoe language – heavily accented with click sounds – that the Hottentots spoke.


Meanwhile, Ariaen Jacobsz, Zwaantie Hendricx and Jacobus Cornelisz, without prior permission, commandeered a boat and took to exploring the bay. The three went from ship to ship to catch up with other skippers, and have a drink here and there – until the group were rolling drunk. At some point in the night Jacobsz became agitated and got involved in a fist fight aboard another ship. When the three returned to the Batavia looking the worse for wear, the news of the fight preceded them. Knowing not to admonish the three would lead to widespread insurrection among the crew, Francesco Pelsaert took Jacobsz aside the next morning and gave him a dressing down for his behavior. Soon word spread throughout the crew of his telling off. Jacobsz was furious – although there was nothing he could do about it. He felt thoroughly humiliated by Pelsaert admonishing him so. They set sail for the final leg of the journey 22nd April.

So it was one night, the lecherous, fist fighting skipper and his friend the charismatic heretic found themselves on the quarterdeck in private conversation. I quote the following from Mike Dash’s Batavia’s Graveyard. I don’t know how closely this captures the actual conversation – but it certainly captures the mood. Quote.

‘By God’ muttered the old sailor, glancing at the other vessels in the fleet, ‘if those ships were not lying there, I would treat that miserly dog so that he could not come out of his cabin for fourteen days. And I would quickly make myself master of the ship.’….
The two men stood in silence for a while, and the skipper’s words hung in the autumn air as Cornelisz considered them. At length the under-merchant spoke.
‘And how would you manage that?’ he asked.


We’ll be right back after this break
(break music)

3 thoughts on “The Wreck of The Batavia (part 3 – The Voyage to the Cape)

  1. Pingback: The Wreck of The Batavia (part 5 – The Massacre) | Tales of History and Imagination

  2. Pingback: The Wreck of The Batavia (part 6 – Water, water everywhere…) | Tales of History and Imagination

  3. Pingback: The Wreck of the Batavia (Part Seven: Wiebbe Hayes) | Tales of History and Imagination

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