Mutiny And Murder: Plumbing The Murky Depths Of The Batavia Shipwreck Story

Mutiny And Murder: Plumbing The Murky Depths Of The Batavia Shipwreck Story

On June 4, 1629, the flagship of the Dutch East India Company, the Batavia, was lost off the coast of Western Australia. What unfolded was a tragic tale of mutiny and murder that captured the imagination of historians and archaeologists. Now, the results of a five-year project have shed new light on the fate of the Batavia and her crew at sea and on land.

The Voyage of the Batavia

The Batavia was on her maiden voyage when tragedy struck her. Part of a fleet of eight ships, the ship left the port of Texel in October 1628 and headed for the Dutch East Indies colonies in what is now Indonesia, bringing back spices for trade. An estimated 341 people were on board, mainly the ship’s crew and some soldiers and private travelers.

A replica showing what the 46 meter long ship might have looked like.

During the treacherous voyage, the remaining ships in the fleet were either lost or separated, leaving the Batavia alone to cross the Indian Ocean. At this point, tensions were brewing between the two senior officers: Commander Francisco Pelsaert, the chief of the fleet, and the Batavia’s captain, Ariaen Jacobsz. With Pelsaert locked in his cabin unwell, Jacobsz had ample time to confer with his friend and co-conspirator Jeronimus Cornelisz about a possible mutiny.

The details of the events leading up to the accident are not entirely clear. It has been suggested that the brutal attack on a woman who was traveling alone on the ship to return to her husband in the colonies may have been planned to provoke Pelsaert into punishing those involved, thus sparking the mutiny. What we do know, however, is that the catastrophe struck before the alleged mutiny could really get going.

The wreck of the Batavia

In the early hours of June 4, the Batavia struck Morning Reef, 60 kilometers (37 miles) off the coast of Western Australia. It is an area that was particularly prone to shipwrecks due to the difficulty of navigating by dead reckoning at a time when it was still impossible to accurately measure longitude.

As Pelsaert noted in his journal: “I lay in my bunk feeling ill and suddenly, with a harsh, horrible motion, I felt the thrust of the ship’s rudder, and immediately afterwards I felt the ship being held on course against the rocks. so i fell out of my bunk […] I said, ‘Skipper, what have you done to put that noose around our necks by your reckless negligence?’”

Around 100 people died immediately as a result of the collision. In many ways, however, this was just the beginning.

mutiny and massacre

Part of the crew managed to get to what is now Beacon Island, one of the nearby Abrolhos Islands, by longtail boat. Pelsaert and Jacobsz were among the survivors and over the coming days they scoured the islands for signs of food or water. Finding none, they decided to take a few sailors and the rest of the ship’s officers to mainland Australia, leaving in the middle of the night and abandoning the remaining survivors.

A few days later, Cornelisz – who had stayed on the ship until the last possible moment – arrived on Beacon Island and took charge of the rudderless group, surrounding himself with those who had agreed with the proposed mutiny.

Engraving depicting the conflict at Beacon Island

An illustration of Beacon Island from a published book based on Pelsaert’s journals.

What followed was something of a reign of terror. Cornelisz took control of all remaining guns and boats, dividing the survivors into two separate islands. He then ordered his men to systematically massacre them.

Some had their throats cut in the middle of the night; others were taken out to sea and drowned. Women were raped and some survivors were forced to attack each other to save their own lives. A conflict ensued between Cornelisz’s men and a group who had been sent to another island where they had accidentally found water and wallabies to kill and eat. The bloody battle between the opposing factions lasted months – until one day Pelsaert returned.

After their search for water had been unsuccessful, Pelsaert and Jacobsz had made a remarkable voyage to their original destination in the Dutch East Indies colonies, and after many weeks the fleet commander had finally returned in a rescue ship.

The mutineers under Cornelisz’s command were captured and brutally tortured, resulting in Cornelisz being hanged along with several accomplices. The remaining mutineers were eventually taken to the colonies where they were tried and executed, save for two who were stranded and left to their fate.

It’s the brutal end of a terrible story; But as well-known as the story became, particularly after Pelsaert’s Diaries became the first bestseller ever to be set in Australia, there was only limited archaeological evidence to shed light on what really became of the survivors of the Batavia’s sinking. A new study from the University of Western Australia and the Western Australian Museum has changed that.

to uncover the past

The culmination of more than a decade of work, a five-year excavation has uncovered a number of burial sites and artifacts on the Abrolhos Islands.

Human burial sites found on Beacon Island

Burials discovered on Beacon Island between 2015 and 2018.

Image source: Paterson et al, Historical Archaeology, 2023 (CC BY 4.0)

“Through careful analysis, we have uncovered the remains of 12 victims buried in both individual and mass graves, evidence of a bitter struggle between survivors and a group of mutineers, and remains of a possible gallows site where justice was served was done,” lead author Professor Alistair Paterson said in a statement.

The findings go beyond the analysis of the shipwreck itself and provide real evidence of survivor behavior and practices. “The excavation of human remains provides insight into the treatment and burial practices of the victims. In particular, the centrally located graves at Beacon Island suggest a functioning cemetery, possibly representing casualties from the first few days after the wreck,” continued Professor Paterson.

“Other nearby islands, such as Long (Seals) Island and West Wallabi Island, provide evidence of makeshift weapons, the presence of resistance groups and structures linked to the survivors.”

In a grim finding, the researchers also uncovered evidence of iron fortifications, which they believe belonged to the gallows where the mutineers were eventually executed.

More research is in the works, including a forensic analysis of the human remains, but the results of this massive undertaking have greatly expanded our knowledge of what is sure to be one of the darkest episodes in the region’s history.

The study was published in Historical Archaeology.