Bring up the bodies
New light on the wreck of the ‘Batavia’ and its savage aftermath
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At the University of Western Australia’s Centre for Forensic Science in Perth, the skeletons lie on tables, stretched out beside plastic tubs of pelvic fragments, bags of unmatched toes and samples of island sand.
Daniel Franklin, the forensic anthropologist, gestures at one of the skulls, which is grinning at me on its small pillow.
I look to where he points and see the wound, a little chip in the yellowing surface where a blade has cut through flesh and into bone. It makes the remains seem suddenly human – no longer just an archaeological curio but the corpse of an adult male murdered, along with more than a hundred other men, women and children, in the aftermath of the wreck of the Dutch East India Company vessel Batavia off the Western Australian coast, nearly four centuries ago.
The story has been told many times over the years, most recently by Peter FitzSimons in his book Batavia and, before him, by Simon Leys (The Wreck of the Batavia) and Mike Dash (Batavia’s Graveyard). But Franklin belongs to the Shipwrecks of the Roaring 40s project, a multidisciplinary collaboration led by the archaeologist Alistair Paterson and backed by an array of national and international partners, including UWA, the Western Australian Museum, the WA Department of Fisheries, and the Netherlands Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. Franklin and the other scientists are reassessing some of Australia’s earliest shipwrecks, including that of the Batavia, using newly available technology.
I’ve come to Perth because, for the first time, all the exhumed Batavia remains have been gathered together.
“The idea is to get the Batavia skeletons in the one place where they can all be studied in association with each other,” Franklin explains, “which we’ve not done before. Though I’m kind of running out of space.”
He looks ruefully around the room, which is, indeed, uncomfortably crowded with femurs and cracked pelvises and damaged skulls neatly glued back together. The university cleaning staff recently left a note for Franklin, explaining that they are now too scared to dust there.
Franklin’s team has just been on a two-week dig near the wreck site and returned with three previously unknown skeletons. That brings the total of Batavia bodies unearthed since the early 1960s to 13, including six tossed together into a mass grave. Two of the skeletons bear wounds consistent with murder: the one with the sword cut, which Franklin has shown me, and another with a cranium shattered from a blunt blow.
Other skeletons, he says, remain to be unearthed.
“We have teeth of someone we haven’t found yet. There is – or there was – someone else there.”
It is the coldest of cold cases. One of the darkest episodes in Australian history may, however, have further secrets to reveal.
Retellings of the Batavia story rarely avoid the clichés of the Australian Gothic. It contains, after all, every trope of the genre: a small group of European intruders blunder into an eerie and inhospitable landscape to endure privation, insanity and a great deal of Grand Guignol violence.
But less obviously, and just as interestingly, the Batavia story is also one of corporate power, involving the richest multinational the world has ever seen.
In the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC) functioned almost as a private state: it waged war (backed by its own military forces), signed treaties, and made and enforced laws. Think of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation from the Alien films, and you’re pretty close. Recent estimates suggest that the VOC at its height was worth a dizzying US$7.4 trillion dollars in today’s money.
In 1628, the VOC commissioned a huge and ultra-modern ship to carry silver to the trading settlements of Java and return carrying spices. The vessel was christened Batavia after its destination, the city we now call Jakarta. In Batavia’s Graveyard, Mike Dash noted that the life expectancy of Dutch merchants in the Indies was about three years and that “of the million or so people who sailed with the VOC during the lifetime of the Company, fewer than one in three returned”.
Yet when the Batavia left from Texel, Holland, on 27 October 1628 in a fleet of ships, only about two thirds of the 340 people on board were crew. The others were soldiers and civilian passengers, including 22 women. Some of them brought babies; indeed, several of the sailors themselves were still adolescents.
Under the peculiar VOC command structure, the Batavia’s skipper, an experienced sailor named Ariaen Jacobsz, served under the opperkoopman (senior merchant) Francisco Pelsaert, the official representative of the VOC. That the two cordially disliked each other was only the first of the voyage’s many problems.
