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On the Shores of the Great South-Land

“They shall be put ashore as scoundrels and death-deserving delinquents, in order to know once, for certain, what happens in this Land.”


WOUTER LOOS AND JAN PELGROM, the two mutineers whom Pelsaert had marooned on 16 November 1629, were never heard from again.

Their immediate prospects of survival were fair. Wittecarra Gully, at the southern end of Gantheaume Bay, is one of the few places on the Western Australian coast where water can always be found. In the southern winter a small stream flows down the gully into salt marshes along the shore, and though the water in the gully is brackish and unpalatable by the coast, and dries up altogether in the summer, a spring about two miles upstream would have provided a steady supply of fresh water—even during the dry season—for anyone prepared to venture inland. The more substantial Murchison River is only a few miles to the north, and though food is not abundant in the region, the availability of water attracted many Aborigines to the area. The local people belonged to the Nanda culture and were cultivators, growing yams and living in huts grouped into permanent villages. Had they had wished to, they could have helped Loos and Pelgrom and kept them alive.

The exact fate of the two mutineers would have been decided by their first and most important decision: whether to stay where they were, or take their boat and attempt to sail north along the coast. It would have been pointless for them to make for the Indies; the Dutch colonies were too far away to be reached in so small a craft, and in any case they would have been executed the moment they stepped ashore. Their only real alternative was to head for a point on the coast, at about latitude 24 degrees south, where the commandeur had seen men on the shore on 14 June. That spot was almost 200 miles away to the north. Neither Loos nor Pelgrom could navigate or were in any way accomplished sailors, and their boat (which Pelsaert described as a champan) would appear to have been one of the jerry-built small craft constructed on Batavia’s Graveyard from driftwood. An ocean voyage—had they attempted it—would almost certainly have killed them.

Had the mutineers remained where they were, however, they could not have avoided making contact with the local people for long. Pelsaert had foreseen this eventuality and had taken care to provide the men with beads and “some Nurembergen”—the cheap wooden toys that the German town of Nuremberg was famous for even then—“as well as knives, bells and small mirrors” made of iron and copper, which the Dutch knew, from their experience with the Bushmen of the Cape, were highly prized by “savages.” Loos and Pelgrom were advised not to be too ready with their limited supplies of gifts—“give to the Blacks only a few until they have grown familiar with them”—but to treat the local people with trust and consideration. “If they will then take you into their Villages,” the commandeur’s instructions went on,

“to their chief men, have courage to go with them willingly. Man’s luck is found in strange places; if God guards you, you will not suffer any damage from them, but on the contrary, because they have never seen any white men, they will offer all friendship.”

Whether or not the two mutineers took Pelsaert’s advice is a matter for conjecture. Loos, who had shown in the Abrolhos that he possessed both courage and the skill of leadership, was perhaps intelligent and mature enough to have stood some chance among the Nanda. The hotheaded Pelgrom, on the other hand, was younger and considerably less stable and may well have proved a liability. The two men had been marooned without weapons of any sort and would have been easy prey for the Aborigines, whom they would have needed in order to find food. Without the goodwill of the local people they would surely have died shortly after they were put ashore, either violently or of slow starvation.

The portents for friendly cooperation between Dutchmen and Aborigines were not good. A jacht named Duyfken, which was the first Dutch ship to land men in Australia—and probably the first Western vessel to sight the continent, so far as can be ascertained—had explored the east coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria in the summer of 1606 and lost half her crew to an attack by natives. Her successors, the Arnhem and the Pera of 1623, provoked open hostility among the people of the Cape York peninsula by repeatedly attempting to seize some of the local hunters and carry them off on board the ships. The Arnhem lost 10 men to a surprise attack during this reconnaissance, including her skipper and an assistant who was “torn to pieces” by the Aborigines.

The northern coast was so removed, both geographically and culturally, from the western seaboard that it is extremely unlikely that the Nanda had any direct knowledge of these earlier encounters, but the early history of mistrust and hostility between Dutch sailors and native Australians was such that Loos and Pelgrom were unlikely to receive a warm reception. The European tendency, which the two mutineers would almost certainly have shared, was to view the Aborigines as violent, primitive, and treacherous; the Australian view (at least in the northeast of the country, where early traditions survived long enough to be recorded) was that the whites were munpitch—mischief spirits associated with the bodily remains of the recently deceased. It would be hard to imagine a less promising basis for mutual trust.

Nevertheless, Pelsaert had given Loos and Pelgrom some hope of eventual salvation by clearly stating in their instructions that they should “look out keenly” between the months of April and July, “the time that the ships make the South-Land there” in the hope of rescue, and later Dutch ships were occasionally instructed to watch out for signs of the mutineers and to take them on board them if the men themselves desired it. In 1636 a certain Gerrit Thomasz Pool was given command of two jachten, the Cleen Amsterdam and the Wesel, and a commission to explore the whole known coast of Australia; his sailing instructions reminded him that “Francisco Pelsaert having AD 1629 put ashore two Dutch delinquents, who had in due form of justice been sentenced to forfeit their lives, you will grant passage to the said persons, if they should be alive to show themselves.” Pool was killed in New Guinea, however, long before he could reach the Western Australian coast, and although Abel Tasman—sent to circumnavigate the continent*53 in 1644—was also furnished with specific instructions regarding the wreck of the Batavia, the two mutineers, and the VOC’s missing chests of money, he too turned back before reaching the Abrolhos.

