The Loss of the Convict Ship Neva – 1835

Loss of the Neva. Source: Tales of Shipwrecks and Adventures at Sea, 1846.

Between 1788 and 1868 something like 162,000 convicts were put on transport ships and banished to the colonies to serve out their sentences.    Such were conditions onboard some of these ships and the hazards and vast distances travelled, perhaps as many as one in one hundred perished without ever setting foot on Australian soil.  When the Neva struck a reef in Bass Strait, she added nearly another 150 souls to that grim figure among her 226 casualties.

The 337-ton barque Neva sailed from the Irish port of Cork on 8 January 1835 bound for Sydney, New South Wales with 153 female prisoners of the crown. Joining them were 55 children and nine free female emigrants.   The crew, under the command of Captain Benjamin H. Peck, numbered 26.   Three people died and one baby was born on the passage out so by the time they were nearing their destination the ship’s complement numbered 241, passengers and crew.     

By 12 May the Neva had rounded the Cape of Good Hope, stopped briefly at the island of St Paul for fresh supplies and was about to enter Bass Strait.    At noon Captain Peck calculated they were about 90nm (170kms) west of King Island.   As daylight faded into night, he posted a lookout to warn of any dangers lying in their path. He would remain on deck through the night, but for a two-hour break, as his ship negotiated that dangerous stretch of water.

A stiff breeze was blowing and the ship was being pushed along under double-reefed topsails. Around 2 o’clock in the morning the lookout sighted the dark silhouette of land against the night sky in the distance.   Peck ordered the course altered a little to the north to ensure he safely cleared King Island. 

Then about two or three hours later the lookout called “breakers ahead” as a line of white water emerged from the pre-dawn gloom.  

Neva Shipwreck. illustration from The Capricornian, 26 May 1927.

Captain Peck immediately gave orders to tack but the order came too late.   As the Neva was turning into the wind she struck a rock and unshipped her rudder.  With the wheel unresponsive the stricken ship was now at the mercy of the wind and current.   They had likely struck Navarine Reef about 3kms northeast of Cape Wickham, the northernmost point of King Island.

Suddenly she struck ground a second time.    The port bow struck first and the Neva was swung broadside against the reef and began taking on water.   Below decks, the prison cages collapsed under the violent force of the collision and the terrified female convicts rushed on deck.  

The Gig was lost as it was being lowered. Peck then ordered the pinnace over the side and he, the ship’s surgeon several sailors and some of the female passengers climbed aboard. But before they could put away it was overwhelmed by a deluge of frightened women franticly trying to escape the ship.    The boat sank under their weight, and everyone was spilled into the churning water.   Only Peck and the two seamen made it back to the ship alive.   

On climbing back aboard the captain set about having the longboat launched.   However, as he boarded this time he made sure that the panicking passengers were kept at bay.    Unfortunately for the captain, the boat was swamped by the surging seas crashing around the ship spilling him and everyone else into the water.   Only Captain Peck and his First Mate made it back to the ship.  

With the loss of three of the ship’s boats, they were left with just the cutter as their final lifeboat. It is not immediately clear from reading survivor accounts why it was never launched. The most likely reason is that the ship began to break up before it could be launched. Even if it had been, it would likely have met the same fate as the longboat. Regardless, Captain Peck had no recourse now but to share his passenger’s fate. Then, under the relentless pounding of the waves, the Neva began to break apart.

Account of the Neva shipwreck. Courtesy, State Library of NSW, FL3316306

The deck broke away from the superstructure and then parted into at least two sections effectively forming rafts.   Captain Peck, some of the seamen and several women made it onto one of them while the First Mate and several other people were lucky enough to find themselves on the second.   The two rafts drifted clear of the wreckage leaving the remaining convict women clinging to the few other parts of the ship’s remains still jutting above the surging seas.

The rafts and several other pieces of wreckage with people clinging to them drifted with the currents for several hours before they came to ground in a sandy bay at the northern end of King Island.   The Mate’s raft rode the surf in and was deposited high on the beach and most of the people who had clung to it survived.   

