The Batavia Tragedy – 1629

Shipwreck of the Batavia, F. Pelsaert, F., & Vliet, J. (1647). Courtesy State Library of NSW FL3726282

On 4 June 1629, the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) ship Batavia slammed into a reef off the Western Australian coast stranding some 340 people far from any help.   But that was just the beginning of one of maritime history’s most appalling chapters.   Forty or so people died when the ship broke apart but a tragedy far worse would befall the survivors who had made it to land to await rescue.

The 650-ton merchant ship Batavia was launched in 1628 and was adopted as the VOC’s latest flagship.     She sailed from Texel Holland on 29 October the same year with six other vessels all bound for the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia). The ship was loaded with a general cargo and a fortune in gold and silver coins.   In addition to the sailing crew and a complement of soldiers, the Batavia also carried a number of women and children; families of VOC officials.

Shortly after setting off, the convoy became separated during a powerful storm.   The Batavia and two others continued together sailing South until they reached the Cape of Good Hope without further incident.    Then the ship was beset by problems of a more human character. 

Francisco Pelsaert, a VOC senior merchant, had overall command of the Batavia including its captain, Adriaen Jacobsz. While stopped at Cape of Good Hope Pelsaert had cause to reprimand Jacobsz for drunkenness, something that would cause some lingering bitterness between the two men.   Another VOC official travelling to the East Indies was a man named Jeronimus Cornelisz, but more about him a little later.   

The Dutch VOC ship Batavia which was wrecked off the Abrohlos Islands off Geraldton, WA. Western Australian Shipwreck Museum

After leaving Cape of Good Hope Pelsaert fell ill and spent much of the time confined to his cabin.    Meanwhile, Jacobsz and Cornelisz supposedly formulated a plan to seize the ship and its treasure and do away with Pelsaert and anyone else who got in their way.   The first step was to lose the two other VOC ships it was sailing with. One night Jacobsz bore away from them and set a course further west.    But, before he and Cornelisz could fully implement their plan and take control of the Batavia she ran aground on Morning Reef in the Houtman Abrolhos Islands about 60kms off the Western Australia coast.

Around two hours before dawn, Pelsaert was thrown from his bunk as the ship ran aground.   Shortly after sunrise, Pelsaert, Captain Jacobsz and about 40 others set up camp on what would later be named Traitors Island by those who were left behind.   At the same time most of the passengers, soldiers and crew were ferried to nearby Beacon Island along with what food and water that could be saved from the wreck.      Cornelisz and about 70 or so sailors opted to remain on the Batavia now stranded high on the reef.  

Rather than try to consolidate the survivors in one place and provide leadership when it was most needed, Pelsaert took the longboat and went in search of water. He took with him every senior officer, several sailors to work the boat and a small number of passengers, more or less leaving everyone else to fend for themselves.  

Batavia longboat replica moored in the Geraldton Marina. Photo: CJ. Ison.

The longboat with 48 people crammed on board made for the mainland but failed to find fresh water.   They then ventured north possibly as far as Northwest Cape before Pelsaert ordered the captain to make for the Dutch East Indies to seek help.    The journey took 33 days, and they arrived safely without any loss of life which, to be fair, was no small accomplishment. On reporting the loss of the Batavia, Pelsaert was provided with a vessel to go and rescue the remaining people and retrieve the gold and silver and anything else of value that could be salvaged.

Meanwhile, an unimaginable struggle was playing out among the castaways.     Jeronimus Cornelisz had finally landed and taken control of the survivors.    He had remained on the Batavia plundering its treasures and alcohol until it finally broke apart, spilling those still on board into the sea.   Cornelisz spent two days adrift clinging to a timber plank before he was washed ashore on Beacon Island.     Of the 70 or so who had remained on the ship, as many as 40 never made it to dry land.

Cornelisz was perhaps the worst possible person to take charge of the survivors.    He was a follower of the heretic artist Johannes van der Beeck who espoused that God had put people on earth to enjoy their brief lives in sensual gratification and that religions, including Christianity, restricted those pleasures.   Cornelisz had reportedly fled Holland fearing imminent arrest for his beliefs, and now took the opportunity to live his life without constraints. He was determined to see out his life on the island in hedonistic bliss, unless of course Pelsaert returned with a rescue ship. In that case he planned to seize it and make his escape with the Batavia’s treasure.

Portico blocks recovered from the Batavia now housed at the Museum of Geraldton. Photo CJ Ison.

He established himself as the senior VOC official on the island and ordered the soldiers to hand in their weapons.   He also placed all the food and other supplies under his control.   Cornelisz had Corporal Wiebbe Hayes and about 20 soldiers taken across to West Wallabi Island to search for water, promising to return for them in due course.   Cornelisz didn’t really expect them to find any water and assumed they would soon die of thirst and no longer pose a threat to him and his plans.   

He then sent his henchmen out to systematically murder the survivors.   Some of the castaways were taken to Long Island ostensibly to look for food and water where they were abandoned.   Others were taken out in boats where they were drowned and yet other men, women and children were simply butchered in their camp.   Interestingly, Cornelisz did not personally kill anyone, preferring to have others do his dirty work for him. Several of the women were kept as sex slaves including the beautiful 27-year-old wife of a senior VOC official in Batavia named Lucretia Jansz.    Cornelisz claimed her for himself.   The massacres essentially had two aims.  The first was to remove any challengers to Cornelisz’s authority and the second was to reduce the population so their supplies would last longer.

To Cornelisz’s surprise, Hayes eventually signalled that they had found water on the island.   The soldiers had also sustained themselves hunting wallabies which they found in plentiful numbers.   But before Cornelisz thought to send some of his men to investigate, Hayes had already been warned of the terror unfolding on Beacon Island by some of the survivors who had made the perilous passage to West Wallabi on pieces of wreckage.   

Houtman Abrolhos Islands. Courtesy Google Maps

When Cornelisz and his men finally went to deal with the soldiers, they found that Hayes had organised his men, armed them with makeshift weapons and they had built a breast-high redoubt from which they could repel attackers.

The skirmish proved disastrous to the mutineers and several men were killed. The rest withdrew in defeat. Cornelisz went to Wallabi Island to try and persuade Hayes to join forces with him, but to no avail.   Hayes captured Cornelisz and several of his men but the rest remained at large.   The two parties were at an impasse, neither was able to vanquish the other.

But in October, more than three months after abandoning the Batavia survivors, Pelsaert made his return.   The fate of the remaining survivors now rested on a race to reach the rescuers.   Hayes got to Pelsaert first and reported what had taken place in his absence.   Finally, the reign of terror came to an end but not before more than one hundred men, women and children had lost their lives.  

Skeletal remains from the Batavia massacre now housed at the West Australian Shipwreck Museum in Fremantle. Photo CJ Ison.

Cornelisz’s remaining men were quickly rounded up.   Cornelisz and six others had their hands cut off and were then hanged on Long Island after confessing their crimes.   Two were left to their fate on the Australian mainland near present day Kalbarri and the rest were taken to Batavia where they were tried and executed. Captain Jacobsz steadfastly denied conspiring to mutiny but nonetheless seems to have seen out his days in Batavia’s prison.  

An inquiry found Pelsaert had failed to exercise appropriate leadership and was therefore held partly responsible for the tragedy.   He lost his entire accumulated wealth in fines and died a broken man less than 12 months later.     The hero of the terrible story was Corporal Wiebbe Hayes.   He and some of his men were promoted in rank for their actions and a statue of Hayes stands on Geraldton’s foreshore.

© Copyright C.J. Ison / Tales from the Quarterdeck, 2023.

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