Tasman’s orders made it clear that the Company’s main interest in the Batavia mutineers was the hope that they would have acquired valuable information about the interior resources of the red continent; the old tales of Beach and its limitless reserves of gold had not yet been relegated to the realms of legend. It is interesting to speculate on what the great navigator might actually have found had he ever reached the spot where the two men had been put ashore. Pelgrom and Loos would have been no more than 33 and 39 years old in 1644—assuming they had survived at all—and in 1697 the Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh found a well-made clay hut, with sloping roofs, by Wittecarra spring. It had been built in quite a different style to those usually found in the area, and it has since been suggested (on no sure evidence) that it must have been built by Dutchmen. If that is the case, it was almost certainly constructed by the two Batavia mutineers, and a landing party seeking water might conceivably have encountered Cornelisz’s men.


In the event, no real attempt was ever made—by Jan Company or anyone else—to discover what had become of the two mutineers, but Loos and Pelgrom did not remain alone in Australia for long. During its 200-year history, the VOC lost 1 in 50 of its ships outward bound, and nearly 1 in 20 on the return voyage, a total of 246 vessels. At least 3 of these ships, and possibly as many as 8 or 10, were wrecked along the western coast. A minimum of 75 more Dutchmen, and perhaps as many as 200, are known to have been cast up on the South-Land as a result.

The first of these disasters occurred in 1656, when the Vergulde Draeck,*54 a retourschip from Amsterdam, ran aground on a reef three miles off the coast and about 50 miles north of the present-day city of Perth. Sixty-eight members of the crew reached land, and three men from a rescue ship were subsequently abandoned in the same area when they ventured into the bush in search of them and became lost. At least a few of these men probably survived for some time, for a variety of apparently Dutch artifacts—from ship’s planking to an incense urn with a Chinese dragon entwined around its stem—have turned up inland from the wreck site since the ship ran aground.

The Vergulde Draeck was followed by the Zuytdorp,*55 which vanished in 1712 with all 200 of her crew. Her fate only became clear in the 1920s, when a wreck site was discovered between Kalbarri and Shark Bay, a little to the north of the Abrolhos. The ship had been forced against the same unbroken line of cliffs that had defeated Pelsaert’s attempts to find a landing spot almost 80 years earlier; she was swept onto the rocks stern first, heeled over, and quickly broke into three sections. With her bottom torn out, heavy guns and cargo wrenched loose and rolling about inside the hull, and her masts either snapped or felled, the majority of the crew were most likely crushed to death before she finally came to rest, or drowned in the heavy surf trying to get ashore. Nevertheless, about 30 men appear to have survived to make their way onto the cliffs, some of them crawling along the stumps of masts or tangles of rigging to reach land, and a few may have found their way to Wale Well, an Aboriginal encampment about 30 miles north of the wreck site with a permanent population of 200. In 1990 a team exploring the vicinity of the well with metal detectors recovered an old Dutch tobacco box lid, made of brass and engraved with a drawing of the town of Leyden, which could have belonged to a survivor from this ship.

The third and last retourschip known to have been lost in Australian waters was the Zeewijk, which went aground in the far south of Houtman’s Abrolhos in June 1727. About two-thirds of the crew of 158 survived to set up camp in the islands while a dozen men, led by the upper-steersman, attempted to sail to Java in the Zeewijk’s longboat. The longboat never arrived, and though the remainder of the crew eventually built themselves a sloop from the wreckage of their ship and successfully sailed to Java, the mystery of what had become of the longboat’s men still remains. It is just possible that they too were blown onto the South-Land.

By 1728, then, sailors from at least four retourschepen had been cast up on the Australian coast. These men found themselves stranded in an utterly alien environment, distant from everything they knew and held dear, and with absolutely no prospect of ever seeing Batavia, let alone the Netherlands, again. Few of them would have had any understanding of exactly where they were; the sheer extent of the unknown land, its harshness, its people, and its unique wildlife were all quite unknown in this period, and few of the survivors would have had any good idea of just how far away they were from safety, or of the enormous physical barriers separating them from their destination. The majority of them probably died close to the spot where they had come ashore, running out of food or water, or murdered by the local people while awaiting a rescue ship that never came. Some no doubt came to grief trying to make their way north—in the 1790s, escaping prisoners from the English penal colonies near Sydney believed that it was possible to walk from New South Wales to China in only a few weeks, and rank-and-file Dutch seamen of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries would seldom have been any better informed than that. But perhaps the most intriguing possibility of all is that a few of the survivors swallowed up in the heart of the great red continent found acceptance with the Aborigines, married into their tribes, and lived out long, undreamed-of lives somewhere inland—15,000 miles from the windmills and canals of Holland.

