Batavia: A Spine-Chilling Chapter in Australian History
By Peter Fitzsimons
Read How You Want, (2010)
EasyRead Large Print, in 16 Point Font
(Originally Published in Standard Print by Random House Australia)
ISBN: 9781459615373 Genre: History
Reviewed by Herbert White - April 29, 2011
In October 1628, the newly commissioned East India Company vessel, Batavia set sail from Texel, Netherlands, bound to the East Indies. On board were 341 men, women, and children, about fifty of which were passengers. Some were free settlers heading out to Dutch colonies in the East, others were women and children traveling out to meet up with their men folk, who had taken jobs in the East. Most would not live to reach their intended destinations.
The Batavia was a top of the line vessel for its time, even luxurious in comparison to similar vessels from the period. The venture was well provisioned, the ship loaded with barrels of gold and silver to facilitate trading and buying excursions along the way to both reprovision the ship and to acquire spices and other cargo for the return journey. For the most part, the journey was uneventful, despite the fact that some of the crew and passengers were planning mutiny and to seize the ship - and the gold. However, on the night of June 4, 1629, everything changed. The Batavia struck a reef off the western coast of Australia and had to be abandoned. The survivors found themselves in an area that seemed to lack fresh water and which offered very little food. This would prove the least of their problems...
Once on land, Captain Jacobsz and a handful of officers and crews set out to look for help, leaving in charge Jeronimus Cornelisz, who, unbeknownst to the Captain had planned on seizing the ship all along. As soon as the Captain was out of sight, Cornelisz made his first move to solidify his power, by tricking most of the ship's military personnel to go to nearby islands to search for food and water. Once they were out of the way, he set out to have his minions murder anyone who might jeopardize his position, or who simply annoyed him. One of these unfortunates being a wee babe who cried too much for his liking. He tried to poison the baby, but when that failed, he ordered one of his henchmen to hang the half-dead infant, which he did. Women faired a little better, simply because they were a commodity in short supply. Those women not commandeered by the leaders of the mutineers were 'put' into common service and forced to satisfy the baser needs of the crew. The women had little choice in the matter, as their own lives and those of their children and other family members who were traveling with them, hung in the balance.
In the book, Batavia, Peter Fitzsimons chronicles this doomed expedition from the time of the ship's launch in Texel to the aftermath of the mutiny and the rescue of the survivors. By the time Captain Jacobsz returned with help, Cornelisz had ordered the murder of more than 100 people, with both women and children counted among the dead. As it turned out, the stranded soldiers had been left on an island rich with both water and food, and led by a common soldier by the name of Wiebbe Hayes, began to wage war against the mutineers, eventually capturing Cornelisz. The soldiers' victory against the mutineers corresponded with the return of the Captain, and the surviving mutineers where quickly put on trial and, for most, they were sentenced to be executed for their deeds. The remaining survivors boarded the rescue ship that the Captain had returned to the Island of Batavia. In all, only sixty-eight people who embarked in Texel, survived to reach the Island of Batavia.
This is a gripping and unbelievable tale of avarice, murder, and worse. It is also a story of unbelievable courage and endurance. Using surviving documents, including journals, Fitzsimons has done an admirable job of recreating this story. I did find his writing to be a bit clipped, and the narrative reads at time more like cryptic diary entries than a standard narrative, in part because the historical record is incomplete. However, once I got use to his style of writing, I easily found myself drawn into this unforgettable story drawn from the pages of history. In this book, Fitzsimons also provides an overview of the spice trade and information on how the story of the Batavia has been documented and transmitted through time since word of its fate reached the world.