February 2006


The sea

By Peter Robb
'The Wreck of the Batavia & Prosper', Simon Leys, Black Inc; $19.95
‘The Wreck of the Batavia & Prosper’ by Simon Leys

We came from the sea and we keep something of it in us. Its salt is still in our blood and its words remain in our mind – we fly now, but we board or embark first – and our greatest summer pleasure is a return to the ocean. I’d give up antibiotics and laser surgery, digital imaging and text messaging to live in a time when the way to get around the world, or even just to the next bay or the next island, was by sailing boat.

My first sea book was The Kon-Tiki Expedition. I read it when I was six and spent the next couple of years constructing an ocean-going raft out of Nobel explosives boxes. These small pine cases were particularly suitable for crossing the Pacific in, far more solid than orange boxes from Mildura and tightly made with mortise and tenon joints, conforming to the Kon-Tiki principle of not using nails. The raft got quite big but never met the test of the sea because my father’s work took us to New Zealand and we travelled by Lockheed Electra.

The great sea books begin with The Odyssey. They let us relive the struggle to survive, mind against the elements, the thrill of going into the unknown. And as the incomparable Joseph Conrad has reminded us more recently than Homer, a sea story is never just about getting over the water.

Simon Leys, who is a former academic sinologist and a subtle essayist on China and on wider matters of culture and history, has published in France a two-volume anthology of French sea-writing and a translation of Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, but this is the first appearance of the maritime Leys in English. The Wreck of the Batavia is a very spare and elegant account of a peculiarly horrifying early shipwreck off Australia. It is a case that fascinated Leys for too long: a few years ago Mike Dash pre-empted him with the definitive book on the matter, Batavia’s Graveyard, and Leys pays tribute to that work in his essay.

The Dutch East India Company vessel Batavia, with three hundred and thirty people aboard, was wrecked off the coast of western Australia in 1629. The ship was newly built and carrying a rich cargo of silver to the Dutch outpost on Java – to Batavia. Six hundred kilometres further east than its captain realised, the Batavia drove itself onto a coral reef on a moonlit night. The next day the ship’s boat ferried most of the unhurt survivors to a small protected beach. They were on the Houtman Abrolhos, a cluster of tiny coral islands seventy kilometres off the coast of western Australia, at about the same latitude as Brisbane now is on the other side of the continent. Four days later about forty officers and skilled seamen set off in the ship’s nine-metre open boat for help. Remarkably, they sailed the longboat three thousand kilometres to the Dutch trading post on Java and returned with a light rescue ship three months later.

The longboat slipped away at night, towing the Batavia’s sailing dinghy and removing any hope the others might have had of getting anywhere on their own. No trace of fresh water had yet been found. Abandoned by their most competent and senior fellows, the two hundred or so people left behind were desperate. On the reef the Batavia broke up and sank suddenly nine days after the wreck, drowning most of the seventy men who had remained on board largely for the sake of the liquor. Everyone else was unharmed. The islands’ weather was mild, a fresh water source was discovered, there was wildlife and seafood of all kinds, and most necessary items were salvaged. Yet when the rescue party arrived, it found only a handful of survivors alive. They had come through a more terrible experience than shipwreck in unknown waters.

The Batavia disaster began well before the wreck. The social make-up of the ship’s complement and its command structure were quite different from the all-male British maritime culture of rum, buggery and the lash, and this seems to have invited trouble. In the first place the captain was not the master of his own ship. The Dutch East India Company had him subordinate to a company man who was the ultimate authority on board, though lacking maritime skills. The tensions in the riven command structure were exacerbated by enmities of class and an old history of resentment between the two men in charge. Then there were the twenty-odd women aboard the tiny crowded vessel.

As Simon Leys sketches it – and this is what makes the unfolding story so gripping – the Batavia was an overloaded Dutch ark, a ship of fools packed with representative figures from almost every layer of seventeenth-century society in the Low Countries. Young and old, aristocrats and plebeians, churchmen and unbelievers, ladies and their maids, military and businessmen, officers and mercenaries, wives and small children, surgeons, artisans, cooks, babies born at sea: all were jammed into the fetid, claustrophobic spaces, along with a troop of soldiers going to man the garrison on Java and the seamen who had to sail the solid but ungainly vessel on the eight-month journey from Northern Europe to Southeast Asia.

Social and sexual pressures had erupted in obscene and violent ways long before the Batavia ran aground. The company man had his eye on a young lady who was – unusually for the time – sailing out to join her husband on Java. So did the skipper. Both failed in their advances, the skipper making do with the young lady’s maid. The old enmity between the men was inflamed by a humiliating disciplinary episode when the Batavia called at Cape Town. This was exploited by the company man’s assistant, a free thinker of some education, a malcontent and bankrupt former apothecary called Cornelisz. He put a plan to the resentful skipper to seize the Batavia and its silver. The skipper won over a core of the crew and the plot was well advanced when the Batavia ran onto the reef.