Hints that at least some of the men cast ashore did survive in the Australian interior have surfaced from time to time during the last 200 years. In the early days of the Swan River colony—the first permanent British settlement in Western Australia, established in 1829—reports were received of tribes of light-skinned Aborigines living along the coast. These stories resemble those of the “white Indians” often said to have been encountered in the American interior, which are generally written off as travelers’ tales. Still, in a handful of cases the evidence is at least intriguing. The explorer A. C. Gregory reported meeting, in 1848, a tribe in the Murchison River area “whose characteristics differed considerably from the average Australian. Their colour was neither black nor copper, but that peculiar yellow which prevails with a mixture of European blood.” Gregory was disappointed to discover no evidence that they possessed technology unknown to other Aborigines. Thirteen years later the Perth Gazette reported encounters with “fair complexioned” natives with “long light coloured hair flowing down their shoulders.” Men of this sort could be met with along the Gascoyne, Murchison, and Ashburton Rivers, according to a station hand named Edward Cornally; and other nineteenth-century writers also suggested that fair hair was commonplace among the Nanda peoples. Daisy Bates, a controversial Australian writer who actually lived for four decades among various Aboriginal tribes in Western and Southern Australia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, made similar observations of the people of the Gascoyne and Murchison valleys. “There is no mistaking the heavy Dutch face, curly fair hair and heavy stocky build,” she believed. Other supposedly European characteristics, such as blue eyes, great height, and a propensity to baldness, have also been attributed to the people of the same tribes.

It is difficult to know what weight to give such purely anecdotal tales, and if Bates and the other early observers were correct, the men they saw were more probably descendants of men from the Vergulde Draeck or Zuytdorp than the offspring of Loos and Pelgrom. Nevertheless, the accumulated evidence does suggest at least the possibility that these ill-matched mutineers lived on in the South-Land’s interior. The two men were thus, at least in a symbolic sense, every bit as much the founders of modern Australia as were Captain Cook and the British convicts who settled there from 1787. And, if they did survive long enough to befriend the west coast Aborigines, they may have taken local wives and outlived Pelsaert and Hayes, fathering sons whose children’s children still live, unknowing, in Australia today.


For many years, the location of both the Batavia’s wreck site and the islands where Cornelisz had established his short-lived kingdom remained almost as mysterious as the fate of the Dutch sailors washed up on the South-Land. This was hardly surprising. The Abrolhos were scarcely ever visited; the wreck itself had already all but vanished beneath the waves by the time Pelsaert left the islands; and even in the seventeenth century there would have been relatively little sign that the murderous events described in the commandeur’s journals had ever taken place.

The Batavia’s story itself was too bloody and dramatic to be forgotten quickly; it was kept alive, in the Dutch Republic at least, by books and pamphlets in the seventeenth century, and in travel narratives and histories of the Indies in the eighteenth. Ariaen Jacobsz’s feat in navigating the ship’s longboat all the way to Java was remembered, too—though ironically the little boat’s progress from the Abrolhos to the Sunda Strait was marked as the “Route de Pelsart” on the world maps drawn by Guillaume de l’Isle between 1740 and 1775. Nevertheless, by the early nineteenth century recollections of the events of 1629 had faded. Jeronimus Cornelisz was little more than a half-forgotten nightmare, and the Batavia’s wreck site had been completely lost.

It was not until 1840, when Houtman’s Abrolhos were finally charted by a Royal Navy hydrographic survey, that public interest in the Batavia was rekindled. The surveying work was conducted by Lieutenant Lort Stokes, RN, sailing in Charles Darwin’s old ship HMS Beagle, and it was only at this late date that the archipelago was definitely shown to fall into three distinct groups, stretching north to south for a total of about 50 miles. Stokes had read accounts of the voyages of the Dutch East India Company and was aware that both the Batavia and the Zeewijk had been lost somewhere in the Abrolhos, so his interest was naturally piqued by the discovery of ancient wreckage on a large island in the southernmost group. “On the south-west part,” he wrote,

“the beams of a large vessel were discovered, and as the crew of the Zeewyck  . . . reported having seen the wreck of a ship in these parts, there is little doubt that the remains were those of the Batavia . . . . We, in consequence, named our temporary anchorage Batavia Road and the whole group Pelsart Group.”

The island on which the ancient wreckage was discovered was given the name Pelsart Island, and the spot at which the timber was discovered—the debris consisted of “a heavy beam of timber with a large iron bolt through it, [which] on the slightest touch soon dwindled down to a mere wire from corrosion,” together with “a row of small glass demijohns*56 which, having stood there for the past 210 years, were half buried in the soil that had been accumulated around them and filled to about the same depth with the debris of insects and animals that had crawled in and perished”—was called Wreck Point. Proceeding north, Stokes named the middle islets the Easter Group, because he came upon them on Easter Sunday, 1840, and the most northerly part of the archipelago the Wallabis, after the marsupials that were found only on the two largest islands in the group.