After rounding the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, the Batavia became separated from the rest of its fleet. A fever confined Pelsaert to his cabin. A passenger called Lucretia Jans, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, was sexually assaulted by masked crewmen, one of whom she identified as the boatswain. The obvious tensions brewing within the Batavia’s intensely hierarchical social structure might have dissipated, but in the early morning of 4 June 1629, the ship – still a month out of Java – struck Morning Reef on the Houtman Abrolhos, some 60 kilometres off the coast of Western Australia.
According to his record of the voyage, Pelsaert immediately denounced Jacobsz, yelling, “What have you done, that through your reckless carelessness you have run this noose around our necks?”
Some sailors and soldiers, convinced they were doomed, broke into the stores to carouse and loot. “You have been masters here long enough,” one yelled. “Now I [will be master] for a while.”
Around 40 people drowned over the next days, while a chaotic evacuation sent 180 mostly low-ranking sailors, soldiers and their families to a tiny speck of land they named Batavia’s Graveyard (today’s Beacon Island). Most of the officers, including Pelsaert and Jacobsz, disembarked on a different, even smaller coral atoll.
A third group remained stranded on the disintegrating wreck. Their number included the onderkoopman (junior merchant) Jeronimus Cornelisz, a former apothecary and apparent heretic.
Very soon he would become the greatest mass murderer in Australian history.
In the Western Australian Museum’s Shipwreck Galleries in Fremantle, I stand, slightly awed, beside a section of the Batavia’s hull, dredged up from Morning Reef where it was located in 1963.
It’s only a fragment, a portion preserved underneath the huge stone portico carried as ship’s ballast, but it’s breathtaking nonetheless: substantial enough to evoke the majesty of the three-masted, four-decked vessel looming some 12 metres out of the sea at its stern.
I’ve come to meet the museum’s Jeremy Green, another Roaring 40s researcher, and probably Australia’s greatest expert on the Batavia and its archaeology. Over a cup of coffee near the harbour, he tells me, in his faint British accent, how he left Oxford for Australia in 1971, back before anyone really knew how to explore shipwrecks scientifically.
“All of the technology and techniques were developed in the ’70s – unlike in terrestrial archaeology, where they were developed a century or more earlier. Even in the ’80s there were no courses in maritime archaeology.”
The Batavia had remained lost for centuries, partly because in 1840 the British vessel the Beagle (yes, Darwin’s Beagle) misidentified wreckage from a different Dutch craft. It was only in 1956 that the Perth writer Henrietta Drake-Brockman realised Pelsaert’s descriptions matched the northern islands of the Houtman Abrolhos rather than those in the south. Then, in 1963, a fisherman, Dave Johnson, led divers to waters where he’d glimpsed an anchor beneath his boat.
The discovery spurred a new interest in marine heritage. Western Australia came to lead the world in legislating to protect heritage sites. Staff from the museum eventually worked on seven European shipwrecks, learning not only how to locate and recover artefacts but also how to preserve them away from the water.
“When we started,” says Green, “basically no one had done an excavation of a Dutch East India Company ship – or any shipwreck in Australia. Most people thought – we thought! – that there wouldn’t be anything down there.”
I’d seen the results in the Shipwreck Galleries – the massive ship cannons, the navigational instruments, the distinctive Bartmann jugs, the huge portico façade that was being transported to become an entrance to the city of Batavia. The significance of these old finds is growing as technology develops. Though Pelsaert recovered most of the VOC’s treasure following the wreck, the divers of the ’60s and ’70s still found a large number of coins. Today, that bullion can be analysed for its physical composition as well as its face value, with metallurgical research revealing precisely where in South America a particular piece of silver originated. The results build knowledge of commodity circulation in the first phases of capitalism, when precious metals moved from the New World to Spain, and from Holland to the Indies.
The wood from a wrecked hull tells a different story of early globalisation. By the 17th century, massive population growth had depleted the ancient forests of Europe. Where, then, did merchants in Amsterdam find the old-growth timber required for an empire in the age of wood and sail? Historians pondering this have two possible sources of dateable high-quality wood. They can sample the frames of a Rembrandt painting or, if they prefer not to damage a Dutch master, they can analyse a VOC shipwreck in Western Australia.
As well as re-examining older finds, the Roaring 40s team also wants to launch new investigations, especially into the wreck survivors’ camps: the very first European occupation of Australian soil.
