In 1628, a Dutch East India flagship called Batavia belonging to the Dutch East India Company (VOC) set sail from the Netherlands, never to reach her destination. Eight months into the voyage, on 4 June 1629, the ship was wrecked on the Houtman Abrolhos, a small chain of islands off the coast of Western Australia.
What followed could be considered one of the most tragic and nightmarish incidents in early modern maritime history, with what befell her surviving crew and passengers truly horrifying.
Here we explore what happened.
Sailing from the Netherlands, Batavia was on her maiden voyage, heading for the VOC trading base at Batavia (modern-day Jakarta). The 650 tonne ship was carrying just under 350 soldiers, their families, VOC officials (including their wives and children), silver coins and sandstone bricks. The plan was for her to return with spices.
However, Batavia never made it to her destination as in high winds and with a lack of knowledge of her longitude she was dashed on Morning Reef. Estimates suggest that as many as 100 people died as the 56 metre-long ship took on water.
The immediate aftermath
Using the ship’s longboat and yawl, survivors were ferried onto Beacon Island, two kilometres from the shipwreck.
Francisco Pelsaert, Commander of the fleet, and Batavia’s Captain, Adriaen Jacobsz, made camp while a group of men including Jeronimus Cornelisz (a VOC official) remained on the dwindling wreck to salvage any supplies they could.
It soon became clear that more supplies and help would be needed. Barren, with no food or running water, and no passing ships, Beacon Island was inhospitable and isolated.
Pelsaert chose to take many of the senior men, including Jacobsz, to scour nearby islands. Finding nothing, they decided to make the journey onwards to Batavia some 3,000km away.
As the wreck completely disintegrated, Cornelisz came ashore using wood from the wreckage as a raft. He took control of camp by asserting himself over a group of men. At this point, conditions began to worsen for the survivors.
Cornelisz gathered all remaining food supplies and weapons, and sent two groups of people including soldiers to other islands, ordering them to look for fresh water and to send a smoke signal when they were successful.
In hindsight it appears that Cornelisz sent the groups to other islands in the hope they would die, allowing Cornelisz to take control of the remaining survivors who would be weakened from so little food.
Murder and massacre
Cornelisz formed a council making himself its chair. Those remaining in camp were sent on errands aboard hand-made rafts, whereupon Cornelisz’s men pushed them overboard.
He then ordered for the sick and infirm to be killed, along with women and children. Death involved throats being slit while sleeping, brutal assaults, and poisoning. A few women were kept to be repeatedly raped by the men.
When one of the groups that had been dispatched to an island were seen wandering on the shoreline, Cornelisz sent men to murder them.
In all, it is estimated that Cornelisz had over 120 people killed (he was never physically involved in the murders himself).
One explanation for Cornelisz’s actions is that he wanted to seize any rescue ship for himself and make off with it, taking the silver he had salvaged from the wreck.
One of the groups Cornelisz dispatched to another island succeeded in finding water. When they sent up a smoke signal, he sent soldiers to kill them; failing, Cornelisz tried to negotiate. Unfortunately for Cornelisz, he was overpowered by the island survivors and tied up.
It was at this point that Commander Pelsaert arrived back at the islands with a rescue party. One of the men who held Cornelisz informed Pelsaert that there was a group of murdering men on the other island and Pelsaert took them prisoner.
The men confessed their crimes and were sentenced to having a hand cut off with a hammer and chisel before being executed on the gallows on 2 October 1629.
On 5 October 1629 Pelsaert sailed to Batavia with the remaining survivors.
How do we know what happened?
Commander Pelsaert kept a journal recording all of the events surrounding the Batavia.
A preacher by the name of Gijsbert Bastiaenz also witnessed Cornelisz’s reign of terror. He lost his wife and children in massacres, save for his eldest daughter who was kept by Cornelisz’s men and repeatedly raped. Surviving the ordeal, Bastiaenz wrote a letter about his terrible experiences.
The shipwreck followed by the terror that was inflicted upon its survivors explain why the story of the Batavia makes it one of the worst maritime tragedies of the early modern era. In total, two thirds of the people onboard died or were killed.