Thus—at least so far as the public was concerned—the mystery of the Batavia’s last resting place had been solved, and the identification of Pelsart Island as the place where Cornelisz and the others had been wrecked was generally accepted for a further century. It was only when full accounts of the mutiny began to appear in English—a translation of one seventeenth-century pamphlet on the subject was published by a Perth newspaper in 1897—that the first doubts arose, as the geography of the Pelsart Group made it impossible to fix the positions of Seals’ Island, Wiebbe Hayes’s Island, or the High Island at all satisfactorily if Pelsart Island was assumed to be Batavia’s Graveyard. In 1938 a newspaper expedition led by a journalist named Malcolm Uren attempted to tackle this conundrum by positing that Gun Island, the most northerly island in the Pelsart Group, had actually been Jeronimus’s headquarters. Even this explanation, however, seemed to stretch the facts set out in the commandeur’s journals to breaking point, and Uren and his colleagues were forced to consider the possibility that the wreckage seen by the Zeewijk’s men might not have come from the Batavia at all. It could have been part of one of several Dutch retourschepen that had gone missing in the Indian Ocean over the preceding decades—perhaps the Ridderschap van Holland*57 (1694), the Fortuyn*58 (1724), or the Aagtekerke*59 (1726).

The confusion persisted until the early 1960s, when the Batavia’s wreck site was finally rediscovered. The first person to recognize that the ship must lie elsewhere in the Abrolhos was a novelist, Henrietta Drake-Brockman, whose thoughts on the subject were published between 1955 and 1963. Drake-Brockman’s interest in Batavia stemmed from her early friendship with the Broadhurst family, which had long held concessions allowing it to mine for guano on the Abrolhos. In the course of their excavations, the Broadhursts had unearthed an extensive collection of Dutch artifacts in the Pelsart Group of islands—old bottles, pots and cooking utensils, as well as a pistol and two human skeletons—which they thought must have come from the Batavia. Cornelisz’s story had enthralled Drake-Brockman as a child, and when she grew up she undertook her own research, corresponding with archives in the Netherlands and Java. It was Drake-Brockman who was the first to point out that, since Francisco Pelsaert had clearly seen and described wallabies during his time in the Abrolhos, the Batavia must have been wrecked in the Wallabi Group, almost 50 miles north of the position suggested by Lort Stokes. The approaches to the group were guarded by three large coral shoals, the Morning, Noon, and Evening Reefs. The novelist initially suggested that the wreck of the Batavia would be found somewhere on Noon Reef, in the middle of the group.

Drake-Brockman’s views, which were first advanced in an article published in 1955, were not widely accepted at first. But in the years following the Second World War, the Abrolhos became an important crayfishery, and fishermen began to set up temporary homes on the islands of the Wallabi Group. In 1960 one of them, O. “Pop” Marten, was digging a posthole on Beacon Island, an islet two miles east of Noon Reef, when he uncovered a human skeleton. A visiting doctor confirmed that the bones were human, and before long two policemen had arrived from Geraldton, on the mainland, and taken the remains away in a cardboard box for examination. At about the same time, Marten found a “pewter utensil” lying near his posthole. It turned out to be the bell of a trumpet made by Conrat Droschel, a seventeenth-century German instrument maker who had lived in Nuremberg. The pewter bore an inscription that not only named Droschel, but also gave the date that the trumpet had been made: MDCXXVIII, or 1628. It was the first clear evidence that unexceptional Beacon Island was actually Batavia’s Graveyard.

Marten’s finds aroused a certain degree of interest. Hugh Edwards, a Perth newspaperman who was also an experienced skin diver, mounted a small expedition to the islands, searching unsuccessfully for evidence of the wreck along the reefs, and other fishermen working in the Abrolhos were alerted to the possibility that the wreck of a famous East Indiaman might be close nearby. But it was only three years later, in June 1963, that the wreck of the Batavia was positively identified.

The discoverers were Dave Johnson, another Abrolhos fisherman, and a diver from Geraldton named Max Cramer. Johnson had actually stumbled across the wreck late in 1960, while setting lobster pots. Over the next three years he returned to the site several times and searched it from the surface using a water glass, locating a quantity of ballast blocks and what looked like the remains of cannon scattered on the bottom. Digging a hole one day near the asbestos-walled shack he had built on Beacon Island, he also found another human skull. Johnson kept these discoveries to himself until Cramer and his brother arrived in the Abrolhos to hunt for the wreck. Then he decided to share his information and took the divers out to the wreck site in his boat. On 4 June 1963—334 years to the day since the retourschip had gone aground in the archipelago—Max Cramer became the first man to dive on the Batavia.

