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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Batavia's Graveyard by Mike Dash

I couldn't put this book down. Very well written history. A true story! You learn without knowing you are learning. I had never heard of the terrible sea disaster of the Batavia. In 1628 the Dutch East India Company (aka the VOC or the Jan Company) built the Batavia and filled it with gold, silver, gems and precious metal "toys" to trade and buy spices with in the Dutch trading settlements at Java in the East Indies, the islands between Australian and the Asian continents. The Batavia left with several other ships to make the trip in October 1628. Francisco Pelsaert was the Upper Merchant (the VOC's representative and the leader of the expedition) with Jeronimus Cornelisz as the Under Merchant. The Skipper or Captain of the ship (although he reported to Pelsaert) was Ariaen Jacobsz. 332 crewmen, soldiers and passengers were aboard but 216 men, women and children didn't survive. As they approached Australia, Ariaen Jacobsz and Jeronimus Cornelisz put their heads together and decided they could make more money by leading a mutiny and taking over the ship, stealing the VOC treasures aboard and try pirating for awhile. They managed to ditch the other ships. They began whispering with other seaman and soldiers aboard and had started their plans when they ran up on a reef at the Houtman's Abrolhoss reef islands about 50 miles off the coast of Australia.

The reef they ran up on held the ship fast so they had to abandon ship. The Batavia's sloop was able to ferry people to a tiny island they called Batavia's Graveyard and to a narrow spit called Seal's Island. They were able to get most of the people off the ship but still there were 70 men including Jeronimus Cornelisz still on the ship when weather haulted the rescue. Pelsaert and Jacobsz took about 40 passengers with them when they left in the sloop to try and get help. They tried the Australian coast but couldn't find a place with water and landing so they decided to head on up the 1500 miles to Batavia on Java (the Dutch trading settlement, not the ship). While they were gone, the ship finally split apart and most of the men were battered and drowned in the coral reefs but Jeronimus was one of the men who made it to Batavia's Graveyard. From the broken ship, the survivors were able to gather a good bit in debris and stores. With the rain, they had water and with the fishing/bird/seals they had food. The ship's carpenters set about making small boats and rafts. They set some of the soldiers, under Wiebbe Hayes, on the West Wallabi Island. It was a much bigger island but still with little vegetation and no known fresh water source. As it happens there were some fresh water wells hidden on the island that Wiebbe Hayes and his men found. They lit their beach fires (as agreed upon) to notify the survivors on the other 2 islands that they had found water but no one came to the island. Later, they found out why. Jeronimus Cornelisz got together his mutiny crew and decided to take over so they could still claim a good bit in salvaged treasure AND survive with the hope of capturing a rescue ship and begin their pirating. They decided there were too many people which lowered their chances of survival on the tiny islands so they began a killing spree over the next several months that killed over 120 men/women/children.

I hope I've whetted your appetite because this book is really good. Dash gives enough detail to explain a lot and yet, he doesn't bog you down and make it boring. There is a lot of documentation on this wreck, so Dash can lead you by the hand through every step of this story and you end up knowing what happened to everyone, even the survivors after the rescue. The last chapter was a little tedious and I skimmed it. But don't skim the other chapters!

A replica of the Batavia

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