The Most Horrifying Nautical Disaster You’ve Never Heard Of
When it comes to agonizing ordeals, few experiences can compare to that of being shipwrecked. If you are lucky – or unlucky – enough to escape a quick death by drowning, then you face the bleak prospect of drifting on the open sea, exposed to the blistering sun, caustic saltwater, violent storms, hungry sea creatures, and pretty much everything else nature can throw at you. Depending on what – if any – emergency supplies you have on hand, you will either die within three days due to lack of water or cling to life for weeks or even months on end until you finally succumb to hunger or one of the aforementioned maritime hazards – or, against all odds, you are rescued. And even if you do manage to make landfall on some deserted island, many of the world’s islands are so-called ‘green deserts’ devoid of easily accessible food or water – meaning you will likely meet the same fate as before, only on dry land. Now, if all that makes you want to never set foot on a boat ever again, know that it could actually be worse. Much worse. While history abounds with lurid tales of disaster at sea, one shipwreck from 1629 stands head and shoulders above the rest, for those lucky enough to survive the initial sinking faced a threat more dangerous and terrifying than anything in nature: each other. This is the story of the wreck of the Batavia, the most brutal disaster in maritime history.
Measuring 56 metres long and weighing 1,200 tons, the Batavia was built in 1628 as the Dutch East India Company’s newest flagship. Established in 1602, the company, known by its dutch initials VOC, was one of the world’s first multinational corporations and a political force unto itself, wielding the power to raise armies, wage war, imprison and execute convicts, establish its own colonies, and even mint and circulate its own currency. Enjoying a virtual monopoly on the East Asian spice trade for nearly 200 years, the VOC was the most profitable company in world history, with a peak worth of 78 Dutch Guilders – equivalent to a mind-boggling 7.9 trillion (yes, you heard that right: trillion) dollars today.
On October 27, 1628, Batavia set sail from Texel in the Netherlands on her maiden voyage, accompanied by a fleet of six VOC merchant ships. The fleet was bound for the capital of Batavia in the Dutch East Indies – what is today Jakarta in the Republic of Indonesia. Aboard Batavia were 330 people, including 180 sailors, 100 VOC soldiers, and a handful of wealthier passengers including 22 women and their maids. The ship also carried a cargo of supplies for the Dutch East Indies colony and $35 million in silver coins to exchange for valuable nutmeg and other spices. Like all VOC ships, the Batavia operated under a split command structure, with skipper Ariaen Jacobsz [“Yah-kobs”] being subordinate to Commandeur Fransisco Pelsaert, a high-ranking merchant officer in charge of protecting the Company’s financial interests. As it happened, Jacobsz and Pelsaert detested one another, having fallen out years before when Jacobz drunkenly insulted Pelsaert in public. While this made for an inauspicious start to the voyage, the worst was yet to come.
Also aboard the Batavia on her maiden voyage was one Jeronimus Cornelisz, an apothecary or pharmacist from the Dutch city of Haarlem. In November 1627, Cornelisz became embroiled in a scandal when his three-month-old son died of syphilis – a disease the child was alleged to have contracted from his mother and ultimately Cornelisz himself. Disgraced and with his future business prospects ruined, Cornelisz sold off his apothecary shop and other assets and fled to the Dutch East Indies to start a new life. Cornelisz’s syphilis, which may already have started to affect his brain, has been put forward as a possible explanation for the horror which was about to unfold. Another major reason for Cornelisz fleeing the country was his adherence to the teachings of Dutch painter Johannes van de Beeck, whose unorthodox Rosicrucian beliefs had been denounced by the Dutch Reformed Church as heresy and landed the artist in prison. As we shall see, these beliefs – which included the conviction that there was no heaven or hell and that the organized church was a sham – were also to greatly influence Cornelisz’s future actions.
Batavia and two of her accompanying ships reached the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa in April 1629. Shortly after departing the Cape, Batavia became separated from the fleet and found herself far off course. While this diversion is typically attributed to a navigation error by skipper Jacobsz, it may well have been deliberate, for by this time the animosity between Jacobz and Commandeur Pelsaert had reached a breaking point. Jacobsz began plotting a mutiny against Pelsaert, hoping to use the ship’s vast cargo of silver coins to start a new life somewhere in the Far East. Pelsaert would later allege that the supposed navigation error was in fact a deliberate attempt by Jacobsz to isolate the Batavia and facilitate the mutiny. In his plotting, Jacobsz found a willing conspirator in Jeronimus Cornelisz, who harboured similar fantasies. But in order to carry out their plan, the pair first had to win the loyalty of the crew. And so, one night as Batavia was approaching the West coast of Australia, a group of masked men attacked 27-year-old passenger Lucretia Jans [“Loo-cree-sha Yans”], hanging her over the gunwales by her ankles, smearing her with excrement and pitch, and sexually assaulting her. The attack was intended to provoke Commandeur Pelsaert into collectively punishing the crew, allowing Jacobsz and Cornelisz to paint Pelsaert as a tyrant and turn the crew against him. However, the plan backfired, as Lucretia Jans was able to positively identify her attackers.