“They’d have had a fire,” Green tells me, “and there would have been stuff dropped around it. The cooking utensils: they wouldn’t necessarily have taken everything home with them. Their diet, their everyday life – are there traces of that still there?”
But, for the time being, there are the skeletons.
“At 2 pm the day before the forensics were due to fly out, we found this body with crossed hands,” Green says. “We obviously weren’t going to finish excavating that day, so we decided to leave it and come back at about six in the morning. So we were excavating away and suddenly Dan [Franklin] says, ‘There are three femurs here.’ And we realised that there was another body underneath.”
Talking with Franklin in Perth, I’d contrasted it, rather optimistically, with the mass grave into which bodies had been unceremoniously dumped. Surely the crossed arms meant that the corpse had been given a proper burial, that the person had been interred with a certain respect?
Franklin shook his head. They’d found a man and a woman, dumped on top of each other. He specialises in criminal forensics as well as archaeology, and knows a crime scene when he sees one.
“Just saving space,” he said. “If you have your arms out, the killers have to dig a bigger hole.”
“Oh,” I said, looking down at the bones.
“It looks nice and peaceful, but it’s probably about fitting more bodies in a limited space.”
The murders began slowly.
The survivors soon realised that the coral atolls had no fresh water. After a brief search nearby, the opperkoopman, the skipper, the officers and their wives commandeered most of the remaining supplies and all of the salvaged boats. They, a party of nearly 50, embarked on the 3000-kilometre journey to the Dutch outposts in Java, leaving behind the great majority of Batavia’s passengers and crew.
Pelsaert rationalised his decision as agonising but necessary: someone, he argued, had to go for help. But to the 200 or so people stranded on Beacon’s barren shores, the disappearance of the officers seemed a flat-out abandonment. They dubbed the smaller atoll “Traitors’ Island”.
In Pelsaert’s absence, Jeronimus Cornelisz, who had washed ashore from the disintegrating wreck, became the VOC’s most senior representative. He seemed to decide immediately that his own survival depended on thinning out the population. To that end, he took personal charge of the remaining supplies, and set the carpenters to building makeshift boats. He then ordered 45 men, women and children to cross to the nearby Seals Island (today’s Long Island), assuming they would simply die there, thus sparing Beacon’s resources. Similarly, he instructed 20 of the surviving soldiers, under the command of Wiebbe Hayes, to explore the distant Wallabi Group of islands and signal if they found water; he expected they wouldn’t.
On Beacon itself, Cornelisz ordered executions of those caught stealing from the stores. The first killings both established his own power and blooded those who would do his bidding. Gradually, his thugs moved from punishing thieves to exterminating the sick and the superfluous, initially through surreptitious drownings and then in a more open campaign of slaughter.
In the month of July, they killed more than a hundred people. The descriptions we have of those weeks are almost dizzyingly brutal. A baby was slain to stop it crying, a boy decapitated to test a sword blade. The wife and five of the six children of the Calvinist minister Gijsbert Bastiaensz were exterminated for no reason whatsoever.
Cornelisz and his men took to wearing gaudy clothes from the wreck, parading in what Pelsaert later described as “silk stockings, garters with gold laces, and … suchlike adornments”. They resolved that should a rescue ship appear they would seize it so as to continue their new lifestyle as pirates. In the interim, the younger women were kept as sex slaves, with Lucretia Jans installed in Cornelisz’s own tent.
The others on the island faced a choice of either joining the extermination or dying from it. Some, like the cabin boy, Jan Pelgrom, pleaded to be allowed to murder. The survivors later spoke of the 18-year-old patrolling the tiny island, waving his sword and shouting, “Who wants to be stabbed to death? I can do that very beautifully!”
The end of Cornelisz’s grim regime began when he and his men spied smoke coming from West Wallabi, the agreed signal that Hayes’ expedition had located water. Inadvertently, Cornelisz had sent the soldiers to die in a place far more hospitable than Beacon Island itself, with bounteous game and wells that one man later described as “sweet as milk”.
Hayes’ unanticipated survival transformed the tiny community. Terrified survivors paddled over to West Wallabi, telling of the horrors they’d endured.