She lay on the southeastern end of Morning Reef, about two miles from the spot suggested by Henrietta Drake-Brockman, in 20 feet of water. With the help of Johnson and about 20 other Abrolhos crayfishermen, Cramer managed to salvage a large bronze cannon. It bore the mark of the VOC and the letter “A,” indicating that it had once belonged to the Company’s Amsterdam chamber. This discovery was enough to persuade most people that the right ship had been found. Hugh Edwards organized another expedition, this one with the backing of the Western Australian Museum and the Royal Australian Navy. Soon Morning Reef began to yield its secrets.

The salvage divers found the Batavia lying in a shallow depression in the reef. All of her upperworks had gone, and what remained of the hull was thickly covered by coral concretion. “Over the years,” wrote Edwards,

“the sea had dug a grave for the old ship. It started with the gully grooved when her keel ran up into the coral with the crash that threw Francisco Pelsaert from his bunk on that June 4th morning before daylight. The sea had enlarged, scoured, and eaten at the edges of the gash until, by the time that we arrived, there was hollowed a hole in the shape of the ship, 200 feet long, and 12 feet deep. Now the main wash of the waves passed with eddies and swirls and white, confused foam over the top of the hole, and the skeletal Batavia lay partly protected from the main surges and the storms . . . . In the bottom of this hollow lay the bronze cannon, the spiked, 12-foot anchors—she had been carrying eight spares, as well as bow and stern anchors—and wonderful buried things, which we would excavate from beneath the protecting crust of reef which covered what remained of the crushed and flattened hull.”

It took more than a decade to complete the work of salvaging the wreck, but in the end a huge quantity of material was recovered from the reef and the surrounding islands. The most spectacular finds included a large portion of the stern, still almost intact after more than three centuries in the sea; 15 more of the cannon that Jan Evertsz and his men had tipped overboard on 4 June 1629; and the 137 giant sandstone blocks, carried as ballast, that together made up a portico for the castle at Batavia. A wide variety of other artifacts were also salvaged: apothecary’s jars and a surgeon’s mortar, probably once the property of Frans Jansz; stinkpots, grenades, and shot for the guns; the heel of a silk stocking; and coins from the money chests Pelsaert had left behind. There were more personal items, too: a quantity of Ariaen Jacobsz’s navigation instruments; some of the silverware the commandeur had ordered specially to sell to the Emperor of India, including a triangular salt cellar and a set of silver bedposts; and an engraved stamp that had once been used to seal correspondence. It bore the initials “GB” and must once have belonged to the predikant, Gijsbert Bastiaensz. Today, these pieces can be seen among the Batavia artifacts on display in the Western Australian Maritime Museum in Fremantle. The centerpieces of the collection are the retourschip’s stern—raised, carefully conserved, and reconstructed—and the castle portico, reassembled for the first time in nearly 400 years into a gateway more than 25 feet high.

On rough days, when diving on the wreck was impossible, the members of the Edwards expedition scoured the islands of the Wallabi Group for more evidence of the Batavia survivors. They had limited success. There was virtually nothing to find among the coral rubble, but Edwards and his companions did identify Long Island as Pelsaert’s Seals’ Island, and a year later, on West Wallabi, about five miles due west of Beacon, they succeeded in locating the remains of Wiebbe Hayes’s dwellings.

As early as 1879, a surveyor named Forrest had noted the existence of two rectangular “huts” on the island, and both can still be seen today. One was just inland from the sea, close to a feature known as Slaughter Point and in a commanding position overlooking the approaches from Batavia’s Graveyard and Seals’ Island. The other was further inland, in the middle of a flat limestone plain toward the center of the island. Both “huts” are built from coral slabs, which lie piled in a half-haphazard fashion to a height of about three feet. The structure closest to the sea has an internal wall, which divides it into two “rooms” of roughly equal size. It is quite large—almost 30 feet from end to end—and (at 6 feet) broad enough to allow the average Dutchman of Pelsaert’s time to lie stretched out inside it. With sailcloth added as a roof, the “hut” could conceivably have housed somewhere between 12 and 20 men. The inland structure is more simply built. It has one room, nearly square in shape, and—unlike its companion—it has an entrance on one side. Although its setting seems desolate at first glance, it has actually been placed only a few yards from one of the island’s largest wells.

Excavations at the coastal site unearthed fragments of Rhenish stoneware, iron fishhooks, and a ladle that had been crudely fashioned from a sheet of lead. One piece of ancient pottery bore the shield of Amsterdam and established that this building, at least, had been the work of Wiebbe Hayes. It had been positioned with a soldier’s eye, guarding the middle of a bay, so that attempts to approach it could have been detected while the attackers were still miles away. Once they had come ashore, Jeronimus’s mutineers would still have had to scale a small rock face, six feet high, to leave the beach and reach the structure. Hayes and his men, who occupied the high ground, would have had a good chance of defending it.

All this has led to the suggestion that the coastal “hut” was actually a fort, built to protect the Defenders from the muskets carried by the mutineers. Certainly its coral walls are nowhere broken by a doorway, and the building seems to have been permanently manned. Nearby, the explorers found two fire pits and a large quantity of charred animal bones from wallabies and sea lions—enough, they reckoned, to have fed a group of 40 men for about three months.

