Story of the Batavia

Abrolhos Islands Batavia Wreck – See at First Hand where Murder and Mayhem was Perpetrated

The wreck of the Dutch East Indies ship Batavia on Morning Reef by the Abrolhos Islands in 1629 has everything going for it … deception, navigational disaster, mutiny, rape of women, the molestation of the fair and lovely Lucretia van der Miljen, intrigue, wild and licentious liaison, murder by homicidal maniacs, desperate defence of the first buildings in Australia by troops loyal to the Commander – and finally rescue and dreadful, bloody retribution by the Dutch authorities.

 

The cause of the wreck was not just some casual, unfortunate event. There was some real ‘history’ involved – with hatred, lust, the plotting of mutiny, piracy and intrigue right at the top of the list. When the brand new, state-of-the-art Batavia left Texel, Holland on 28th October 1628, she was part of a fleet of eight ships on their way to Batavia – now known as Jakarta – in the Dutch East Indies. With gold, silver precious jewels and artefacts on board, the expedition was all about bringing precious spices back to Europe.

While Francisco Pelsaert commanded the overall fleet, Aerian Jacobsz was Batavia’s skipper. As a result of previous events in India where he argued furiously with Pelsaert, Jacobsz determined to steer the Batavia away from the rest of the fleet, start a mutiny, throw Pelsaert overboard and anyone loyal to him, use the attractive women for the crew’s pleasure, dispose of the hags and the brats, and use the vessel as a pirate ship to plunder the V.O.C and other merchant ships on the high seas.

 

The plan was sound and uncomplicated, but evil – and was only undone by a stupid navigational mistake and a refusal to take notice of a well placed lookout.  On the night of the 3rd June 1629, the conspirators, with the charismatic and vicious Jeronimus Cornelisz to the fore, all met in the steerage cabin.  Francisco Pelsaert, unaware that mutiny was afoot, had again been ill (probably with malaria) and was confined to his bunk. 

 

Jacobsz had taken the night watch and by his reckoning from the positioning of the moon on the previous day, the ship was at least 600 miles from land. Therefore he did not have the slightest concern that they would be near any reefs. They had been at sea for 211 days, and as far as the skipper was concerned, there had been no incident of note to report.  It was a full moon with the light shining on the ocean, gusts of wind were blowing, and there was no sign of squall or tempest. Around midnight, the ship had already sailed safely past the first of the reefs without anyone noticing.

 

The Batavia continued surging ahead at full speed unknowingly towards the Houtman Abrolhos reefs (Wallabi Islands off the West Australian coast) and its date with disaster.  It was now the early hours of the morning, the decks were nearly empty except for the men on watch with Jacobsz and the lookout Hans Bosschieter.  In two hours it would be daylight and then Ariaen Jacobsz would be able to slip into a warm bed with his paramour Zwaantje.

 

It was sometime after 3am in the morning when the lookout watch Hans Bosschieter first saw a sign of impending danger.  Peering into the blackness of the night, from his high position at the stern, he could distinguish what appeared to be a mass of white spray straight ahead.  Hans then shouted out to the skipper.  Jacobsz, over confidently believing in his own calculations, dismissed the lookout’s observation as being the reflection of moonlight on the waves and so they held their course.  

 

Before the mutiny could take place, and early on the morning of 4th June, 1629 the Batavia, with full sails and at top speed, crashed into Morning Reef off Beacon Island and was impaled.  In that moment of impact the rudder was half ripped away, then a second later the ship’s bow smashed into the main part of the reef.  The Batavia’s forward momentum had raised her up out of the water to slam onto the reef with her timbers splintering and the hull shuddering violently from the impact.

With great difficulty, many survivors were landed by longboat on Beacon Island – while many of the crew contented themselves with breaking into the brandy barrels with obvious results.

 

Pelsaert needed assistance to sail the surviving longboat back to the Dutch East Indies and summon help. This time Jacobsz had no option – and performed what is perhaps one of the greatest navigational feats in maritime history, a journey of 1200 miles.  Upon reaching Batavia, Jacobsz was thrown into prison.  Pelsaert returned  to the Abrolhos in the Sardam to rescue the survivors and the cargo.  In the meantime, fuelled by drink and mutinous desires, which were now thwarted by the disaster, the prospective mutineers ran amok, murdering and raping for pleasure on Beacon Island.  By the time Pelsaert returned, opposing camps (mutineers and loyal troops) were fighting it out, and over two hundred passengers had been murdered by the henchman of the deranged psychopath Jeronimus Cornelisz.

 

Dutch justice and retribution was swift, brutal and bloody with numerous executions on Beacon Islands, and other mutineers dragged back to Batavia Castle in chains.

 

The evidence of the events can even be vividly witnessed today; the scarred reef where the Batavia smashed aground in the dark of night under full sail, the primitive forts where the mutinous horde was kept at bay by Wiebbe Hays and his lightly armed companions and Beacon Island where the ship’s passengers were systematically raped, butchered and slaughtered by drunken and debauched mutineers. When you visit the Abrolhos, you are standing on the site of the most monstrous mutiny in recorded maritime history.

 

And what’s the best way to experience this horrific tragedy at first hand?  Well, the answer to that is that you really need an all round view – from the air and on the ground – and that’s why the Abrolhos Islands flight offered by Kalbarri Air is such an incredible experience. You can only appreciate the extent of the damaged reef from the air, and take in the scope of the Islands which were held by mutineers and desperate defenders respectively.

 

At the same time, thanks to Kalbarri Air’s ability to land on the Abrolhos Islands, you can emotionally place yourself into the shoes of the defenders as they beat off the latest attack.  This is as vivid and ‘in your face’ as history can get.  And just as a reminder that real people were involved – and suffered – you only have to visit the WA Maritime Museum in Fremantle to see the butchered, scarred remains of one of the victims, the shattered timbers of Batavia’s stern, and salvaged cannons, silver and precious cargo.

 

You can read about it all in four splendid books on the subject *, and if you are interested in history, a visit to the WA Maritime Museum is a must. There is however, no better way of transporting yourself back almost 400 years than to visit the Abrolhos Islands yourself – to see where it all happened, imagine the trauma, and absorb the atmosphere.

 

To organise your trip to this fascinating piece of Western Australian history, click here

 

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  • Voyage to Disaster  - published in the 1950s by West Australian historian, Henrietta Drake Brockman   

  • Islands of Angry Ghosts’– published in 1963, by journalist/diving enthusiast Hugh Edwards

  • Batavia’s Graveyard’ – published 2001 by Mike Dash

  • The Wreck of the Batavia ­– 2007 published by Simon Leys

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