Cornelisz and his nucleus of mutineers immediately asserted their power with a series of exemplary killings. Arbitrary terror was part of Cornelisz’s plan to eliminate superfluous and hostile survivors while he prepared for the arrival of a rescue ship, to be seized instead of the lost Batavia. The elderly, the feeble, women, children and babies were his first victims. The plan went wrong after a series of brutal murders, when a disciplined and resourceful group of soldiers, lured to one of the larger islands and left to die, found a source of fresh water and plenty of wildlife as food. Led by a private named Hayes, they organised resistance. Others managed to join them from surrounding islands, and a group of fifty fought off three assaults by Cornelisz and his mutineers, who had all the firearms and all the equipment but none of the natural resources and only half as many men. A fourth attack was under way when the rescue boat arrived from Java.

Cornelisz was tortured, tried, mutilated and hanged on the island with due Dutch legal process, along with his closest associates. Most of the Batavia’s silver was salvaged – the real point of the rescue operation – and the boat returned to Java with the loot and the survivors, including the remaining rebels. Two of these were abandoned on a western Australian beach to become, as Leys wryly notes, almost certainly the first European settlers on the continent.

Cornelisz, the man who precipitated the slaughter, is presented here as a psychotic with a persuasive tongue. The Dutch hanged him as a heretic. For Leys he remains an enigma and is seen off with a mention of Auschwitz and a glance at abnormal psychology. The hints of his past in the Low Countries suggest more. Not so much the personal wreckage like his humiliating bankruptcy and the hideous recent death of his only child, but rather his dangerous acquaintance with a noted painter named Torrentius, recently tortured to near death for his unreliable opinions.

There might have been room here to pull back briefly from the archipelago for a view of the great crisis investing Western Europe in these years. Wars were being fought everywhere in the early decades of the seventeenth century. The language of religious difference expressed conflict over national independence, representative government, freedom of speech, overseas trade – the rights of a rising middle class. It was the time of repression, torture and exemplary public burnings for crimes of opinion. The nature of the cosmos was an eminently political matter. Everything was being called into question and no government managed to control the ideas that were circulating. They ranged from apocalyptic delirium to early expressions of scientific and political ideas still current today. Magic, religion and science overlapped. It was a time of contradiction and confusion, all the more so because original thinking and debate had to be done in secret.

Cornelisz was a product of this turbulence, a partly educated man embittered by his failures and turning to a criminal version of that self-improvement which Protestant Christianity urged on believers. There were a lot of people like him around, and this unprepossessing figure found responsive listeners on the Batavia when, like his master Torrentius, he subverted the precariously established pieties of the new Dutch bourgeois republic. There were informal networks of libertine thinkers like this all over Europe and there was nothing freakish about Cornelisz or his presence aboard the Batavia. The oddity was the fleeting chance he got to act out his confused and murderous desires on the edge of the known world. Private Hayes, who faced him down when the leaders had absconded, is no less representative of the working man – unusually, he got his modest reward for resisting tyranny. For a bizarre moment in 1629, the dramas of European politics were acted out in the tiny theatre of the Houtman Abrolhos.

The story is finely told, though Leys is too self-effacing in his effortless economy of style to thrust himself and his own experience forward. Years ago he spent two weeks on the Houtman Abrolhos and his brief, vivid account of what the islands are like now might have preceded the earlier horror of several centuries ago, and afforded an orientation lacking at the outset. Instead, his sojourn there becomes an appendix to the tale, and a letdown. The narrative cart stands before the horse: a paragraph of summary precedes the Batavia story, draining what follows of its tension.

In a similar way in the book’s other piece – a little memoir of a few weeks the young Leys spent on a tuna-fishing boat off Brittany in the last days of sail – the seamanship of the boat’s owner and skipper is described before the Prosper has left the wharf. Aboard that boat, it’s never quite clear how the young Leys stands in relation to the working life of the crew. He’s a passenger: what does he do while they are sailing the boat, cleaning, cooking, fishing? Does he share in the vast around-the-clock drinking that takes up so much of his account? Confinement on board the tiny, struggling fishing boat implies irritations or conflicts that never get a mention. What was the role of class here? Was it more like the stratified microcosm of the Batavia than we’re told, in which the working men wouldn’t dare be other than deferential to the (presumably) paying passengers?

At least the questions are set going. Both of the pieces that make up this book offer the increasingly rare pleasure of experience distilled into stories that, in saying so much less than they might, stimulate the mind more than readers have come to expect. This is an achieved brevity, and in that sense Leys is an imaginative writer of a high order.

Peter Robb
Peter Robb is the author of Midnight in Sicily, which won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for non-fiction and was named a New York Times Notable Book. His other books include A Death in Brazil (the Age Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 2004) and Street Fight in Naples.

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