The inland structure is the more controversial of the two. It is built on bedrock, making it impossible to excavate, but careful sifting of the surface debris around it has failed to turn up any evidence of Dutch occupation. Some have argued it was built only in the late nineteenth century; Lort Stokes, in 1840, took water from the well nearby without apparently noticing any sign of a building, and old fishermen, questioned in the 1960s, recalled seeing the hut in use by guano diggers around 1900. Those who prefer to think it dates from the seventeenth century point out that surveyor Forrest noted its existence in 1879, before organized guano mining on West Wallabi began. One piece of circumstantial evidence seems to connect it to Hayes: although the inland structure cannot be seen from its companion near the coast, a cairn of coral slabs has been discovered midway between the two. Both structures are clearly visible from its summit, so perhaps the cairn was built to permit signals from the coastal fort to be sent inland. Whatever the truth, though, and no matter what the controversy concerning the inland hut, the provenance of the coastal structure now seems well understood. The untidy pile of coral slabs is, in fact, the first evidence of European habitation in Australia.


In the Netherlands, the rediscovery of the Batavia led to a resurgence of interest in the East Indiaman. One of those inspired by the story of the ship was Willem Vos, a master shipwright specializing in the construction of wooden sailing boats. In the 1970s, when archaeologists from the Western Australian Maritime Museum were salvaging the Batavia’s stern from Morning Reef, Vos conceived the idea of building a full-sized reconstruction of the retourschip, a project that would provide employment for young craftsmen and help to keep alive traditional skills that were fast being lost.

The Batavia herself had been built in a little more than six months. It took Vos almost a decade simply to lay the keel of his replica East Indiaman. The early years were spent raising money—the Batavia reconstruction cost more than 15 million guilders, or $6,560,000, in excess of 150 times the price of the original—and scouring archives for contemporary plans and drawings. Working out how the VOC had built its ships proved to be at least as difficult as finding backers for the project; Dutch shipwrights of the seventeenth century put together all their craft—even East Indiamen—by rule of thumb, without the benefit of plans. Retourschepen generally conformed to the same general dimensions, which were laid down by the Gentlemen XVII, but each ship was unique and differed from its consorts in a myriad of small ways.

Eventually, Vos acquired copies of Dutch shipbuilding treatises compiled in 1671 and 1697, and these, together with earlier drawings, supplied sufficient information to plan the reconstruction with some certainty. The new Batavia’s keel was laid in October 1985 in a purpose-built yard in Lelystad, built on land reclaimed from the Zuyder Zee. Construction proceeded hesitantly at first, but gradually the modern shipwrights became more expert and, in the process, rediscovered many lost techniques that helped to illuminate the working methods of Jan Rijksen, the architect of the original Batavia. Vos and his men were thus able to provide useful information for the archaeologists struggling to reassemble the salvaged stern section in Australia—“the archaeology of reconstruction and experiment,” it has been termed—receiving details of the retourschip’s actual construction in return.

The second Batavia was launched in April 1995 and has already attracted well over four million visitors. She is perfectly seaworthy, and though she lacks the passengers, crew, and much of the equipment that would make her as packed and busy as her predecessor, going aboard provides fine insights into what life on board an East Indiaman was like. The confined spaces, the darkness below decks, the squalor of the open latrines, and the impossible discomforts of the orlop deck all come vividly to life; and, in winter, the lack of heat and proper light are only too apparent. The thought of spending between six and nine months living on her, sleeping on deck, eating cask meat, and drinking stagnant, green-tinged water is not a pleasant one.


In the years since 1960, digging on Beacon Island had revealed more skeletons. The remains of as many as 19 of the 70 or so people who are known to have died on Batavia’s Graveyard have been uncovered from three main sites. Persistent rumors suggest that local fishermen have stumbled across other graves but prefer simply to rebury any bones they find.

The known remains are telling enough. Jeronimus’s victims did not die well. With only one exception, their bodies were thrown into grave pits and buried carelessly. Many bore not just the unmistakable signs of violence, but scars inflicted by illness, injury, and malnutrition earlier in life. These skeletons bear mute testament to the privation and desperation that drove men and women to travel to the Indies in the 1620s.

Three of the bodies are male, and one is female; the rest are so undeveloped or so badly damaged that their sex cannot be determined. Seven, at least, were found in a single grave pit, into which their bodies had been tipped with little ceremony so that they lay huddled close together just below the surface. Two others, adult males, had been interred side by side a little way away, and a third—the remains of an 18-year-old—also lay nearby. This last corpse is said to have been found with a musket ball lying inside the chest cavity. If so, it ought to be the body of Jan Dircxsz, the Defender shot in the mutineers’ final assault on Wiebbe Hayes’s Island and the only person reported to have died of gunshot wounds throughout the whole course of the mutiny.

