On this day: The Batavia is fatefully wrecked

By Naomi Russo 2 June 2016
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In 1629 a group of men murdered more than half the survivors of the Batavia wreck on deserted islands off WA, but 45 fought back and won.

ON 4 JUNE 1629 the Dutch merchant ship Batavia was wrecked off the Western Australian coast, roughly 80km from Geraldton. Almost 300 survivors were left stranded on the islands of the Houtman Abrolhos on Morning Reef.

To make matters worse, the group was then faced with a bloody mutiny. The mutineers sabotaged, murdered and raped the straggling, desperate survivors in an attempt to reduce numbers from roughly 200 to about 40, so the remaining could go pirating. 

In the end only 116 people survived Batavia. Pieced together through journal accounts, letters, objects and the remains of the victims, it is one of the most detailed accounts of ruthlessness in Australian history. 

Built in Amsterdam, the Batavia was commissioned by the Dutch East India Company to sail for its namesake town of Batavia (now Jakarta) to obtain spices in 1629. It started out with a fleet of seven, but a series of storms (and perhaps the malicious designs of the two lead mutineers) meant the Batavia came out the other side separated from the other ships.

VIDEO: A brief history lesson of the Batavia. (Source: 5Fathom5/YouTube)

Further misfortune struck the ship when Commander Francisco Pelsaert became extremely ill and confined himself to his cabin. In his absence, skipper Adrian Jacobsz and under-merchant Jeronimus Cornelisz were in charge.

But these two men had an agenda of their own. Wanting to start new lives, Jacobsz and Cornelisz knew they required gold, silver and, preferably, a ship. The plan was to steer the ship off-course and kill those who would not fall in with their plan, leaving about 120 alive. 

The Batavia is wrecked

Pelsaert, who didn’t have a friendly relationship with Jacobsz, wrote in his journal that on 4 June he “felt suddenly, with a rough terrible movement, the bumping of the ship’s rudder; I said, ‘Skipper, what have you done that through your reckless carelessness you have run this noose round our necks?'”

The ship had hit a reef near the Houtman Abrolhos’s Beacon Island. Forty passengers drowned as the ship broke up. The rest of the crew and passengers were taken to nearby islands in the ship’s longboat and yawl.

Commander Pelsaert and all senior officers, including Jacobsz, but not Cornelisz, then left the civilians and other soldiers (268 in all) on the islands, while they set out to find water. After a cursory search they discovered none so they struck out for the city of Batavia for help. It took a harrowing 33 days for them to reach help, and then another 63 to return.

During that three-month period the mutineers killed more than a third of the survivors – over 100 people.

Subsisting off the ship’s dwindling provisions, the survivors had made camp on the aptly named Traitor’s Island. Cornelisz then started planning to divide and conquer the remaining passengers, eliminating those who did not serve his interests.

To do so he sent some soldiers to Seal Island, others to Cats Island and yet more to certain death through explorations in treacherous waters. Many of those remaining he and his co-conspirators murdered, including some women and children. Some of the women were taken as concubines. His plan, as later recorded in Pelsaert’s journal, was to overtake the rescue ship when it returned and go pirating. 


The start of Commander Pelsaert’s published journal, titled The Unlucky Voyage of the Vessel Batavia. (Credit: Museum of Western Australia)

Batavia‘s survivors are saved

Unfortunately for Cornelisz, the men on Cats Island had found water, and were warned of Cornelisz’ treachery by survivors who had escaped from Seals Island. Led by Wiebbe Hayes, these 45 people defeated the men sent by Cornelisz with weapons of sticks and nails. When the mutineer himself came, with the intention of duping them into joining him, they overpowered him and some of his men.

Pelsaert returned soon after, writing of his arrival, “Wiebbe Hayes … ran towards me, calling from afar, ‘Welcome, but go back aboard immediately, for there is a party of scoundrels on the islands near the wreck who have the intention to seize the Yacht.”

The mutineers were captured, and the worst executed on the islands. Others were taken to Batavia for sentencing. Of the 316 who had initially boarded Batavia in Holland, just 116 lived to tell the tale.

Today relics of the ship, found in the 1970s, are kept in the Western Australian Maritime Museum.