Cornelisz knew he had to destroy Hayes, an obvious threat to his power. His forces had the muskets salvaged from the wreck, but they lacked the military training of their opponents. The first boat they sent to West Wallabi was repelled with a shower of missiles.
Next, Cornelisz tried diplomacy. Accompanied by his most loyal followers, he rowed over to West Wallabi to negotiate personally. It was a fatal mistake. As soon as the discussions began, Hayes simply took Cornelisz prisoner and executed the men with him.
On Beacon, Cornelisz’s followers regrouped before staging another attack on West Wallabi to free their leader. This time they used their monopoly on firearms to pick off the defenders. For a while, it seemed they might prevail, for Hayes’ rocks and clubs provided no real counter to the muskets. Then, unbelievably, in the midst of the battle, a sail appeared on the horizon.
It was Pelsaert, making an improbable return from Java in the Sardam, with orders to retrieve the Batavia’s silver and its survivors (more or less in that order). He rescued Hayes and subdued the remaining Cornelisz loyalists.
And then, only a short distance from where Batavia had wrecked, he started on the torture.
In Geraldton, 420 kilometres north of Perth, I charter a small plane for the 60-kilometre journey out to the Abrolhos Islands. The prospect fills me with some horror, particularly when I realise that the Geraldton Air Charter consists of a shed, a car park and a few tiny aircraft of the sort a nervous flyer like me associates with TV reports about the premature deaths of amateur aviators.
While we wait for take-off, I pace around outside, telling myself to be calm. A short trip in a light plane! Why, in the 17th century, Dutch adolescents had joined the Batavia on its voyage to the other side of the world!
Yeah, says the voice in my head, and how’d that work out?
Three other passengers are buckled up inside the Airvan, electricians heading out to service the tiny fishing community on nearby Pigeon Island. The man beside me unfolds a tabloid newspaper, as if on a regular morning commute – which, in a sense, he is.
And, of course, it’s fine. Better than fine, even, for underneath us the sea glows like opal, and I forget to be nervous, admiring the phosphorescent green of the water running over coral.
Twenty minutes later, we are circling Morning Reef, and over my headphones the pilot identifies the wreck site.
“Look,” he says. “You can see the wedge where the boat struck.”
Indeed you can: a faint V-shape in the coral, the traces of a 1200-tonne ship hitting at full speed.
We circle again and touch down, surprisingly lightly, at East Wallabi Island, on a dirt landing strip amid grey scrub and sand. At the pier, the electricians meet with a fishing vessel, while the pilot and I jump on the Department of Fisheries boat to Beacon Island.
The first surprise is the distance. In the accounts I have read, the Batavia survivors make nothing of crossing from one island to another on rafts and homemade boats. But it’s 8 kilometres from East Wallabi to Beacon – and, on the water, you feel each kilometre, even in a high-tech patrol vessel.
The second surprise comes at Beacon Island itself. We clamber out of the Fisheries boat’s inflatable dinghy onto the coral, near a sign warning of the protected archaeological site. When you imagine castaways on the proverbial desert island, you think coconut palms and jungle. But Beacon resembles an actual desert, an outback vista of bone-white reef fragments and scraggly grey-green shrubs. There isn’t even a real beach, just an embankment of broken coral limestone leading down to the water. No trees, no grass and no animals.
We do a circuit in about ten minutes, stopping at the cairn commemorating the wreck and then again where the fishermen’s huts have been demolished for the archaeological dig.
Most of the island is yet to be excavated, and researchers say as many as 80 bodies may still lie there. I struggle to imagine Beacon with 200 sunburnt, injured and thirsty people landing upon it. They must have been, almost literally, on top of each other – even by the end, when there were less than 50 of them.
Jeronimus Cornelisz was, it seems, an Anabaptist and a follower of Johannes van der Beeck (known as Torrentius), a Dutch painter tortured for heresy. Torrentius scoffed at heaven and hell, contrasting such airy promises with the more immediate pleasures of the flesh. Many thus imagined Cornelisz’s reign on Beacon as the implementation of a Torrentian creed – a prolonged exercise in libertinage, fuelled by salvaged liquor and the sudden possession of Batavia’s treasures. Maybe so. Traversing Beacon’s bleak shores, it seems to me flatly impossible that the island could have been at all comfortable, much less pleasant.
