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Authors: Mike Dash

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Batavia's Graveyard

BOOK: Batavia's Graveyard
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For Penny: my Creesje

“I looked at him with great sorrow: such a scoundrel, cause of so many disasters and of the shedding of human blood. Besmirched in every way not only with abominable misdeeds but also with damnable heresy  . . . and still he had the intention to go on.”

FROM THE INTERROGATION OF JERONIMUS CORNELISZ
BY FRANCISCO PELSAERT

Preface

A
BSOLUTELY NOTHING IN THIS BOOK IS INVENTED. It is closely based on
contemporary sources, and direct quotes, where they appear, are drawn from those same
documents. In the few places where I have drawn my own conclusions about the thoughts and
actions of the
Batavia
’s passengers and crew, I have indicated the fact in the
notes.

Jeronimus Cornelisz and his companions sailed at a time when the use of surnames
was still rare in the Dutch Republic, and when it was correspondingly common for names to
be spelled and written in several different ways within a single document. I have taken
advantage of this fact to avoid the possibility of confusion between two similarly named
people, where there is contemporary authority for such usage. Thus Daniel Cornelisz, a
mutineer, is referred to as “Cornelissen” throughout, to prevent him being
confused with Jeronimus; and of the two Allert Janszes who were on the ship, one has
become Allert Janssen.

It is impossible to make accurate comparisons between prices in the Golden Age of
the Dutch Republic and today’s prices, but—roughly estimated—one guilder in
1629 bought the equivalent of $75 in 2001.

Place names are spelled as they were in the seventeenth century, thus Leyden
rather than Leiden, and Sardam rather than Zaandam.

MIKE DASH,
London, June 2001

Prologue

Morning Reef

“The pack of all disasters has moulded together and fallen on my
neck.”

FRANCISCO PELSAERT

T
HE MOON ROSE AT DUSK ON THE EVENING OF 3 JUNE 1629, sending soft grey shafts
of light skittering across the giant swells of the eastern Indian Ocean. The beams darted
their way from crest to crest, racing each other for mile after mile across the empty
vastness of sea, until at last they caught and silhouetted something for an instant, a
great black mass that wallowed in a trough between the waves.

In another second, the shape surged onward, rushing up the shifting wall of water
in its path until it breasted the next swell. As it did so, it reared up momentarily and
the moon fixed it as it slapped back into the water and sent plumes of fine white spray
into the air on either side.

In the half-light of the southern winter, the black mass stood revealed as a
substantial ship, steering north with the sting of a sharp wind at her back. She was built
in the European style, squat and square-sailed, and she looked unbalanced, being
considerably lower forward than she was aft. Her curved beak of a prow hung so close to
the sea that it was frequently awash with a foam of dark water, but from there her decks
curved sharply up like some massive wooden scimitar, rising so steeply that she towered
almost 40 feet out of the water at the stern. As the ship came on, the moon was bright
enough to pick out some of the larger details along the hull: her figurehead (a wooden
lion springing upward), a tangled mass of rigging, the giant iron anchors lashed upside
down along her sides. Her bows were blunt, and both the broadness of her beam and the
fullness of her draught marked her as a merchant vessel.

Although the moon was bright that evening, there was too little light for the
ship to be identified by the flags that writhed and snapped from all three of her masts,
and there was little sign of activity on deck. The gunports had all been closed, and not
even the quick glint of a lamp or two, shining through chinks in the hatches, hinted at
life within. But an enormous lantern, five feet tall, hung over the stern, and its yellow
glow illuminated the richly decorated woodwork beneath just well enough for a keen eye to
pick out painted details that revealed the great ship’s name and her home
port.

She was the East Indiaman
Batavia,
seven months out of Amsterdam on her
maiden voyage and still some 30 days’ sailing from her destination, the Dutch trading
settlements on the island of Java. Behind her, trailing in the phosphorescence of her
wake, lay 13,000 miles of sea. Ahead were another 1,800 miles of uncharted ocean that had,
by the end of the third decade of the seventeenth century, been crossed by only a handful
of European vessels. There was rumor and speculation aplenty, among the geographers of
England, the Netherlands, and Spain, about what might lie over the horizon in the immense
blank that stretched south on their globes from the known waters of the Indies, but little
information and no certain knowledge. The few charts of this unknown region that the
Batavia
carried were fragmentary in the extreme, and all but useless as navigational aids. So she
sailed on blind into the gathering night, trusting to God and the skipper as the hourglass
trickled away the minutes to midnight and the change of watch.

