The Loss of the Batavia 1629


The Batavia was lost on the Albrolhos islands off the coast of Western Australia in 1629. The Captain took the pinnate, leaving most of the survivors on the island, and made his way to Batavia (now Jakarta). In his absence, the first Europeans to live in Australia turned on each other - conspirators massacred 125 of their fellows, proving that the Dutch could be every bit as barbarous and cruel as the Aborigines of their imaginings. What follows is the story of the loss of the Batavia.

Slowly, over several days, the bones of a plot emerged. Hunched together at the rail as the Batavia ploughed through the rough waters east of the Cape, the skipper and the under-merchant planned a mutiny that would give them control of the ship. they spoke of ways of subduing the majority of the crew, and the necessary of murdering those who would not join them. they lingered in pleasurable debate as to Pelsaert's fate and thought of turning pirate and preying on the commerce of the Indian Ocean. they dreamed of a comfortable retirement in some Spanish pot, far beyhond the reach of the VOC. Above all, they talked because they needed one another.


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It seems to have been Cornelisz who turned the skipper from a mere malcontent into a mutineer. Arisen Jacobsz ws no longer young. Two decades at sea - and several debilitating voyages to the East - had made the skipper rough, but the years had drained him of his vigour. The six months journey to the Cape had exhausted him. Though it was common for the skippers of East Indiamen to find their supercargoes an irritant, Jacobsz was no longer sure he had the energy to turn his mutinous thoughts into deeds. Much as his hatred of Pelsaert gnawed him, left to himself he would probably have grunted and chafed without ever taking action. Months later, Ccornelisz would recall that as they stood together at the stern, he heard his friend repeat a single sentence over and over again: 'If I were younger,' Jacobsz had muttered, 'I would do something else.' But with his friend the under-merchant beside him, Ariaen felt emboldened. the very fact that Jeronimus could stand with him on the quarterdeck, coolly discussing he prospect of violence, was a spur in itself.

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In his journal, Pelsaert eventually came to realise this, 'Jeronimus Cornelissen,' he mused,

'having made himself a great friend and highly familiar with the skipper, moulded their similar intelligence and feelings into one, the skipper being innate with prideful conceit and Ambition, so that he could not endure the authority of any over him. Moreover, he was mocking and contemptuous of all people. Further, he was inexperienced or inept in getting on with people., in so far as it did not concern sea-faring. but Jeronimus, on the contrary, was well-spoken and usually knew how to polish the Truth of his lying words, he was far more sly and skilled in getting on with people ... So that Jeronimus was the tongue of the skipper and served as pedagogue to insinuate into him what he should answer if I wanted to speak to or admonish him.'

As for Cornelisz, he cared little what befell Francisco Pelsert. He encouraged the skipper's fantasies simply because he knew he could not seize the Batavia by himself. to do that he would need sailors, whose loyalty he did not command, and the ability to navigate, which only Ariaen and his steersmen possessed. Granted the men and the skills he needed, however, Jeronimus scented a prize greater than mere revenge. As he well knew, the lumbering Batavia contained riches greater than any he could dream of earning in the East.

Cornelisz had motives of his own for mutiny. As the owner of a failed business, with an abandoned wife and a dead child, he had no particular desire to see the United Provinces again. As a near-bankrupt seeking his fortune in the Indies, he was engaged to an enterprise that left him not much more than a 50/50 chance of coming back alive even if he was successful. And as a VOC officer with ready access to the Great Cabin in the stern, he had seen the dozen chests of money there and knew they contained a fortune that would allow anyone who seized it to spend what was left of his life in consummate luxury. Furthermore, as someone of decadence heretical beliefs, the under-merchant simply did not experience the pangs of guilt and conscience that a pious Dutchman might have felt in plotting rebellion and murder.

In this, as in so much else, Jeronimus Cornelisz was unique, it was unheard-of for an officer of the VOC to mutiny. Skippers, too, were generally loyal. But Jeronimus and Ariaen began to look for confederates among the crew confident they would find men enough to follow them. the soldiers and sailors of the Dutch East India Company were always ready to revolt. Harsh treatment, poor wages, and the terrible conditions on the voyage to Java frequently combined to produce outbreaks of trouble on board VOC ships, although the unrest generally fell well short of the sort of bloody uprising Comelisz and Jocabsz had begun to contemplate. Most mutinies were little more than ship-board protests, which flared up rapidly and were over quickly. they wee led by ordinary seamen - the ringleaders were almost always foreigners, not Dutchmen - and usually took the form of a complaint against conditions on board, or concerns about the seaworthiness of a tired old ship. they rarely involved much violence and might more accurately be described as a form of strike.* Such mutinies were generally settled by concessions - perhaps by increasing rations or an agreement to restrain excesses in discipline. Once the officers had recovered control of the ship, it was normal to treat the majority of the rebels relatively leniently. One or two ringleaders would almost certainly be executed, if they could be identified, but most of those involved could at least hope to escape with their lives.

