Batavia; Peter FitzSimons
Anyone who has paid close attention to the history lesson will probably still remember the United East India Company, one of the Dutch proud. Australian author Peter FitzSimons wrote the true, fascinating story of the sinking of the VOC ship Batavia in 1629. The events revolve around deceit, shipwreck, murder, slavery and courage. The thick paperback Batavia was published in 2012 by Karakter Uitgevers.
Australian author Peter FitzSimons works as a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald. There are more than 20 books to his name and in recent years he has been the best-selling non-fiction author in Australia a number of times. Before writing the book “Batavia” the author traveled to India to see extant spice markets, to the Houtman-Abrolhos islands on the west coast of Australia – the place where the Batavia was wrecked -, to the remains of Batavia Castle in Jakarta , to Amsterdam, from where the Batavia left and to The Hague to inspect the original sources.
The United East India Company
In the early 16th century, Europeans actually did not know where the spices came from. In 1512, the Portuguese discovered the Spice Islands (today’s Moluccas). Shortly after 1590, the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands sent a consortium of Dutch merchants to Lisbon with the aim of establishing trade relations and gathering as much information as possible about the Spice Islands. Three years later, four ships were built specifically to sail the Spice Islands. Soon there was considerable competition among Dutch merchants, as a result of which prices rose in the East Indies and fell in the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. Then came the revolutionary idea of founding a Company, in fact the forerunner of what we today call a “multinational”. On March 20 the time had come for the United East India Company, the VOC, to be founded. The rise of the VOC was accompanied by the flowering of the careers of VOC officials. The commander Pelsaert, the skipper Captain Jacobsz and the junior merchant Jeronimus were such officers. The fate of the ship Batavia, which sailed on October 27, 1728, was actually in the hands of these key figures.
The book Batavia was published in 2012 by Karakter Uitgevers. It is written in the style of a log, starting on October 27, 1628 and ending on December 5, 1629. Between these two dates, the history of the shipwreck of the Batavia and the fate of the people on board unfolds.
The main sources from which FitzSimons draws are:
- the original journal of Francisco Pelsaert, commander of the VOC and crew member of the Batavia.
- the letter from a minister on the Batavia about the terrible events, addressed to his family in the Netherlands.
To complete his book and put everything in a historically acceptable perspective, FitzSimons did a lot of research and also received a lot of help from experts, both in the Netherlands and in Australia. The missing pieces of the puzzle of what actually happened during and after the shipwreck of the Batavia have been conscientiously attuned to the available information. Further coloring is done by making use of general knowledge about many matters at that time. To give an example: Commander Pelsaert suffered from malaria as a result of earlier trips. You did not have malaria pills then, the disease as such was not yet recognized. Nowhere in the sources is it recorded which methods the surgeon on the way used to help someone get rid of his ailments, but on the basis of information about the medical practices at the time, FitzSimons tells how Pelsaert was subjected to bloodletting, turning “heads”, laxatives, pumping of tobacco smoke in the rectum etc. It has become a fascinating and terrifying report; for those who did not yet know the true facts of the events, a story that remains exciting until the end.
How the Batavia fared
Commander Pelsaert and skipper Jacobsz cannot see or see each other. Pelsaert represents the interests of the VOC, but Jacobsz is in charge of the Batavia. Then there is Jeronimus – a former pharmacist with everything on his stick and now hired as a junior merchant in the service of the VOC. This Jeronimus is actually the evil genius in the whole. He skillfully manages to pit Jacobsz and Pelsaert against each other. This succeeds and Jacobsz and Jeronimus together devise a plan to mutinate the ship and all its riches. Henchmen are sought and at one point there are about twenty mutiny-minded. A reason must now be sought to challenge Pelsaert and take over power. Lucretia, a beautiful lady on her way to her husband in Batavia and a friend of Pelsaert, is assaulted by a number of sailors. Pelsaert is furious, but holds back because he is also smart enough to suspect a plot. This to the amazement of the mutineers. The latter are now devising a different plan and already close to Southland (Western Australia) they manage to shake off the accompanying convoy of smaller ships. As a result, they get off course. This and an incorrect estimate by the skipper and his first boatswain are the cause of the Batavia being shipwrecked on the coral reefs of the Abrolhos islands.
The fate of the crew
Jacobsz and Pelsaert now have to work together to save the crew. With the help of sloops they manage to get a large part of the crew on dry land on one of the islands (later) called “Batavia’s Kerkhof”. With the help of some supplies of food and water that are transported to the island from the increasingly sinking ship, one must initially try to survive. But there is no fresh water on the island and only rain can help. Jeronimus remains last on the ship; he cannot swim. Finally, tied to a piece of the mast, he still reaches the island. In the meantime, Jacobsz and Pelsaert, along with a number of survivors, have boarded the barque to search for water on the surrounding islands with the promise of returning as soon as possible. They find nothing en route and eventually sail on to Batavia.
Jeronimus seizes his chance and together with his henchmen he supposedly restores order. He has a tent erected for himself, in which he has a large part of the wealth on board the ship housed. The underlying goal is to kill as many innocent castaways as possible. To this end, he distributes the survivors over a number of islands, where he has them transported with not too much ration, to be massacred there later. Those who remain with Jeronimus are also successively murdered. Sick, children and rebels – that is of no use to you. There were few women on board and the most appetizing among them are used for the benefit of the general public. Dire circumstances.
Jeronimus had the soldiers on the Batavia brought to one of the islands, under the assumption that they would soon die of hunger and thirst. But one Hayes takes charge of the soldiers and by combing the island, they eventually find a well. They live on “cat meat” (actually kangaroo meat), seal meat and sea birds.
Meanwhile, a VOC boat is on its way from Batavia to the shipwrecked. Both the mutineers and the soldiers are looking forward to this long-awaited ship. It’s about who gets to the rescue ship first: the mutineers to mutinate it or the soldiers to warn the ship about the mutineers.
Of the 341 people on board the Batavia, only 68 eventually arrive on Java. In an epilogue, FitzSimons reports on the further fate of the survivors, as far as is known.