The captain’s raft was not so lucky.   The timber platform had come away with a large section of the foremast protruding below the surface.   As they entered the shallows the mast caught on the bottom some distance from the beach.   Waves swept everyone from the raft drowning anyone who could not swim.    Only the captain, a seaman and one woman made it ashore alive.   The rest perished in the pounding surf.

Twenty-two people made it onto King Island, but seven of them died within 24 hours either from exposure or from injuries sustained during their escape from the wreck.     The remaining fifteen survivors used sails and spars washed ashore to build makeshift shelters and collected what provisions they could that had been washed ashore.   About one hundred bodies were found scattered among the debris which were quickly buried in several mass graves.

Having resigned to waiting some time to be rescued by a passing ship, Peck and the others began foraging for food to supplement what was washed ashore from the Neva. However, they would soon learn they were not alone. They were discovered by another party of castaways who had earlier been wrecked on the south-eastern end of King Island.   They had noticed wreckage drifting down the coast and had gone to investigate eventually coming upon the Neva’s survivors.   They were also given some assistance from a sealer and his aboriginal wife who lived on King Island.

After being marooned for about a month both parties were found by Charles Friend, the master of the schooner Sarah Ann. He had touched at King Island on his way back to Launceston after delivering provisions to a Bass Strait whaling station.    Everyone, except two of the Neva’s sailors and a convict woman, were taken off the island and delivered to Launceston.   The three left behind had been away from camp foraging for food at the time and the captain of the Sarah Ann could not risk losing his ship waiting for them to return.   

The survivors reached Launceston on 27 June and a cutter was immediately dispatched to King Island to collect the remaining three castaways.   In all, just fifteen of the 241 passengers and crew who were onboard the Neva when she sank, survived making it one of Australia’s worst maritime disasters.

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

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The Krait’s Remarkable Career

MV Krait anchored at Darwin. Courtesy AWM.

The small fishing vessel MV Krait holds a special place in Australian maritime and military history.   Named after a small deadly snake, it played an import part in Operation Jaywick’s which sank several Japanese ships anchored in Singapore Harbour in September 1943.   This is the Krait’s story.

The MV Krait started life as a Japanese fishing vessel launched in 1934 and named Kofuku Maru.   The vessel measured 20m in length, had a draught of 2 metres, a displacement of 23 tonnes and was configured as a motorised gaff-rigged ketch. By the outbreak of war, she was based in Singapore ferrying water, food and other supplies to fishermen in the Rhio Archipelago and returning with their catch for the city’s seafood markets. 

When Japan entered the war the Kofuku Maru was seized by the British authorities.   As Japanese troops advanced down the Malay Peninsula an Australian merchant mariner, Bill Reynolds, used the boat to evacuate over one thousand civilians to Sumatra in what was then the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).

Singapore shortly before the Japanese landed on the island. Photo Central Queensland Herald, 26 Mar 1942, p. 20.

Then, in January 1942, when it was clear that Singapore would soon fall, he escaped to Colombo in present-day Sri Lanka on the Kofuku Maru.   It was soon realised by officers from the Allied Intelligence Bureau that they were now in possession of a fishing vessel that could, with some luck, traverse enemy waters without raising suspicion.   The Krait was then sent to Australia to begin its clandestine career.

She was the prime candidate to undertake Operation Jaywick, a plot to destroy enemy shipping moored in Singapore harbour.   The plot was not without significant risk. However, before Reynolds fled from Singapore, he had noticed Japanese aircraft had ignored the vessel as they sought out targets to attack.   With any luck, they would not suspect it was anything other than one of the many small fishing vessels plying Malay and Indonesian waters.  

A 14-man team was selected for the operation under the command of Major Ivan Lyons, a British Army officer attached to the Z Special Unit (also known as Z Force).   They were a mix of Army and Navy personnel from Britain and Australia.   After completing specialised training and rehearsals at Refuge Bay north of Sydney, the Krait then made the long voyage around the top of Australia to Exmouth Gulf.  

A group on board MV Krait enroute to Singapore during Operation Jaywick. Courtesy AWM.

The passage was not without problems.   The engine quit off Fraser Island and the Krait had to be towed to Townsville where it remained until a replacement could be found and installed.   Further repairs had to be made by the time they arrived at Exmouth Gulf further delaying the operation.