The ship had been brand-new when she left the Netherlands, but she was weathered
now. Her upperworks, which had been painted pale green with embel-lishments in red and
gold, were chipped and worn and scoured by sea salt. Her bottom, which had once been
smooth and clean, was now festooned with so many barnacles and weeds that their drag
slowed her progress north. And her hull, built though it was from oak, had been subjected
to every conceivable extreme of temperature, so that it now shuddered as the ship rolled
in the swell. First the
Batavia
’s timbers had swollen in the northern winter,
for she had left Amsterdam late the previous October when the northern seas were already
cold and stormy. Then they had been shriveled by the sun as the ship sailed along the
fever coasts of Africa, swung west on passing Sierra Leone, and crossed the equator headed
for Brazil. Off the coast of South America she had at last turned east, picking up a
current that carried her to the Cape of Good Hope and then fierce easterlies that took her
through the Roaring Forties and the Southern Ocean, where it was winter once again and
perpetual gales hurried her onward, between the barren little islets of St. Paul and
Amsterdam and into the unknown waters to the east.

At least it was warmer now, and the storms had abated as the
Batavia
headed north after more than seven long months at sea. But the endless discomforts of the
voyage had if anything grown worse, and outweighed the slow improvement in the weather.
The fresh food was long gone, the water was alive with worms, and below deck the ship
herself stank of urine, unwashed bodies, and stale breath. Worst of all, in its own way,
was the plodding monotony of the endless days at sea, which ate away the spirit of the
passengers and undermined the efficiency of the crew.

At 12 the watch changed. The new watch, the midnight watch, was always
acknowledged to be the most difficult and dangerous of all. Working conditions were at
their worst, and the alertness of the men could not always be taken for granted. For these
reasons it was customary for the skipper himself to be on deck by night, and as the last
grains of sand slid through the glass, a small doorway opened on one of the upper decks
and he came up.

The master of a Dutch East Indiaman was a man who enjoyed almost unlimited power
in his small kingdom. He commanded a ship that had cost 100,000 guilders to build and
contained a cargo that, in the Indies trade, was worth many times more. He was charged
with the safe navigation of his vessel and responsible for the lives of all the hundreds
of souls under his command. But, on the
Batavia
as on every other Dutch East
Indiamen, the skipper was also the subordinate of an officer who typically had no
experience of the sea and little understanding of how to manage a ship.

This man was the upper-merchant, or supercargo. He was, as his title implied, a
commercial agent who bore the responsibility of ensuring that the voyage was a profitable
one for his own masters, the directors of the
Verenigde Oost-indische Compagnie—
the
United East India Company—which owned the ship. In the first half of the seventeenth
century, the VOC was not only the most important organization, and one of the largest
employers, in the United Provinces of the Netherlands; it was also the wealthiest and most
powerful company on Earth. It had become wealthy and powerful by putting trade and profit
ahead of every other consideration. Thus the supercargo and his deputy, the
under-merchant, had the authority to order the skipper to make sail, or stay at anchor in
some flyblown port until the holds were full, even if death and disease were striking down
the crew.

The master of a Dutch East Indiaman was therefore in rather an unusual position.
He was expected to combine the powers of seamanship and leadership that have always been
demanded of any skipper with a degree of tact and even submissiveness that did not often
come easily to men hardened by many years at sea. He had command of his ship from day to
day, it is true, but he might at any moment be given an order he would be expected to
obey. He could set a course but did not decide where his ship was heading. In port, he had
very little power at all.

The skipper of the
Batavia
was a tough old seaman with considerable
experience of the Indies trade, a man named Ariaen Jacobsz.
*1
He came from Durgerdam, a
fishing village just a mile or two northeast of Amsterdam, and he had been a servant of
the VOC for two decades or more. The upper-merchant, who was called Francisco Pelsaert,
was in many respects Jacobsz’s opposite—not only in wealth and education, which
was to be expected in this period, but in origin as well. For one thing, Pelsaert was no
Dutchman; he came from Antwerp in the Southern Netherlands, the great rival of Amsterdam.
Moreover, he had been born into a Catholic family at a time when the VOC required its
officers to be Protestant; he lacked Jacobsz’s powers of leadership; and despite long
service in the Indies, he was as indecisive as the skipper was self-confident. The two men
were not friends.

As for Ariaen Jacobsz, he was a veteran of several voyages to the East and
probably in his middle forties, which would have made him one of the oldest men on board.
That he was a superb sailor is beyond doubt; he had already skippered another large VOC
merchantman with some success, and the East India Company was not in the habit of trusting
its newest ships to indifferent officers. But the records of his service show that Jacobsz
was also choleric, quick-tempered, and sensitive to any slight; that he sometimes drank to
excess; and that he was a lecher who was not above imposing his attentions on the female
passengers whom he carried in his ships.