But before the would-be mutineers could be punished, disaster struck. In the early morning hours of June 4, 1629, Batavia struck a reef in the Houtman Abrolhos Islands, a small archipelago 70 kilometres off the Australian coast. As the sharp coral tore open Batavia’s wooden hull, Commandeur Pelsaert, realizing his ship was doomed, ordered the passengers and crew evacuated. Over the next few days, most of the surviving passengers and crew were ferried using the ship’s boats to nearby Beacon Island and Traitor’s Island. Remaining aboard the ship were some 70 sailors and soldiers, who availed themselves of the Batavia’s vast cargo of alcohol and soon became rip-roaring drunk. Unfortunately, the pounding surf soon tore Batavia apart, and all but 20 of the inebriated stragglers drowned. Among the survivors was Jeronimus Cornelisz, who spent two days clinging to a section of the ship’s bowsprit before finally washing ashore on Beacon Island on June 15.
In the end, 275 of the Batavia’s 330 passengers and crew survived the initial sinking. But the outlook for the marooned survivors was bleak. The Houtman Abrolhos islands are little more than barren coral outcrops, with little food and even less fresh water. Realizing that the handful of supplies salvaged from the Batavia could not sustain 275 people for very long, Commandeur Pelsaert, along with Jacobsz, the senior officers, and 50 crew and passengers, climbed aboard the ship’s nine-metre longboat and set off in search of fresh water on nearby islands. When this search turned up nothing, Pelsaert decided to head for the Australian coast, sighting land on June 9. Unfortunately, the expedition was struck by a severe winter storm, preventing them from making landfall. Pelsaert and his crew battled heavy seas for two straight days, struggling to stay afloat before sailing north in search of calmer weather further up the coast. Though they eventually succeeded in coming ashore, there was little water to be found, and Pelsaert made the decision to sail North to Batavia, some 2,000 kilometres away – and for more on another famous mutiny that ended in an epic open-boat journey, please check out What Really Happened After the Mutiny on the Bounty on our sister channel Highlight History.
The journey to the Dutch East Indies took 33 days, at the end of which Pelsaert and his crew were rescued by a passing ship, the Sardam, which carried them the rest of the way to Batavia. Upon arriving in the capital, Pelsaert had Jacobsz and boatswain [“Bosun”] Jan Evertsz arrested for negligence and sexual assault prior to the Batavia’s sinking, unaware of Jacobsz’s role in the abortive mutiny. Meanwhile, Batavia’s Governor General, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, gave Pelsaert command of the Sardam and had the ship re-provisioned to mount a rescue mission. And so on July 15, 1629 – 41 days after the Batavia ran aground – Pelsaert and a crew of 40 set off in search of her surviving passengers and crew.
By now you are probably thinking: “But Simon, that doesn’t sound so bad. I’ve heard of dozens of shipwrecks far worse than this one.” Well, brace yourselves, for while Commandeur Pelsaert was searching for water and readying his rescue mission, back on the Houtman Abrolhos Islands a scene of horror was playing out so cold-blooded and depraved that even 400 years later it still has the power to shock.
With Pelsaert and Jacobsz gone, the highest-ranking officer on the islands was none other than Jeronimus Cornelisz, who, despite having no sailing or military experience, appointed himself leader and assumed command of an elected Council of survivors. While this might have made sense at the time, there was the minor problem that Cornelisz was a raging psychopath and would soon turn the tiny islands into hell on earth. The trouble started when a subordinate revealed to Cornelisz that he had leaked his mutiny plans to Commandeur Pelseart. Realizing that rescue would mean arrest, imprisonment, or even execution, Cornelisz hatched a plan where he and a crew of followers would hijack the next passing ship and live a life of piracy on the high seas. But as such a ship might not come for several months, Cornelisz had first to ensure that the limited supplies would last – and eliminate anyone who might oppose his plans.