Nonetheless, on 2 September 1943 the Krait left Exmouth Gulf with the Z Special Unit men on board.   They comprised six commandos who would undertake the raid in folding canoes and eight Naval personnel who would sail the vessel to within striking distance of Singapore.   

The Krait motored north, passing through the narrow Lombok Strait four days later with the Japanese ensign flying from their mast.     Once clear of the strait they bore west through the Java Sea towards their intended destination.   To disguise themselves from cursory examination, the men stained their skin brown to appear more like the local fishermen and were scrupulous about what rubbish they threw overboard.   

MV Krait’s route from Exmouth Gulf to Singapore. Courtesy Google Maps.

Towards the end of September the Krait had made it to the small island of Pulau Panjang just 30kms away from Singapore Harbour.   The six commandos then set off in three two-man canoes and island-hopped north to a small island where they could observe the entrance to the harbour.   Meanwhile the Krait made for safer waters near Borneo but not before agreeing on a rendezvous point with the commandos for the night of 2 October.

On 26 September the six men paddled into the harbour and planted magnetic “limpet” mines on seven Japanese ships.   The early morning quiet was shattered by a series of loud explosions as the mines went off.   One failed to detonate, but six ships were sunk or badly damaged.     By then the commandos were long gone and hold up on a small island to await the return of the Krait.

The Japanese had not considered that the attack had come from the sea rather thinking it was the work of local saboteurs.     A number of local Chinese and Malays along with POWs and European civilian internees were suspected of undertaking the plot and were rounded up by the Japanese Military Police.  Many were tortured and some were executed in the aftermath, an unfortunate consequence of the raid.  

Meanwhile, the commandos rendezvoused with the Krait as planned and two and a half weeks later they were safely back in Exmouth Gulf.

 Major Lyons would lead a second similar raid on Singapore Harbour the following year but Operation Rimau would end in disaster.

MV Krait in Brisbane 1943. Courtesy AWM.

After the success of Operation Jaywick, the Krait was based in Darwin and used to support coast watchers and other intelligence operations reporting on Japanese activities to Australia’s north.    Commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in 1944 she was renamed HMAS Krait and in September 1945 was present for the local Japanese surrender at Ambon. 

After the war the Krait was employed by the British administration in Borneo until it was sold to a British-owned timber sawmill and renamed Pedang meaning Sword in Malay.   In the late-1950s a pair of Australian businessmen recognised the Krait for what she was and began fund-raising to purchase the vessel and have it returned to Australia.

In 1964 the Krait made it back to Australia where it was operated by the Royal Volunteer Coastal Patrol.   In 1984 it was handed over to the Australian War Memorial and berthed at the Sydney Maritime Museum.   It is now maintained and kept on display by the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney.

MV Krait at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney. Photo CJ Ison.


Australian National Maritime Museum: Articles on the Krait and Operation Jaywick.

Royal Australian Navy: Article on the Krait and Operation Jaywick.

Australian War Memorial: Article on Operation Jaywick.

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

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The Loss of the Saint Paul and its Horrific Aftermath– 1858

Stranding of the Saint Paul, on Rossel Island. Auguste Hadamard, Le Tour du Monde, volume 4, 1861.

In September 1858 the French ship Saint Paul was wrecked off Rossel Island east of New Guinea with as many as 370 people on board.    Of those, fewer than a dozen men escaped with their lives.   One of whom was Narcisse Pelletier who escaped to Cape York and lived with the Uutaalnganu people for the next 17 years.   The rest were massacred while waiting to be rescued.

The Saint Paul was a French merchant ship of 620-tons under the command of Captain Emmanuel Pinard.    In July 1858 she set sail from Hong Kong with as many as 350 Chinese passengers bound for Sydney to try their luck on the New South Wales goldfields.  

Hampered by foul weather after setting sail, provisions were running low by the time the ship was somewhere north of New Guinea.    Rather than stick to the regular shipping route which would have taken them east of the Solomon Islands, Captain Pinard thought to save time by shortening his passage.    He chose to risk the dangerous reef-strewn waters between New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.  

