HISTORIANS - BATAVIA'S GRAVEYARD - REVIEW
By Mike Dash
Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Batavia was the Titanic of the seventeenth century. Both ships were among the
greatest of their time. Novels and an Australian opera deploy their
fates as emblems of courage and inhumanity. The horror, the horror is
that the brutality following the Batavia’s wreck was but the far end
of civilised behaviour by the pious Dutch at home and in their colonies.
Batavia ran aground on the
Abrolhos archipelago off the coast of Western Australia on 4 June 1829.
The fleet’s commander, Francisco Pelsaert, set off to find water but
ended up 3000 kms away in Java, where the Dutch East Indies Company
[VOC] headquartered its spice trade..
led a smaller ship back to the wreck site where he found that 200 of the
survivors had died, mostly murdered. Reporting the trials that he
conducted, he put prime responsibility on Jeronimus Cornelisz, a 30
year-old bankrupt apothecary, whom he pictured as a mass murderer, a
libertine, a heretic and a mutineer.
retelling the events for Batavia’s
Graveyard, Mike Dash accepts this version. Although he acknowledges
the partial nature of the documents, that evidence was extracted under
torture, and that everyone involved had reason to blame someone else, he
does not carry these caveats far into his investigation. Worse still, he
plays “now you see it, now you don’t” with such evidence as is
to the fictional renderings is that Cornelisz belonged to a sect of
Rosicrucians which absolved his conscience. Dash has no evidence for
this other than Pelsaert’s abuse in the trial summaries. The
connection is alleged to be via the painter Torrentius. Dash writes that
they “knew each other well enough for Cornelisz to be described as a
disciple”. The source is not from the Netherlands the trial on the
Abrolhos when the connection was “taken for granted”. The endnotes
refer back to the Epilogue which acknowledges the absence of proof and
provides reasons why it was in Pelsaert’s interest to load Cornelisz
with devil worship. Dash has led us across the oceans on a farthing.
comparable hand is played with the allegations of a mutiny planned
before the Batavia had been wrecked. Here, Cornelisz is second fiddle to the
ship’s skipper, Ariaen Jacobsz, who sailed to Java with Pelsaert. Dash
observes that, during the voyage, Jacobsz had “no idea he was
suspected”. When they reached Java, the VOC council charged the
skipper with negligence in allowing the company to lose its property.
Even though an accusation of mutiny would have helped Pelsaert protect
himself from the wrath of the VOC, he made no mention of his supposed
“suspicions” The reason is, as Dash elsewhere shows, that Pelsaert
had not thought about a mutiny until extracting evidence some weeks
Dash summarises what we knew and unearths some background. A more forensic intellect will be required to appreciate that almost everything in Dash’s book “is invented” because it relies on the Batavia trial Journals, which provide the historian’s only clue.