These, then, were the men charged with safeguarding the
Batavia
in the
early hours of 4 June 1629. It was not a responsibility that weighed heavily on the
skipper. For 211 days at sea, watch had followed watch with scarcely a noteworthy
incident. The conditions on this night were good; the wind was blowing in gusts from the
southwest, and with no sign of any storm or squall the weather was almost perfect for
sailing. The ship was sound, and the noon position that Jacobsz had computed the previous
day put the
Batavia
600 miles distant from any known land. There seemed no need for
particular vigilance from the men on watch, and since there was little or no real work to
be done, some at least were able to talk and rest. Jacobsz himself stood gazing out to sea
from a vantage point on the upper deck. A lookout watched beside him, and the steersman
was stationed just below the skipper’s post.

It was at some time after 3 a.m., when the alertness of the crew was at its
lowest ebb, that the lookout, Hans Bosschieter, first suspected that all was not well.
From his position high in the stern, the sailor noticed what appeared to be white water
dead ahead. Peering into the night, Bosschieter thought he could make out a mass of spray,
as though surf was breaking on an unseen reef. He turned to the skipper for confirmation,
but Jacobsz disagreed. He insisted that the thin white line on the horizon was nothing
more than moonbeams dancing on the waves. The skipper trusted to his own judgment, and he
held the
Batavia
’s course, sailing on with all her canvas set.

When the ship struck, she therefore did so at full speed.

With a tremendous crash, the
Batavia
impaled herself on the half-hidden
reef that had been lying in her path. In the first second of impact an outcrop of coral 15
feet beneath the surface tore the rudder half away; then, a moment later, the ship’s
bow hit the main body of the reef. Massive though she was,
Batavia
’s forward
momentum brought her lurching out of the water, and her foreparts ground their way over
the first few feet of the obstacle in a roar of shattered rock and splintered wood. The
whole ship howled as shards of coral gouged their way along her sides, and her hull
trembled from the blow.

Up on deck, Jacobsz and Bosschieter and the other men of the midnight watch were
flung to the left and sent staggering against the
Batavia
’s sides and railings
as the ship smashed into the reef. Down below, in the dark and crowded living spaces, the
rest of the ship’s passengers and crew, another 270 people in all, were tipped from
their hammocks and sleeping mats onto the deck. Lamps and barrels, crockery and ropes torn
from their fastenings rained down on their heads, and in an instant the ordered, sleeping
ship became a pitch-black pandemonium.

It took only a second or two for the
Batavia
to shudder to a halt. The
coral cradle that the ship had torn out of the reef forced her stern down into the water
and twisted her hull at an unnatural angle, like a human body broken in a fall. The noise
of the initial collision rolled away into the darkness, to be replaced by the roar of
breakers striking the hull and shouts of fear and panic from below.

The upper-merchant was the first on deck. Pelsaert had been lying half-asleep in
his cabin in the stern, only a few feet from the spot where Jacobsz and Bosschieter had
been standing, and the impact of the collision had thrown him out of bed. Picking himself
up off the cabin floor, he hurried up, still clad in his nightclothes, to discover what
had happened.

He found the ship in chaos. The
Batavia
had taken on a list to port and
her timbers were shaking under the repeated pounding of the waves, which piled up under
her stern and kept her bottom grating ominously against the coral. A cold veil of sea
spray—thrown up by the impact of the surf against the hull—hung in the air all
round the ship, and wind whipped the spume across the decks and into the faces of the
half-naked men and women who now began to swarm up through the hatches from below, soaking
and half-blinding them as they emerged.

Pelsaert fought his way onto the quarterdeck. The skipper was still there,
yelling orders to the crew. Even the upper-merchant, with his limited knowledge of the
sea, could tell immediately that the situation was serious. “What have you
done,” he screamed to Jacobsz over the general din, “that through your reckless
carelessness you have run this noose around our necks?”

The
Batavia
’s position was indeed desperate. Not only was the ship
stuck fast on the reef; her 10 great sails still billowed from the yards, pinning her ever
more firmly to the coral. The timbers of the bow had been crushed in the collision, and
though there were as yet no serious leaks below, it seemed from the groaning of the hull
that her seams might burst at any moment. Worst of all, they were lost. The
Batavia—
at
least in Jacobsz’s opinion—was nowhere near any known shoal or coast. None of
the other officers had had cause to question the skipper’s estimate of their
position. So no one had the least idea of where they were, what they had struck, or the
nature and extent of the shallows they had blundered into.

BOOK: Batavia's Graveyard
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