We stand at the end of the atoll and look out to the reef where the Batavia sank, some 2 kilometres away. The light changes, lending the water in the shallows a viridescence that takes my breath away.
In his book about the rediscovery of the Batavia, Hugh Edwards called Beacon an “island of angry ghosts”. If there are ghosts here, they aren’t manifesting themselves to me. We’ve been, quite possibly, walking over the graves of murdered men (hell, murdered families), but the atoll is affectless and empty, even in its moments of beauty.
Almost all that we know about the Batavia killings comes from Pelsaert’s journals, in which he recorded incidents from the voyage and documented his investigation once he returned to the wreck site. As official documents, the journals possess narrative authority; perhaps more surprisingly, they’re often remarkably intimate.
For instance, Pelsaert includes a letter that Cornelisz sends to Hayes during their negotiations, a note in which the onderkoopman asks Hayes to hand over “Lucas the steward’s mate, Cornelis the fat trumpeter, Cornelis the assistant, deaf Jan Michielsz, Ariaen the gunner, squinting Hendrick” and others. We sense, through the nomenclature, the relationships between men forced into prolonged proximity, necessarily familiar with one another’s idiosyncrasies.
There are even fragments of dialogue. We hear Cornelisz explaining why a sailor called Jacop Hendrix must die. “He is half lame,” he says. “He also must go, he might become a babbler now or later.”
Amid such detail, it’s easy to forget that Pelsaert’s account derives in large part from confessions extracted under torture. Seventeenth-century Dutch law required defendants in capital cases to own up to their crimes. That sounds remarkably liberal – except that those who wouldn’t confess were generally tortured. Afterwards, they were meant to confirm that they’d spoken honestly. If they changed their answers, they were put to the question once more.
Cornelisz initially denies all culpability for the murders.
“Everything that has been done is not my fault,” he insists, naming others whom he said had directed the slaughter. Almost at once, the gloves come off, as Dick Cheney might say.
In 2015, we understand more about torture than the writers who rediscovered the Batavia’s history in the more civilised days of the last century. There’s a certain queasy familiarity about the transcripts now, not least because Pelsaert’s trip to the dark side involved waterboarding.
“The Commander,” writes Pelsaert, “proposes to bring to torture the above mentioned Jeronimus [Cornelisz] in order to learn from him the straight truth, as he tries to exonerate himself with flowery talk.”
The Dutch water torture entailed a cloth fitted around the defendant’s neck and face, into which liquid was then poured until he either swallowed or choked, or both. It was notoriously unbearable.
“Having started to torture him a little,” Pelsaert continues, “[Cornelisz] requests a postponement, for he wished to tell … what he knew.”
In the days that followed, Cornelisz alternated between denial and confession, with the admissions becoming more detailed and extensive as the torture continued. The other men behaved likewise, gradually incriminating themselves and one another, so that an increasingly detailed narrative about their collective crimes emerged over the course of repeated torture sessions.
Of course, that they had killed was never really in question. But Pelsaert needed not simply to establish criminality but also to attribute responsibility for the disastrous collapse of a commercial venture, in the context of a company famously intolerant of the failings of its staff.
For instance, Ariaen Jacobsz, the Batavia’s skipper, had successfully navigated a 9-metre open longboat loaded with nearly 50 passengers (the officers and their wives who had so quickly deserted Batavia’s Graveyard) more than 1500 kilometres from the coast of Western Australia to Indonesia. This was an extraordinary – almost unparalleled – feat of seamanship. But, after arriving safely in Java, Jacobsz was immediately thrown in jail for mismanaging the Batavia. His boatswain was tortured and eventually executed, having been blamed, presumably by Pelsaert, for the shipboard attack on Lucretia Jans.
Pelsaert himself escaped punishment in Java but he returned to the wreck site under an obvious cloud, having lost the VOC’s ship, the VOC’s crew and the VOC’s treasure. His voyage on the Sardam represented a last chance to redeem himself, which was why he spent considerable time sending divers to retrieve silver from the wreck. Naturally, the particular confessions the accused made mattered a great deal.