Unfortunately, the gamble did not pay off.   He was plagued by more bad weather and heavy mists which precluded him from making any solar observations.   He was navigating blind as he tried to thread his way through the treacherous Louisaide Archipelago when disaster finally struck. 

Saint Paul.

On the night of 10/11 September the Saint Paul struck a reef off Rossel Island on the eastern edge of the archipelago.   The ship was beyond saving so the next morning the passengers were ferried ashore with what stores and provisions that could be salvaged.

They landed on a small rocky island about 2 or 3 kms off Rossel Island and set up camp there.   After a day or so, Pinard sent his First Mate with half his crew across to Rossel to find water, but they were attacked by the local inhabitants and several were killed.  

Pinard would later report that he then took the longboat crewed by most of the surviving seamen and set off for the Australian mainland to find help.   But, he said, he only did so after consulting with the Chinese and receiving their approval.   Leaving them with most of the food, firearms and the second boat, he and his men set off.   Years later, the cabin boy Narcisse Pelletier claimed the captain had fled in the dead of night leaving the Chinese passengers to their fate.

Pinard and his crew, including Pelletier, reached the Australian mainland near Cape Direction after a 12 or 13-day passage.   There they received assistance from the local Uutaalnganu people.   When Pinard and his men left, Pelletier remained behind and would live among the Aborigines for the next 17 years.   See the previous blog for his story.

The crew of the Saint-Paul attacked by natives of Rossel Island. Auguste Hadamard, Le Tour du Monde, volume 4, 1861.

Meanwhile, the Saint Paul’s men were picked up by the schooner Prince of Denmark.  Captain McKellar agreed to take the castaways to New Caledonia.   But before he could deliver them to the French colony he first had to drop off provisions to a party of beche-de-mer fishermen camped on a remote island.   By now the Chinese had been marooned for over a month and it would be mid-December before Pinard reached Port-de-France (Noumea) in New Caledonia.

When Pinard finally reported the loss of his ship, the French naval steamer Styx was immediately dispatched to rescue the Saint Paul passengers arriving at Rossel Island on 5 January 1859.    When Lieutenant Grenoult and his men went ashore they made a shocking discovery.   Of the 320 or so people left on the island, there was just one survivor.   Through sign language, he conveyed that everyone else had been massacred but the horrific details would only come to light when they arrived in Sydney a few weeks later and an interpreter could translate his story.  What follows is drawn from what the survivor reported in Sydney and Lt Grenoult’s official report.

For a little while the Saint Paul survivors were left unmolested.   Then some of the men went across to Rossel Island in the Saint Paul’s boat and were never seen again.   A few days later Islanders paddled over to the castaways and enticed some with offerings of food to return with them to the larger island.   When they too failed to return, the Chinese grew suspicious and no one else left the island despite having little to eat.   

Detail from an 1829 Marine Chart showing Rossel Is. Courtesy NLA.

Then, after about a month had passed and the survivors were in a greatly weakened state, the Islanders returned in large numbers.   Some of the castaways put up a fight, but they were quickly overpowered.   The Islanders ransacked their camp and forced everyone to return to Rossel Island with them.     The castaways soon learned the men who had previously left had been killed by the local inhabitants.

The Saint Paul survivors were kept in a large clearing and closely watched.   Over the next several weeks, a few men at a time were separated from their comrades, beaten to death, butchered, and the flesh cooked over a fire to be eaten   This grisly scene was apparently played out in full view of the dwindling number of survivors.    

By the time the Styx steamed into view, just half a dozen Saint Paul survivors were still alive.   The Islanders fled into the mountainous interior taking with them four Chinese and a European sailor but leaving one young man who was too infirm to bother with.   He hid among some rocks until the Styx’s boats landed and the French sailors stepped ashore.   

Lt Grenoult and his men spent three days on Rossel Island trying to find the others but without success.   The Styx then set off for Sydney to deliver Captain Pinard and his men plus the young Chinese passenger they had just saved, arriving there on 25 January 1859.   

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

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Narcisse Pelletier: An Extraordinary Tale of Survival.

Narcisse Pelletier and the Saint Paul.

