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The wreck of Batavia and its dark secrets – part one

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Dutch East India Company –or Vereenigde Oost-indische Compagnie (VOC) as it was called by the Dutch – dominated the global trade industry. In particular, the VOC pioneered the Indian Ocean spice trade, largely around the Dutch East Indies (now known as Indonesia), and travels to Batavia (now known as the Indonesian city of Jakarta) would take eight months from the Netherlands. Despite this, many men were undeterred from the treacherous conditions, such as scurvy and malaria, as promises of wealth awaited them with trade in Batavia. 

In 1628, the VOC set off on its aptly named ship, Batavia. She was an extremely glamorous vessel, clad in silver and more than 150-feet in length – and was subsequently the pride of the VOC’s fleet. The Batavia had around 330 people on board, including sailors, mercenaries and wealthy passengers taking advantage of Batavia’s trade gold mine (so to speak). The ship was led by Commandeur Francisco Pelsaert, who was in charge of the fleet, and Skipper Ariaen Jacobsz, who looked after the physical ship. 

Tensions arose during this dual leadership, however, as the men already despised each other from an incident years prior. Pelsaert’s deputy, Jeronimus Cornelisz, ended up befriending Jacobsz during the eight-month journey, and the two men began to plan a mutiny against the commandeur – even going as far as employing accomplices on board to help them with their uprising. Before their mutiny could take place, the Batavia was struck by disaster, separating from the rest of the fleet during storms off the coast of South Africa. Some weeks later, on 4 June 1629, the ship then crashed into Morning Reef, near the island chain of Houtman Abrolhos – roughly 60 kilometres west of what is now known as Geraldton in Western Australia.

Sailors of the time viewed any kind of shipwreck as an immediate death sentence, and thus chaos ensued, with approximately 100 of the ship’s passengers dying soon after the Batavia’s collision with the reef. Despite so much time out at sea, there were hardly any passengers who could swim; and due to the ship crashing at night, low visibility meant that the concerned passengers were unable to see the nearby islands. When it did become light once again, the crew transported around 180 passengers and supplies two kilometres away to Beacon Island via the ship’s longboat. Meanwhile, other sailors and officers found another nearby island, and several people chose to remain on the sinking Batavia. Both Pelsaert and Jacobsz then used the longboat to explore the other islands along the Houtman Abrolhos chain in the hopes of finding water and food; however, their attempts were unsuccessful, and the pair decided to make the journey to mainland Australia. If the trip to Australia would prove unsuccessful, then they agreed to head to Batavia more than 3000 kilometres away. They left secretly in the middle of the night with 40 people, mostly sailors and officers, and left the survivors on Beacon Island to wake up completely abandoned. 

Check back in for part two and three of this story.

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