*Indeed the word strike itself has nautical origins; it refers to the striking of a vessel's sails, which was usually the first thing rebellious sailors did to assert their control over the ship.

Full-fledged mutinies, led by a relatively small group of men who had actively conspired to take over a ship, wee extremely rare. they required careful planning, access to weapons - which wee generally kept under lock and key in the ship's armoury in the stern - and the cooperation (whether it was given willingly or not) of an officer who knew how to sail the ship. Even if all these conditions were met, such rebellions were highly risky and invariably entailed serious consequences for those concerned. Either the mutiny would consequences for those concerned. Either the mutiny would be put down, in which case anyone actively involved would be condemned to death, or it would succeed. On the latter case, the mutineers almost always felt compelled to murder most of the officers and many of the men. they knew these actions could never be forgiven and that the agents of Jan Company would pursue them for the rest of their lives.  

Jacobsz and Cornelisz must have realised this, but they also knew that such things did occur. Half a dozen major mutinies had broken out in the fleets of the VOC between 1602 and 1628, most recently in 1621 on a ship called the Witte Beer* and most seriously in 1615 on board the Meeuntje and the Grote Maen. The latter ships were part of a fleet sent to explore a westward route to the Indies via Cape Horn. while they wee still in the Atlantic, 14 men on the Meeuwtje, led by a sailor and a carpenter, conspired to seize the ship, but word of the plot reached the ears of the officers, and the two ringleaders were hung. the other dozen men wee spared because they had expressed remorse, and rather than being punished they were simply dispersed among the other vessels of the fleet. Three months later there was a second mutiny on board the Meeuwtje. The ringleaders of this affair were pitched overboard and left to drown, but again the bulk of the mutineers were spared. This leniency on the part of the vessel's upper-merchant proved to be a serious mistake. Soon a storm sprang up and the Meeuwtje disappeared. In time the VOC established that a third mutiny had occurred. this one had been successful. the ship had been sailed to La Rochelle and handed over to the French, only one  of the mutineers, a man who made the mistake of venturing back onto Dutch soil, was ever caught and punished.

*White Bear.
+The Little Seagull and the Great Moon.

The example of the Meeuwtje may have suggested to Jacobsz and Cornelisz that it was possible to seize an East Idiaman and escape unscathed. But the skipper and the under-merchant must also have realised that the lessons of the mutinies had been well learned by their masters in the Netherlands. Leniency was no longer tolerated. Henceforth all captured mutineers would be put to death immediately, or punished so severely that they wished for it. Discipline on board a retourschip was brutal at the best of times. the frugal Dutch might punish minor crimes such as blasphemy and drunkenness with a system of fines, but physical violence, or the threat of it, earned violent retribution. At the slightest hint of insolence to an officer, a malefactor could be manacled hand and foot and thrown into 'hell' - a tiny cell in the forepart of the gun deck where the wind whistled maddenigly though the slats. This prison was so small that it was impossible either to stand or to lie down, but men could be left to rot there for weeks at a time. fighting with knives, a common activity that the Dutch called snicker-snee, was an even worse offence. Article XCI of the VOC regulations was explicit on this point. 'Anyone pulling a knife in anger,' it ordained, 'shall be nailed to the mast with a knife through his hand, and shall remain standing until he pulls his hand off.' In practice this meant that the condemned man was led to the mast with his weaker hand strapped behind his back. His working hand was then impaled to the mast, and the victim had to choose between tearing it in half by pulling sharply downward, or easing the hand slowly and agonizingly from side to side until the wound was so big it was possible to pass the haft of the knife right through it. Whichever method he chose, he would likely never work at sea again.


