Day 314: The Weird Fate Of The Batavia

originally published November 9, 2012

Today we hear a tale of murder, treachery, and sopping wet Dutchmen. This is the story of the Batavia.

In 1628, the Dutch East India Company strapped twenty-four cast-iron cannons and a mess o’ bronze guns to their new ship, a 186-foot beauty they called the Batavia. I think the ship was named after its designer, Floyd Batavia. It doesn’t state this explicitly in my research, but I’m just following a hunch. Anyhow, the ship set sail on October 27, under the able command of Francisco Pelsaert.

Also on board was Jacobsz, the skipper, and a bankrupt pharmacist named Jeronimus Cornelisz, who was fleeing the authorities because of allegations of heresy. I guess the guy either didn’t believe in God, or else he was a Satanist. Not too clear on that. Let’s go with Satanist; that’s a better story.

Early on in the voyage, Jacobsz and Jeronimus came up with a plan to take the ship for themselves, grabbing the gold and silver on board and starting a new life somewhere far out of Dutch reach. I don’t know if the two of them were money-hungry or deeply in love, but I’m once again going with the latter because it’s more literary.

The plan was this: first Jacobsz steers them off-course, away from the fleet. Then, they molest Lucretia Jans, a female passenger. When Commander Pelsaert disciplines his crew (because Lucretia won’t be able to level any specific accusations at anyone), Jacobsz and Jeronimus start the mutterings that Pelsaert is being an unfair dick about it, thus garnering support for the mutiny. Then, with a big enough crowd, they take control of the Batavia. The molesting went fine, except that Lucretia had no problem identifying her attackers.

(“seriously dude? You couldn’t find a black stocking?”)

Pelsaert never got around to making any arrests. On June 4, 1629, the Batavia struck a reef just off the west coast of Australia, and it was heading into the drink. Most of the passengers and crew made it ashore, though 40 people drowned. They were in the midst of the Houtman Abrolhos, a chain of 122 islands. Uninhabited islands.

There was no fresh water, and nothing but birds and sea lions to eat. To say things had gone wrong in Jacobsz and Jeronimus’s little scheme would be an understatement. Commander Pelsaert gathered a group of men, including Jacobsz the skipper, and ventured on the longboat to the Australian mainland in search of water. No luck. They left Jeronimus in charge, then pointed north in search of Batavia.

I know – that’s a trifle confusing. The city now known as Jakarta, the capitol of Indonesia, used to be called Batavia, the same name as the ship. That’s a coincidence – a decidedly unliterary one. Therefore I’m just going to pretend they’d changed the name of the damn city to Jakarta by 1629.

Jeronimus, though waylaid on a sunny patch of sand now called Beacon Island, never lost sight of his goal. He realized that his role in the impending mutiny was bound to be discovered, and once Pelsaert showed up with rescue ships from Jakarta, he was doomed. So he decided he’d commandeer any rescue vessels, find a way to haul up the gold and silver from the sunken Batavia, and resume his mission to start a new life somewhere, full of consequence-free sex and liquor that flows freely from faucets (which he would still have to invent). First, he had to do away with some potential trouble-makers.

Jeronimus brought a group of soldiers led by Wiebbe Hayes over to a nearby island, instructing them to search for water and light a signal fire when they find some. He then headed back to the main island, where he had placed all weapons and food supplies under his control. He never watched for Hayes’s fire – the plan was to leave those soldiers on that island to die.

He had a small group of supporters, and together they simply murdered anyone they believed would be a threat once the rescue boat arrived. Jeronimus never committed a murder himself, he simply Godfathered that stuff out to his sub-contracted minions. Of the roughly 200-250 castaways (depending on how many were off with Wiebbe Hayes on the other island), Jeronimus’s followers butchered 110 people: men, women and children.

Over on West Wallabi Island, Wiebbe Hayes and his crew had found an abundant source of water and food. They had no idea why no one over on Beacon Island had noticed their signal fire. Then a couple of savvy castaways found a way to flee Jeronimus’s butchers and make their way to the other island.

Hayes and his team knew they’d have to fight. They fashioned some Gilligan-esque weapons out of what they could find, and built themselves a nifty little fort out of limestone and coral blocks. They’d be ready.

Meanwhile, Commander Pelsaert took 33 days, but finally made it to Jakarta with his entire crew alive. This remains one of the most incredible feats of open-boat navigation. The skipper, Jacobsz, was arrested for ‘neglect’ in steering them off-course, but his part in the potential mutiny wasn’t suspected. Jakarta’s Governor-General hooked Pelsaert up with a new ship and they went in search of the survivors.

Back on Beacon Island, Jeronimus was running low on supplies. He suspected that Hayes and his men had found fresh water on the other island. They ventured over there, and a battle ensued, ending up with Jeronimus being taken prisoner and his men – who were notably more undernourished and weaker – scattering. Those men found muskets though, and showed up once again to attack. It was all very exciting.

Weibbe Hayes and his men were in trouble – it looked like Jeronimus’s mutineers had the advantage. Then Pelsaert’s rescue boat showed up. Hayes’s men and Jeronimus’s men raced for the boat. Hayes got there first and told Pelsaert what had happened. The mutineers were captured.

Pelsaert felt it would be wise to hold the trial on the islands. This would save some room and supplies for the trip back. The hassle and time commitment of building a gallows wasn’t a big thing, I guess.

Jeronimus and his closest mutineers had their hands chopped off before being hanged. Wouter Loos, who was the guy that led the second, musket-y charge on Hayes’ men, was considered a minor offender, and was marooned on mainland Australia along with a cabin boy. Others were flogged, tortured or hanged after being taken back to Jakarta to stand trial. Jacobsz never confessed to his part in the mutiny, and escaped execution.

As for Pelsaert, his bosses felt he had displayed a lack of authority on the voyage, so he was stripped of his rank and had all his financial assets seized. He died broken and penniless a year later. That’s some quality justice there, Dutch East India Company. At least Wiebbe Hayes got his proper due – he was lauded as a hero.

The wreck of the Batavia wasn’t found until 1963. A replica now sits in Lelystad in the Netherlands. If you want to see the original, it’s now a dive site attraction.

I love a good story, especially with sex, violence, and ridiculous Dutch justice.

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