On July 5, Cornelisz dissolved the original survivors’ council and appointed his own, composed entirely of men who had plotted mutiny prior to the sinking. He then placed all the supplies and weapons under his control and sent a group of 22 unarmed VOC soldiers, led by Wiebbe Hayes, to nearby West Wallabi Island to search for a source of food and water. The soldiers were instructed to send up smoke signals if they were successful, whereupon a boat would come to pick them up. Assuming they would be unsuccessful, Cornelisz abandoned them on the island to die of thirst, then set about taking control of the remaining survivors on Beacon Island.
What followed was a violently reign of terror, in which Cornelisz and his followers – mostly fellow mutineers from before the sinking – summarily executed anyone who opposed them. The methods of killing were particularly brutal, with victims being strangled, bludgeoned, hacked to pieces with axes, or set adrift on crude rafts to drown. The mutineers were indiscriminate in their killings, targeting men, women, and children – even newborn babies – alike. Executions were performed singly or in large groups, with survivors often being coerced into killing each other in exchange for their lives. Meanwhile, the women were distributed among the mutineers as sex slaves, with Cornelisz reserving Lucretia Jans for himself. At one point one of the mutineers set his sights on the daughter of lay preacher Gijsbert Bastiaenz, who was presented with a terrible choice: hand his daughter over in “marriage” or have her forcibly taken away to be used in common by the mutineers. Taking what he saw as the lesser of two evils, Bastiaenz handed his daughter over, but worse was yet in store for the poor man. After feebly attempting to criticize Cornelisz’s rule, Bastiaenz and his daughter were invited to dine with Cornelisz. As the pair ate, a gang of men were dispatched to murder Bastiaenz’s wife and seven remaining children. Though he would later be criticized for not doing enough to oppose Cornelisz, Bastiaenz and his daughter would be among the few of Batavia’s passengers to survive the whole ordeal.
Soon Cornelisz’s men began murdering the survivors dispersed on the neighbouring islands, who greatly outnumbered the mutineers and posed a threat to their rule. In the end, Cornelisz and his followers would be directly responsible for the deaths of at least 110 people – a third of the Batavia’s original complement. Yet Cornelisz, unshackled by the constraints of civilization, driven by his heretical beliefs, and possibly suffering from neurosyphilis, expressed no remorse over the killings, maintaining to the end that God had sanctioned his actions.
Meanwhile, the expedition Cornelisz had sent to die on West Wallabi Island had been unexpectedly successful, finding not only abundant fresh water but also a population of wallabies that could be hunted for food. Unaware of the massacres taking place on Beacon Island, on July 9 the soldiers lit the pre-arranged smoke signal. They were puzzled when no-one responded or sent a boat to retrieve them, but soon survivors fleeing the carnage began arriving on West Wallabi Island and informed Wiebbe Hayes and what was happening. Having been stripped of their muskets and swords by Cornelisz, the 47 soldiers – who dubbed themselves the “Defenders” – improvised clubs and spears from driftwood and nails from the Batavia and built a small fort on the aptly-named Slaughter Point out of stone and coral blocks. The fort survives to this day – the oldest European structure in Australia.
Upon learning of the soldiers’ survival, Cornelisz vowed to destroy them and eliminate the last remaining resistance to his rule. So, on July 27, he and a group of 22 mutineers launched an attack on West Wallabi Island. On paper the mutineers had the upper hand, being armed with muskets, swords, and pikes. But the Defenders, being better trained and fed, easily repelled the assault. Undeterred, Cornelisz, who had begun referring to himself by the not-at-all-delusional title “Captain General”, tried again on August 5, but was once again repelled. While the mutineers were forced to cross between the two islands on the Batavia’s longboat, the Defenders were able to stand and fight on solid ground, giving them the tactical advantage. Brute force having failed, Corelisz instead turned to subterfuge. First, he attempted to drive a wedge between the six French soldiers in the garrison and the rest of the Defenders, sending one of his soldiers to deliver a letter written in French. However, the Defenders immediately saw through the plan and simply took the envoy prisoner. Cornelisz next tried to lay an ambush, offering to meet with the Defenders on the beach and negotiate a truce. Meanwhile, two mutineers snuck up in the longboat and attempted to shoot the Defenders with muskets. Unfortunately, the mutineers failed to keep their gunpowder dry and the muskets misfired. Growing increasingly impatient, Cornelisz and five compatriots arranged further negotiations the following day, during which they surreptitiously attempted to bribe the defenders with cloth, jewels, and silver coins. But once again the Defenders were not fooled and they proceeded to seize all six mutineers. Only two men survived the ordeal – Cornelisz, whom the Defenders kept alive, and mutineer soldier Wouter Loos, who managed to break free and escape back to Beacon Island. The four remaining mutineers were summarily executed.