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In these circumstances, it is not surprising that after 1615 the most common sentence for a rank-and-file mutineer was 100 lashes, enough to reduce a man's back to pulp, kill many who endure it, and scar the rest for life. In Dutch service, mutineers were doused with seawater before their lashes were inflicted. This refinement ensured that salt was driven into the wounds, which acted as a crude antiseptic but redoubled the agony of the punishment. More serious cases were dealt with by dropping the mutineer from the yardarm or keelhauling him. the former sentence involved pinioning a man's hands behind his back and tying a long, stout rope around his wrists. Lead weights were secured to his feet and he was then dropped 40 or 50 feet toward the sea, falling until the rope went taut. The sudden deceleration inevitably dislocated the mutineer's shoulders, and his wrists and arms were often shattered, too. the man was then twice hauled back up to be dropped again, a punishment that in his broken state was even more painful than the fall itself. Having been dropped three times, the mutineer would then usually be lashed as well.

Keelhauling, which was a Dutch invention, was generally regarded as an even more severe punishment. Sentence was carried out by tying a man's arms together above his head and binding his legs. He was given a sponge to bite down on, and a long rope was secured to the sailor's limbs so he could be pulled from one side of the vessel to the other. When the idea was first conceived, keel-hauling almost always resulted in the death of the condemned man, who would either be cut to pieces b the barnacles covering the bottom of the ship or decapitated as he smashed into the hull. The ingenious Dutch found a solution to this problem, and soon each VOC ship was supplied with a special full-body harness, made of lead and leather, into which a man could be strapped. The harness was equipped with a flag on a long pole. By adjusting the length of the ropes until the flag was a certain height above the water, it was possible to ensure that the mutineer was dragged under the keel rather than across it, and the lead harness protected him from any incidental contact. Keelhauling, too , was generally repeated three times before the punishment was completed. nevertheless, in an era in which only one man in seven could swim, it was such a terrifying ordeal that the full sentence was often not completed for fear that the victim would drown.  

Soldiers and sailors desperate enough to risk such punishment would hardly baulk at killing the officers who would indict them, and the men whom Cornelisz and Jacobsz recruited to their plot were undoubtedly a rough lot. significantly, however, they also included a number of senior officers and experienced soldiers and sailors of the sort required to run the Batavia successfully. A good deal of care would still have been required. rumours travelled swiftly below decks, and the slightest word to the upper-merchant might have proved fatal. but on a retourschip crewed by the dregs of the Amsterdam waterfront they wee always malcontents and, between them, the skipper and the under-merchant knew of several men who could be tempted by the lure of any money and spurred by hatred for the VOC. the first man Ariaen approached appears to have been the bos'n's mate, who was a cousin of the skipper and presumably a man in whom Jacobsz had full confidence. the most important addition to the ranks of the mutineers, however, was unquestionably the bos'n himself.

Jan Evertsz, the Batavia's high boatswain and thus the most senior officer - after Jacobsz and the three steersmen - on the ship, came from Monnickendam, a small fishing port on the coast north of Amsterdam with a reputation for producing a particularly brutal sort of sailor.* He was probably still in his twenties, and it was his job to implement the orders of the skipper, with whom he necessarily had a close relationship. Like other high boatswains, Evertsz most likely stood watches while at sea and would have been on his way to becoming a skipper himself. 'As the master is to be abaft the mast,' one contemporary authority explained, 'so the boatswain, and all the common sailors, are to be afore the mast ... the boatswain is to see the shrouds and other ropes set taut, the deep sea line and plummet (lead) in readiness against their coming into soundings. In a fight he must see the flag and pendants put forth, and call up every man to his labour and his office. And to conclude, his and his mate's work is never at an end, for it is impossible to repeat all the offices that are put upon them.'

The high boatswain's tasks thus required him to be a first rate seaman. With few exceptions, boatswains were men of long experience who had been promoted from the ranks, and their rough manners and coarse humour made them uncomfortable companions for the passengers in the stern. As the man charged with keeping order among the crew, Evertsz must have been brutal and decisive. As the man in day-to-day command of the ship's 180 sailors, he was also well placed to pick out trouble makers. he was the ideal recruit to the mutineers' cause. It seems to have been the skipper who sounded out Evertsz, and Evertsz who found other mutineers to join them. among their number were Allert Janssen, of Assendelft - a companion of Jacobsz's who had already killed one man in the Dutch Republic - and Ryckert Woutersz, a loudmouthed gunner from Harlingen. Sensibly, the skipper and the high boatswain kept the names of these recruits to themselves, and even the other mutineers did not know exactly who was implicated in the plot. It is thus difficult to ascertain how many sailors were involved. There may have been as few as half a dozen of them at first.