Further, the commercial imperatives of the case could not be untangled from its theological implications, for the Dutch understood God and the Company as entirely complementary. In his investigation, Pelsaert sought “to turn from us the wrath of God and to cleanse the name of Christianity from such an unheard of villain”.
The aggregated confessions portray Cornelisz as an “Epicurean villain”, an almost demonic seducer. Even the assault on Jans seemingly had been part of a plan he’d conceived with the skipper to seize the Batavia, a scheme only derailed by the collision with Morning Reef. Once on Beacon, Cornelisz had inducted others into his “gruesome opinions” and the murderous impulses that derived from his heresies.
All of that may well have been true. But the Batavia confessions, like most admissions generated under torture, tell a story very close to what the torturers wanted to hear.
To the end, Cornelisz (“more evil than if he had been changed into a tiger”) remains a mystery to the modern reader and, I suspect, to Pelsaert himself.
From Beacon Island, we take the inflatable back to the Fisheries boat and then head to West Wallabi. The sun glints on the water, and I realise that I’m already burnt. A school of flying fish races us for a while, darting impossibly above the waves like birds.
Almost immediately we are passing Long Island, a sliver of land running about 1.5 kilometres, less than 200 metres across at its widest. The survivors named it Seals Island – and I can see a trio of the creatures, turning their whiskery noses to the buzz of the engine.
The recent excavations here uncovered bags of nails, fastenings, bolts and other fittings in an area about the size of a room. These are the remnants of a scaffold.
After Pelsaert’s investigation, it took some time before the inevitable death sentences were carried out, not least because the ship’s carpenters had to erect a suitably robust gallows and anchor it somehow to the island’s coral base. Hence the detritus Alistair Paterson and his team found, the legacy of that grim construction.
Cornelisz did all he could to prolong his life, anxiously asking when he would be hanged.
“Tut! Nothing more?” he said, when told the date, only a few days hence. “How can one show repentance of life in so few days? I thought I should be allowed 8 or 14 days.”
He requested time to be baptised and to “bewail his sins”. He asked to be taken to Batavia to speak with his wife. Eventually, he prophesied a miracle to deliver him from the gallows, and then apparently tried to poison himself. The dose, though it affected his stomach, wasn’t fatal.
On the appointed day, the seven other condemned men begged that Cornelisz might be executed first, apparently because they feared he might yet escape. Like most of the defendants, the onderkoopman was mutilated before the hanging. His hands were chiselled off beneath the scaffold, the traditional penalty for those who defrauded the VOC.
“[He] could not reconcile himself to dying or to penitence,” says Pelsaert. Cornelisz screamed at the council and his fellow condemned (and they back at him), promising he would seek justice with them in the afterlife. “And so he died stubborn.”
It’s easy to forget that Pelsaert’s sentences were, for the time, relatively lenient. One of the few ringleaders transported all the way to Batavia was later broken on the wheel – that is, his limbs were pulverised with a hammer until they could be bent around a cartwheel in a ghastly crucifixion. By contrast, on the islands, some of the lesser offenders were simply flogged or dropped from the ship’s yardarm (a customary, and usually non-fatal, sailor’s punishment).
Pelsaert’s mercy manifested itself most dramatically in the case of Jan Pelgrom, the cabin boy who had yearned to kill. Pelgrom was sentenced to death, but on execution day he broke down in tears and begged to be spared. Pelsaert commuted his sentence to banishment.
Thus, on 16 November 1629, Jan Pelgrom and a man called Wouter Loos were set down on the “Southland”, probably at Wittecarra Gully in today’s Kalbarri National Park, a hundred or so kilometres north of Geraldton.
Pelsaert wanted them to survive, even flourish – he thought they might gather information of value to the VOC. So they were landed near a water source and given a boatload of gear, including trinkets for barter, along with suggestions as to how to befriend the natives.
Did that happen? We don’t know, for Pelgrom and Loos disappeared from history. Intriguingly, in the late 1930s, the anthropologist Daisy Bates wrote of the “flat heavy Dutch face, curly fair hair, and heavy stocky build” of some local people in the area, and drew a connection with the marooned men – though this is a conclusion that’s treated with great scepticism nowadays.
