Batavia’s Graveyard
By Mike Dash
Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

The 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.

The 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..

Pelsaert 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.

In 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 available.

Crucial 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.

A 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 later.

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.