One of the most unusual features of the plot on Pelsaert's ship was the way in which its tentacles extended into every part of the vessel. Most mutinies were the work of a small, tight knit group of sailors, but the rebellion planned on the Batavia encompassed merchants, cadets, and soldiers, too. It is possible to discern the devious hand of the under-merchant in this unprecedented development. Jeronimus was an articulate man possessed of great powers of persuasion. those he so charmed came in the end to see him as a 'seducer of men,' and he would certainly have had a good deal of influence among the VOC assistants on the ship. Given the traditional antipathy between the soldiers and the sailors of Jan Company, it was possibly his job to sound out the men down on the orlop, too.

Coentraat van Huyssen, the army cadet from Gelderland, may have been Cornelisz's chosen instrument. Impetuous, hotheaded, with a lust for violence, Van Huyssen and his compatriot Gysbert van Welderen were in the vanguard of the mutineers' party from the beginning. the young jonkes* soon took to sleeping with their weapons in their hammocks, and Van Huyssen boasted to the others that he would be 'amongst the first who jumped with a sword into the Cabin, in order to throw the commander overboard.' Perhaps through him, the mutineers soon made the acquaintance of 'Stone-Cutter' Pietersz, the lance corporal from Amsterdam whose influence over the troops on board was roughly equivalent to the was that Evertsz held over the sailors. Like the high boatswain, Pietersz was an important addition to the ranks of the mutineers. His role was probably to suggest the names of soldiers he could trust and to identify those whose loyalty to the company was such that they would have to be disposed of when the mutiny was done.

Between them the under-merchant, the high boatswain, and the corporal formed a uniquely dangerous triumvirate. with the skipper at their side, their influence extended to every corner of the ship, and the power they wielded was such that - even had word of the mutiny got out - the bravest man on board would have hesitated to denounce them to the commandeur. Together, they had every prospect of success. to seize the ship, the Batavia's rebels first had to separate their vessel from her consorts, and thus from all possibility of aid. This was the principal lesson of the repeated mutinies on board the Meetutje, which had only finally succeeded when the ship had become detached from her fleet. In the Batavia's case it was easily accomplished; soon after the convoy left Table Bay, Jacobsz took advantage of the variable winds south of the Cape to drift slowly away from the other ships in the convoy. it was all too common, in the days when the VOC sent whips of wildly differing quality in the East, for the vessels of a fleet to become detached from one another in this way, and even though the Batavia had kept company with the little warship Burren, the old Dordrecht, the Assendelft, and Sardam all the way from Holland, no one seems to have suspected anything was wrong.

Next, and far more problematically, the under-merchant and the skipper had to recruit a large enough body of men to enable them to take control of the Batavia. On the Meeuntje, which was a smaller vessel, a core of 13 rebellious sailors had been identified, but, given the eventual disappearance of the vessel, others must have remained undetected. On other East Indiamen, groups of up to 60 malcontents conspired to seize their ships. In their first month back at sea, Jacobsz and Cornlisz persuaded somewhere between 8 and 18 men to join them. Ranged against 300 neutrals and company loyalists, this was nowhere near enough to guarantee success. Further action was required.

*     *     *

While the skipper and the under-merchant pondered what to do, and the Batavia nosed her way southward into the freezing waters of the southern Ocean, Pelsaert himself offered an apparent solution to their problem. A day or two after they had sailed from the Cape, the commandeur fell dangerously ill. The nature of Francisco Pelsaert's malady is nowhere specified, but it kept him in his bunk for weeks and came so close to killing him that his recovery was not expected. His illness appears to have been a fever of some sort, possiboly malaria contracted during his time in India. Had the upper-merchant succumbed, Cornelisz and Jacobs could have taken control of the ship by right, without the need for mutiny. So - unknown to all but a handful of the passengers and crew - throughout late April and early May 1629 the fate of the ship lay in the hands of one of the most important of all the members of the Batavia's crew. he was named Frans Jansz and he came from the old North Quarter port of Hoorn.

Jansz was the Batavia's surgeon. His practice was conducted from the tiny dispensary on the gun deck, which was scarcely more than five feet square, and his only tools were a set of surgeon's saws, a small apothecary's chest, and - because all seventeenth-century surgeons doubled as barbers - a handful of razors and some bowls. with these scant resources, and the assistance of an under-barber, Aris Jansz, he was responsible for the health of all 320 people on the ship. Of all the officers on board Batavia, Frans Jansz was probably the most popular among the passengers and crew. In the course of a typical journey from the Netherlands to java, almost 1 in 10 of a retourschip's crew would die, and a much larger number would fall ill and require treatment. If the proportion of the sick and the dead exceeded certain ratios, the ship would become unmanageable and might be lost together with her crew. Jansz, then, was the chief hope not only of Francisco Pelsaert, but of all those on the Batavia who wished to reach the Indies without undue drama.