With Cornelisz captured, the mutineers elected Loos as their Captain. Armed with greater experience and tactical knowledge, on September 17 Loos launched another assault on West Wallabi Island. This time the mutineers were far more successful, wounding three Defenders and killing one. As the mutineers pushed closer and closer to the fort, it seemed as though they would finally succeed in wiping out all opposition.
But then, in the middle of the raging battle, a ship suddenly appeared on the horizon. It was the Sardam. Plagued by bad weather, the journey from Batavia had taken 63 days, meaning Commandeur Pelsaert had been away from the wreck site for more than three months. Upon spotting the ship, survivors on both sides of the battle scrambled towards her, hoping to be the first to tell Pelsaert their side of the story. Weibe Hayes of the Defenders reached the ship first, whereupon Pelsaert, horrified by what had transpired in his absence, sent a force of soldiers and sailors ashore to arrest the mutineers, bringing the whole bloody affair to an end. In the end, only 45 mutineers and 47 Defenders remained of the some 225 people Pelsaert had left behind on the islands.
The justice Pelsaert dispensed was swift and brutal. As the Sardam was already overcrowded, Pelseart decided to try the mutineers on Beacon Island. After a brief trial, the worst offenders were taken to nearby Seal Island and hanged. Jeronimus Cornelisz had his hands chopped off with a hammer and chisel before he, too, was executed. As Pelsaert later recalled:
“He could not reconcile himself to dying, or to penitence, neither to pray to God or to show any face of repentance over his sins . . . And so he died stubborn. He died as he had lived, not believing there exists Devil or Hell, God or Angel—the Torrentian feeling had spread thus far.”
Meanwhile, the two most minor offenders, Wouter Loos and cabin boy Jan Pelgrom de Bye, were marooned on the Australian mainland near Witecarra Creek and were never heard from again, effectively becoming the first European settlers on the continent. In November 1629, rest of the mutineers were transported back to Batavia, with seven being tried, convicted, and punished via flogging, keelhauling, or hanging on the voyage. In Batavia, Cornelisz’s second in command, Jacob Pietersz, was broken at the wheel – the most severe punishment then available – and died of his injuries the following day. Though skipper Ariaen Jacobsz was tortured, he never confessed to his part in the initial attempted mutiny and was released for lack of evidence. His ultimate fate remains unknown.
Despite Commandeur Pelsaert’s heroic three-month voyage to find water and rescue the survivors of the Batavia, the VOC found him partially responsible for the disaster and stripped him of his rank and financial assets. He died a year later in Sumatra, a broken man. Meanwhile, Wiebbe Hayes, leader of the Defenders, was hailed as a hero and promoted to Sergeant, while the men under his command were promoted to the rank of Corporal. And while the Batavia was declared a total loss, ten of the twelve treasure chests aboard were successfully recovered.
The sinking of the Batavia stands as one of the most violent and depraved mutinies in maritime history, brutally illustrating what horrors human beings, isolated from civilization and driven by greed and religious zeal, are capable of. It also serves as an alternative foundation myth of sorts for the modern-day country of Australia, predating the more famous 1770 landing of Captain James Cook at Botany Bay by 141 years. So just remember the next time you set out on the open sea: your greatest enemy may not be the water, the sharks, or even the weather, but the person sitting right next to you.
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Gerritsen, Rupert, The Batavia Mutiny: Australia’s First Military Conflict in 1629, https://rupertgerritsen.tripod.com/pdf/published/s_First_Military_Conflict.pdf
Gerritsen, Rupert, Australia’s First Criminal Prosecutions in 1629, Batavia Online Publishing, 2011, https://rupertgerritsen.tripod.com/pdf/published/s_First_Criminal_Prosecutions_in_1629.pdf
Batavia (1629): Giving Voice to the Voiceless, The University of Western Australia, October 7, 2017, https://www.lwgallery.uwa.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/3052375/Batavia-Symposium-Program.pdf
Batavia’s Graveyard, VOC Historical Society, https://web.archive.org/web/20110410180412/http://www.voc.iinet.net.au/batavia.html
Tha Batavia Mutiny, Leben, January 1, 2009, https://leben.us/the-batavia-mutiny/
Wreck of the Batavia, National Museum of Australia, https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/wreck-of-the-batavia
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