Nonetheless, it’s fascinating that in 1629 everyone involved accepted that the survival of the men – the first permanent European settlers – depended upon a certain kind of racial assimilation: namely, the absorption of the two whites into black civilisation. That’s a strikingly different way to think about interaction between colonists and indigenous people in the predawn of modern Australia, and it would be nice to believe that black society provided some sort of redemption for two men implicated in such horrors in the white world.
Inland at West Wallabi, we unexpectedly encounter one of the reasons why Cornelisz sending Hayes to what they called the “High Islands” had been so wrongheaded: a tammar wallaby, bounding out from under a bush.
The Batavia survivors called the wallabies “cats” and feasted upon them: much better food than at Beacon. They were, said Pelsaert, “creatures of miraculous form, as big as a hare”. It’s a description that perfectly evokes men reaching the very limits of the known world, a liminal space of wonders and terrors and miraculous cats.
After another ten minutes, we come to the fort.
It isn’t anything much, or at least it doesn’t seem to be: a square structure of stacked coral, open to the air and with walls waist-high. The construction is similar to that used by fishermen elsewhere on the islands, employing the only solid material available as a kind of natural brick. Yet these are the walls that Wiebbe Hayes laid out in 1629 as he prepared to fight off Cornelisz’s men.
Over the years, the building has been tampered with: built up for photos and plundered by souvenir hunters. Still, when Alistair Paterson’s team excavated near its base, they found sufficient Dutch material to be confident of its authenticity.
“Tiny book clasps,” he told me in Perth, “that we think come from a Bible, bits and pieces of military clothing, and lots and lots of butchered bone.”
It is, then, the oldest example of Western architecture in Australia.
We are sufficiently far inland that the ocean is no longer visible, and its absence – we could be absolutely anywhere – makes the tiny fort feel lost beneath the sky: a little scrap of Europe, built by desperate men impossibly far from home.
Paterson has compared the islands (Beacon in particular) to Stonehenge: sites where our knowledge would keep changing the more archaeology that was done. Daniel Franklin thinks he could spend at least another six months on the skeletons alone, working out which countries they’d come from, how well they’d been nourished, whether they’d endured any particular illnesses or injuries. Jeremy Green wants to search Beacon for the cooking and sleeping areas.
Their research could, perhaps, put names on some of the bones, matching skeletons with the individuals in the diaries. From small discoveries, like the musket balls Paterson had shown me, which had been in the pockets of the recently discovered adolescent skeleton, they may also learn a great deal more about the everyday life of the castaways in the months after the wreck.
So does such work matter? It seems to me that it does.
Pelsaert’s diaries have provided irresistible material for novelists, dramatists, poets and librettists; the narrative has been told and retold in popular histories. Yet somehow the Batavia has never captured the Australian imagination – at least, not to the extent you might expect.
Ned Kelly, Squizzy Taylor and Chopper Read are household names, but who, in the eastern states particularly, has heard of Jeronimus Cornelisz, much less Wiebbe Hayes? Perhaps, perversely, the problem lies in the story’s significance. It’s a tale of firsts, after all. As an apothecary, Cornelisz was the first practitioner of Western medicine in what became Australia (even if he used his skills simply to make poisons); the battle on West Wallabi could be seen, with only a slight stretch, as the first European military engagement; the trials represent the first criminal prosecutions under a European legal code. And maybe that is the difficulty. Perhaps we don’t want to think about the Batavia as a Western origin story.
The traditional narrative of white Australia posits the coming of the First Fleet as an almost natural development, the inexorable result of the British Empire’s growth. By contrast, the Batavia story, and contemplation of the Dutch presence in Australia prior to 1788, sets both England and the Australian continent itself on a different axis. It remaps the regional geography around Jakarta, and Amsterdam becomes more significant than London. We’re pushed into a multivalent history in which there are more actors and the outcomes feel somehow less preordained. The specific way that white settlement unfolded loses some of its inevitability.
And that seems to me to be a good thing. When the past opens up, so does the future. The world of the Batavia is undoubtedly strange to us and will surely remain so, no matter how many skeletons we find. Nonetheless, the story we tell about the lives saved and lost in that desperate episode almost four hundred years ago illuminates, in some ways at least, the stories we tell about ourselves today.