It is not possible to say whether or not the Batavia's surgeon was worthy of the trust that the ship's crew placed in him, but the likelihood is that he was not. The Gentlemen XVII always experienced great difficulty in attracting competent medical men. the dangers of the journey east were such that no successful physicians or apothecaries could possibly be induced to go to Java. Even reputable barber-surgeons were hard to come by. Unlike merchants, surgeons had relatively few opportunities to profit in the East, and since they endured similar risks, the standard of those who could be lured to serve at sea was often very low. On good many East indiamen, indeed, the problem of obtaining decent treatment was exacerbated by the dangers of the job. shut up in their dispensaries below decks and constantly exposed to sick and dying men, the mortality rate among sea surgeons was far higher than it was among surgeons on land. though most retourschepen did carry at least two barbers, it was far from uncommon for both men to expire in the course of a voyage, and if that happened, an untutored sailor would be pressed into service as a make-do surgeon. Men who found themselves in such a situation had no idea how to bleed a patient or amputate a shattered limb. They wee simply expected to get on with it.

On ships such as the Batavia where the barbers did survive, the quality of care could occasionally be good. Seventeenth-century surgeons had one inestimable advantage over the physicians and the apothecaries who were their nominal superiors: they were practical men, and learned their trade from experience.* Freed from reliance on the false principles of the physicians, surgeons were generally effective in setting broken bones and treating the normal run of shipboard injuries. some were undeniably conscientious men, who did all they could for the sailors in their care, and a few had passed special 'Sea Exams' that qualified them to deal with the full range of shipboard injuries - 'fractures, dislocations, shot-wounds, concussions, burns, gangrenes, etc.' Jan Loxe, a sea surgeon who sailed later in the seventeenth century, left notes that indicate the unpleasant nature and likely extent of Jansz's work. 'First thing in the morning,' he wrote in his journal,

'we must prepare the medicines that have to be taken internally and give each patient his dose. next, we must scarify, clean and dress the filthy, stinking wounds, and bandage them and the ulcerations. Then we must bandage the stiff and benumbed limbs of the scorbutic patients. At midday we must fetch and dish out the food for sometimes 40, or even 60 people, and the same again in the evening; and what is more, we are kept up half the night as well in attending to patients who suffer a relapse, and so forth.'

Stamina, then, was one requirement for a surgeon. Another was great strength - enough to hold down a conscious, screaming man while amputating a shattered limb without the benefit of anaesthetic. But Jansz, and sea surgeons like him, were also required to have a working knowledge of Cornelisz's art, and it was to the apothecary's chest, packed by the Gentlemen XVII's own pharmacist in Amsterdam, that Frans Jansz would have turned in order to treat Pelsaert. 

A typical sea surgeon's apothecary's chest opened to reveal three drawers, each minutely subdivided into small rectangular compartments and packed with the products of the contemporary pharmacy: approximately 200 different preparations in all. In treating Pelsaert, Jansz may well have turned to theriac, which was often administered to patients suffering from malaria two hours before a paroxysm was anticipated in order to strengthen them for the coming ordeal. Mithridatium - a 2,000-yer-old antidote, originally from Persia, which was supposed to neutralise venom and cure almost any disease - was another well-known treatment. Elsewhere in the chest other drawers contained 'Egyptian ointment,' a sterilising balm made from alum, copper, and mercury; the sovereign remedy of mummy; and a variety of oils and syrups fortified with fruits and spices, as well as cinnamon water, camphor, aloes, myrrh, and extract of rhubarb.* As a contemporary English book, The Surgeon's Mate, explained, the provision of so many medicines was hardly excessive, 'for although there may seeme many particulars, yet the wanteth at the least forty more.'

For 20 long days, the surgeon dosed and purged the commandeur, trying a variety of treatments in an attempt to cure his illness. and as the Batavia surged onward through he boiling waters of the roaring forties at the bottom of the world, the upper-merchant's fever slowly ebbed away. Whether his recovery was attributable to Jansz's ministrations, or , more likely, to a robust constitution, it is impossible to say. whatever the reason, three weeks after he had taken to his bunk, and to the consternation of the mutineers, Francisco Pelsaert reappeared on deck.

The Loss of the Batavia, 1629 - Part 2 

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