In April 1875 the pearling schooner John Bull’s crew happened upon a man clearly of European heritage living with a group of Aborigines on Cape York Peninsula.      Mistakenly thinking that the man was being held against his will, they took him onboard their vessel and delivered him to the Government outpost at Somerset.    His name was Narcisse Pelletier.

Pelletier spent about two weeks at Somerset before boarding the steamer Brisbane bound for Sydney.   During his time there, he spoke little but on the voyage south, he was befriended by Lt J.W. Ottley, a British Indian Army officer taking leave in Australia.    Using his rusty schoolboy French, Ottley managed to get Pelletier to tell him his remarkable story.

Narcisse Pierre Pelletier was the son of a Saint Gilles shoemaker who, at the age of 14, had gone to sea as a cabin boy on the Saint Paul under the command of Captain Emmanuel Pinard.   He sailed from Marseille in August 1857 bound for the Far East.   The following year the Saint Paul left Hong Kong bound for Sydney with 330 Chinese passengers, all keen to try their luck on the New South Wales goldfields.   However, the ship was wrecked off Rossel Island in the dangerous Louisiade Archipelago east of New Guinea.

Stranding on the Saint Paul, on Rossel Island. Auguste Hadamard, Le Tour du Monde, volume 4, 1861.

When some of the crew, including Pelletier went in search of water, they were attacked by the local inhabitants and the mate and several sailors were killed. Pelletier himself was struck on the head and barely escaped with his life.   He claimed that the captain had then decided their best chance of surviving was for the remaining crew to make for New Caledonia leaving the Chinese passengers to their fate.   This was at odds with Captain Pinard’s account where he claimed to have gone in search of help at the behest of the passengers and that he had left them with most of the provisions and firearms.  (The loss of the Saint Paul is the subject of a future blog post.)

Pelletier said they suffered greatly in the longboat surviving on a diet of flour and a few raw birds that were unlucky enough to be knocked out of the sky if they flew too close to the boat.   Their misery was amplified several days before reaching land when their water ran out.    Pelletier was unsure how long they had been at sea but they came ashore on the Australian mainland near Cape Direction, the land of the Uutaalnganu people.

Nine men reached land including Pinard and Pelletier.   The first water hole they found was so small, according to Pelletier, that by the time everyone else had drunk their fill there was none left for him.   By now he was half dead from hunger and thirst.   He was suffering from exposure to the elements and his feet had been lacerated from walking barefoot on coral.  

He told Ottley that Pinard and the rest of the men abandoned him, reboarded the boat and set out to sea intent on reaching the French settlement at New Caledonia.  

Again, Pelletier’s version differs from Pinard’s who said the whole band of survivors remained with the Uutaalnganu people for several weeks before being picked up by the schooner Prince of Denmark which eventually took them to New Caledonia.

Regardless of the precise circumstances, when his shipmates left, Pelletier remained with the Uutaalnganu people.

They tended to his injuries and slowly nursed him back to good health and he would remain with them for the next 17 years. For a very long time, Pelletier said, he missed his parents and younger brothers and longed for the company of his countrymen.   But as the years rolled by those longings faded and were replaced by strong affection for his Uutaalnganu adopted family.    From the ceremonial scars on his chest and arms and the piercing to his ear lobe, for which he felt great pride, he was initiated into the society and from a later French biography, he apparently married and fathered several children.

Narcisse Pelletier in 1875. Source: Wikicommons.

Then, in 1875 his world was upturned yet again. One day, the pearling lugger John Bull happened to anchor nearby.   Several sailors came ashore for water and to conduct a little trade.    They noticed the white man among the local inhabitants and coaxed him to return to their ship with them.   He only agreed to go with them out of fear of their guns rather than any desire to return to “civilisation.”   What’s more, he had no idea that he would be taken away and would never see his family and friends again.   He told Ottley he would have preferred being returned to the Uutaalnganu, or as he called them – his people.  

Narcisse Pelletier never did return to the Uutaalnganu.   Rather, he was taken to Sydney where the French Consul organised passage for him to return to France.     When, in January 1876, he arrived in his hometown to be reunited with his parents the whole town turned out to greet him.   He soon found work as a lighthouse keeper near Saint Nazaire and married a few years later.   Narcisse Pelletier passed away on 28 September 1894, aged 50 years.

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

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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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