Together, the Batavia corpses represent a broad cross section of the retourschip’s passengers and crew: the oldest is that of a man (or, perhaps, a heavyset woman) aged about 40 or 45, and the youngest a child who was no more than five or six when his or her life was ended. Several of the skeletons show signs of scurvy, and many of the teeth have been scratched and scoured by the sand that found its way into the rough island diet. The young child’s teeth have been worn down by constant grinding brought on by severe stress.

Of all the bodies, the most complete and best preserved is one recovered during the original Batavia expedition. It was found by the east corner of Dave Johnson’s house on Beacon Island, buried face up in about 15 inches of soil. The remains are those of a tall man—he was only just under six feet in height—who had been somewhere between 30 and 39 when he died.*60 He must have come from a relatively poor family: the skeleton still shows growth-arrest lines of the sort caused by bouts of malnutrition, and the teeth and jaw are badly diseased, perhaps as the result of scurvy. Bony excresences cover parts of the pelvis; they seem to have been caused by a severe blow inflicted just below the stomach. The victim’s injuries had been badly treated; the man who bore them would have been in constant pain.

A detailed examination of this skeleton, carried out in 1999 by Dr. Alanah Buck, a forensic scientist from the Western Australian Centre for Pathology and Medical Research in Perth, showed that the victim had died after being struck over the head by a right-handed assailant who had stood almost directly in front of him to deliver the attack. A single vicious blow, apparently inflicted with a sword, had left a two-inch cut mark on the victim’s skull. The resultant concussion may have been severe enough to kill; at the very least the wound would have caused unconsciousness and profuse bleeding. As there are no traces of damage to the bones of the forearm of the sort typically inflicted on a man who dies protecting his head and face, it would appear that the victim was unable to defend himself. He may have been restrained by several of Cornelisz’s men, or taken by surprise. If he survived the initial assault at all, he was most likely stabbed to death or had his throat cut while he lay stunned.

The dead man’s identity remains something of a mystery. One possibility is that he was Jacop Hendricxen Drayer, who was killed because Jeronimus thought him half-lame and thus useless. The skeleton shows that the victim’s pelvic injury had never healed properly, and the man who bore it would certainly have limped. But the wounds found on the body do not tally with those mentioned in Pelsaert’s journal, which describes how Jan Hendricxsz “struck two knives to pieces” on Drayer’s chest, and two more in his neck, before cutting his throat. This skeleton shows no sign of the nicks and scratches to the ribs and vertebrae that such a violent assault must surely have caused.

The remains of three other Batavia skeletons, examined by Buck and a forensic dentist, Dr. Stephen Knott, suggest that many of Jeronimus’s victims underwent still more terrifying deaths. One man in his early 30s had been struck a massive upward blow with a wooden club or axe handle. The impact had been absorbed by two of his front teeth; one of the canines had been forced more than an inch up through the jaw and into the nasal cavity. The right upper incisor next to it had been smashed and twisted up through 90 degrees, so the cutting edge now faced straight out from the mouth. The victim had then been finished off with another blow to the side of the head, heavy enough to open up the sutures joining the fused skull plates and cause immediate unconsciousness and death.

The second victim was a girl aged 16 or 18 who had suffered severely from the effects of malnutrition in her youth. She had been struck a glancing blow across the top of her skull with a sharp, light-bladed instrument—possibly a cutlass. The attack probably came from behind, and the blade sliced off a thin sliver of skull. The girl would have been knocked unconscious but not killed; possibly she had been fleeing her assailant, who was unable to get in a lethal blow, or perhaps the man trying to kill her hesitated for some reason as he struck her. This interpretation of events might suggest that the victim was Mayken Cardoes and the attacker Andries Jonas, but the Batavia journals state that Cardoes was finished off by Wouter Loos, who caved her skull in with an axe, and these remains bear no sign of such an assault. In the absence of any other obvious wounds it is not possible to say how the girl, whoever she was, actually died; she may have been strangled, stabbed, or drowned. All that can be said for certain is that, once again, there are no signs she was able to protect herself.

The skull of the third victim, now on display in the maritime museum at Geraldton, displays the most extensive wounds of all. It too was dug up close to Johnson’s house—so close, in fact, that the remainder of the skeleton still lies in the foundations. The skull appears to be that of a man in his late thirties who had been hit a sweeping, horizontal blow across the back of his head with a small axe. The blow cut right through the bone, forcing fragments into the brain, and this initial assault could well have proved fatal in its own right, but as the victim fell forward—or was pushed—his attackers had made certain he was dead by delivering two more blows. Both were aimed at the middle of the occipital region, breaking through the thickest part of the skull and exposing the brain membrane. Death would have followed quickly, almost certainly as the result of heavy loss of blood.

