SEPTEMBER 2006 – NO. 8
The Batavia has more victims than the Titanic, but they didn't die in the shipwreck.
The Dutch, who were the first European navigators to discover "Terra Australis Incognita," never tried to get to know it, having made the hasty assessment that nothing was to be gained. Not only were the approaches dangerous, but the resources were nil; one could not even safely find water. The natives were few, backward and miserable; no trading post could ever hope to prosper there.
Yet, so long as the navigators were unable to calculate their longitude, they ran the risk of inadvertently encountering the Australian continent. In 200 years, of all the ships that sailed to the East Indies, one in 50 never reached her destination. On the return voyage, one in 20 never saw Holland again. Most of the lost ships disappeared without a trace. One suspects that many foundered on the Australian coast; few of these shipwrecks have been accurately identified, sometimes hundreds of years later.
For instance, mystery long surrounded the fate of Zuytdorp. She had left Cape of Good Hope in 1712, bound for Batavia, and then vanished until, two centuries later in 1927, an Australian stockman found on a cliff top various objects worn by age and eaten up by rust, but still clearly identifiable: they had belonged to the crew of the lost ship. Some time afterwards, divers discovered what remained of the wreck in the reefs below. It was clear that a group of castaways had managed to climb the cliff and survived for quite a while in this barren spot. Were they perhaps adopted by local Aborigines? One of these tribes shows genetic features that can only be explained, it is said, by contact with Dutch blood.
However, not all the shipwrecks were forgotten. In fact, the earliest, that of the Batavia, which occurred in 1629 on the reefs of the Houtman Abrolhos, a group of tiny coral islands some 50 nautical miles off the Australian mainland, was the most famous and also the most fully documented. The 300 survivors who found shelter on the islands fell under the control of one of them, a psychopath who instituted a reign of terror. This criminal, assisted by a few acolytes whom he had managed to seduce and indoctrinate, led a methodical massacre of the castaways, sparing neither women nor children. Three months later, with 200 already slaughtered, the bizarre butchery was brought to an end by the arrival of a rescue ship from Java. The leader and his main accomplices were put to death on the spot after being duly examined, tortured, and sentenced according to the legal requirements of Dutch criminal justice. The minutes of the trial and the witnesses' statements were carefully recorded; these documents were supplemented by the internal reports of the VOC (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, the Dutch East India Company) and the memoirs written soon after the events by two of the principal survivors. A book drawing together most of this information was published less than ten years later. It immediately became a bestseller and was reprinted (and pirated) several times; part of it was eventually translated into French. 1
It can be said without exaggeration that, in its time, the tragedy of the Batavia had a greater impact on the public imagination than did the wreck of the Titanic in the 20th century. The comparison comes naturally to mind since in both cases disaster struck, on her maiden voyage, a ship that embodied the pride and power of her age. 2
As centuries passed, the memory of this dark episode faded into oblivion until 1963, when, guided by the remarkable deductions of a local historian, a diver found the wreck. 3
After the discovery, thorough underwater explorations were conducted. Parts of the ship's structure were retrieved (actually the entire stern, from the keel to the upper deck), as well as some of her cargo, including the ready-hewn sandstones of an ornamental gate intended for the citadel of Batavia. These two majestic structures the reconstructed stern of the ship and the re-assembled stone portal — now occupy the main hall of the Maritime Museum in Fremantle in Western Australia, where one can also see the rich — and gruesome — results of the archaeological excavations that are still conducted in the islands: countless artifacts, implements, weapons, potsherds; and also bones, skulls, and entire skeletons of various victims of the massacres. Once again the Batavia became a topic of interest and the subject of many publications: articles, learned monographs, historical novels, popular works, documentary films, even an opera. Finally came Mike Dash's book, which outshines all its predecessors and from which I have drawn much of the information presented here. It offers what will almost certainly remain the most reliable survey of all that can be known on this subject. Of course, one may fear that novelists and script-writers will continue to find inspiration in a drama of which all the constituent parts — exotic setting, adventure, shipwreck, violence, sex, horror, suspense, and rescue at the last moment — seem to have been devised with Hollywood in mind. But I dare say that their efforts will fail: in such a story, no imagination can compete with the bare facts.
From The Wreck of the Batavia by Simon Leys. Copyright © 2005 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thunder's Mouth Press, an imprint of Avalon Publishing Group.
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