The Houtman Abrolhos – so named to warn mariners to “keep a sharp look-out”, but the fate of the Dutch East-Indian merchantman Batavia was sealed long before her hapless crew could take heed. In the dark of night the Batavia struck an unforgiving Abrolhos reef and so began a terrifying sequence of events overshadowed by desertion, betrayal, murder and revenge!
In 1628 the newly built Batavia sailed from Holland bound for the Dutch East Indies. It sailed under the command of Francisco Pelsaert, with Ariaen Jacobsz serving as skipper. Also on board was junior merchantman Jeronimus Cornelisz, a bankrupt pharmacist from Haarlem who was fleeing the Netherlands in fear of arrest because of his heretical beliefs.
During the voyage, Jacobsz and Cornelisz conceived a plan to take the ship and after leaving Cape Town, Jacobsz deliberately steered the ship off course.
On 4 June 1629 the ship struck a reef near Beacon Island. Of the 322 aboard, most of the passengers and crew managed to get ashore, although 40 people drowned. An initial survey of the islands found no fresh water and only limited food (sea lions and birds). Pelsaert realised the dire situation and decided to search for water on the mainland.
A group comprising Captain Jacobsz and Pelsaert left the wreck site in a 9m longboat in search of drinking water. After a fruitless search, they abandoned the other survivors and headed north in a danger- fraught voyage to the city of Batavia (now known as Jakarta). This journey, which ranks as one of the greatest feats of open-boat navigation, took 33 days and, extraordinarily, all aboard survived.
After their arrival in Batavia, Jacobsz was arrested for negligence, although his position in the potential mutiny was not guessed by Pelsaert.
In order to rescue the others and, to salvage the Batavia’s valuable cargo, Batavia’s Governor General immediately gave Pelsaert command of the Sardam. He arrived at the islands two months after leaving Batavia, only to discover that a bloody mutiny had taken place amongst the survivors.
Jeronimus Cornelisz, who had been left in charge of the survivors, was well aware that if the water party ever reached the port of Batavia, Pelsaert would report the impending mutiny. Therefore, he made plans to hijack any rescue ship. Cornelisz’s first deliberate act was to have all weapons and food supplies commandeered and placed under his control. He then moved a group of soldiers, led by Wiebbe Hayes, to nearby West Wallabi Island, under the false pretence of searching for water. They were told to light signal fires when they found water and they would then be rescued. Convinced that they would be unsuccessful, he then left them to die.
Cornelisz then had complete control and the remaining survivors faced two months of unrelenting butchery and savagery. Between them, his followers murdered at least 110 men, women, and children.
Although Cornelisz had left the soldiers to die, they had in fact found good sources of water and food on their islands. Initially, they did not know of the barbarity taking place on the other islands and sent the pre-arranged smoke signals. However, they soon learned of the massacres from survivors who managed to flee Cornelisz’ island. The soldiers put together makeshift weapons made from materials washed up from the wreck and, they built two small forts out of limestone and coral blocks.
Cornelisz seized on the news of water on the other island – his own supply was dwindling and the continued survival of the soldiers threatened his own success. He went with his men to try and defeat the soldiers marooned on West Wallabi Island. However, the trained soldiers were by now much better fed than the mutineers and easily defeated them in several battles before Pelsaert returned.
Pelsaert seized the mutineers – the worst offenders were executed. Some were abandoned on the mainland and the rest were taken to Batavia.
A board of inquiry later decided that Pelsaert had exercised a lack of authority and was therefore partly responsible for what had happened. His financial assets were seized and he died a broken man within a year.
On the other hand, the common soldier Wiebbe Hayes was hailed a hero. The Dutch East India Company promoted him to sergeant, and later to lieutenant, which increased his salary fivefold.
Of the original 341 people on board Batavia, only 68 made it to the port of Batavia.
In circumstance that could not be more contrasting - discover for yourself the fate of the Batavia. Snorkel and dive in the crystal clear waters of the wreck site. Go ashore at Beacon Island and see a remarkably preserved canon lying in shallow water. Visit Long Island where mutineers were hanged.
At the end of the day it will be hard not to reflect on such tragic circumstance!