The Geraldton skull has been tentatively identified as that of Hendrick Denys, the assistant clubbed to death by Jan Hendricxsz on the same night that the predikant’s wife and children were murdered; the wounds match those mentioned by Pelsaert in the journals, and Denys could well have been in his late thirties, as was the owner of the skull. In the autumn of 1999, Stephen Knott built up a clay approximation of the victim’s face using established forensic techniques. The reconstruction shows the heavyset, strong-jawed face of a once-handsome man, reduced somewhat in stature by emaciation. The features have been deliberately made rather regular; modeling a dead man’s nose, ears, and lips can only be a matter of guesswork, and since the Geraldton skull lacks a jaw, another Beacon Island mandible has been substituted for it. Nevertheless, Knott’s work had revealed, for the first time, the near likeness of a man who sailed with Pelsaert and Cornelisz on the Batavia. Without his seventeenth-century hair and clothing, Denys—or whoever he once was—has acquired an oddly contemporary look. It is difficult to imagine him as he must have been on the night of 21 July 1629: cold, hungry, scared, unarmed, and hiding in his tent from a man wielding an axe.


Pelsaert gave conflicting accounts of the final death toll in Houtman’s Abrolhos. In his report to the Gentlemen XVII, written midway through December 1629, he suggested that Jeronimus and his followers had killed 124 men, women, and children, and in another letter “more than 120.” A more detailed but undated note, preserved in the VOC archives, reduces this figure to 115: 96 men and boys who were “employees of the VOC,” 12 women, and 7 children.

The latter total is probably more correct, but it is horrifying enough.*61 The dead were often those least able to defend themselves—all but two of the children from the Batavia were killed, and almost two-thirds of the women—and the protracted slaughter in the Abrolhos was without parallel in the history of the VOC. Worst of all, perhaps, the victims were mostly dispatched by people whom they knew, acting on the orders of men whose reasons, even today, seem almost impossible to comprehend.

Pelsaert was inclined to blame the skipper for a good deal of what took place in the archipelago. He saw Jacobsz as the main instigator of the planned mutiny on the Batavia and Cornelisz as the man who edited Jacobsz’s thoughts and deeds, and “moulded their similar intelligences and feelings into one.” Nevertheless, the skipper could hardly be held personally responsible for what took place in his absence, and even the commandeur had to agree that it was Jeronimus who had organized and led the slaughter in the Abrolhos. Pelsaert seems to have been tormented by his inability to understand what drove Cornelisz to such a course of action, and in his journals he several times refers to the under-merchant as a “Torrentian” or an “Epicurean,” as though this explained his actions. It would be interesting to know exactly what the commandeur meant by these terms, since he does not define them, but the writer seems to employ the two words interchangeably to indicate a man who thinks that self-gratification is the highest good and indulges his impulses and whims irrespective of the rights of others. Because the journals contain no transcripts of the interrogations, it is impossible to know whether Cornelisz himself ever claimed to be a disciple of Torrentius, and the words Torren-tian and Epicurean may simply have been vague labels applied by Pelsaert—a sort of shorthand that conveyed more in 1629 than it does now. On the other hand, Antonio van Diemen also thought that Jeronimus had been “following the beliefs of Torrentius” in the archipelago, and though the councillor could have picked up this opinion from the commandeur, an anonymous sailor from the Batavia did observe that Cornelisz was “claimed to have been a follower of Torrentius” while he was still on Batavia’s Graveyard.

If Jeronimus did indeed attempt to live by Torrentius’s philosophy, all that can be said with any certainty is that he badly misrepresented his friend’s opinions. Not much is really known of Torrentius’s clearly heterodox views, though—as we have seen—he was, perhaps, an Epicurean himself, and probably a Gnostic. It would certainly be wrong to identify the painter with the Rosicrucians or the Libertines; Torrentius may not have believed literally in the stories in the Bible, and denied (as did Cornelisz) the reality of hell, but there is no evidence that he shared Jeronimus’s belief that everything that a man did, including murder, might be ordained by God. It would be unfair to place the blame for what happened in the Abrolhos at his feet. Indeed, all attempts to explain the Batavia mutiny in terms of philosophy are doomed to failure, for they fail to explain why the under-merchant was so indifferent to the suffering of others. The answer to that question seems to lie within Jeronimus’s mind itself.

We know far too little about the Haarlem apothecary to reconstruct his character completely. Nothing at all has survived concerning Jeronimus’s childhood; his adult years in Haarlem are illuminated only by his infrequent dealings with solicitors; and the records of the voyage of the Batavia,though far more detailed, are inherently unreliable. The Cornelisz of Pelsaert’s journals is undoubtedly a monster, but his personality, as revealed to us, is filtered through Deschamps’s summaries of Pelsaert’s questioning. Much of what the under-merchant had to say in his own defense  was not recorded, and some of the testimony was extracted under torture. Jeronimus, moreover, had every reason to mislead his interrogators when he could, and it would be unwise to take anything that he said at face value. In most respects, therefore, Jeronimus Cornelisz remains a mystery today, just as he was in 1629.

Little is definitely known, for instance, about his personality. He was obviously intelligent; he could not have qualified as an apothecary if he did not have a good memory and a sharp mind. He was well educated, and his languages were good—he must have spoken not only Dutch but Latin, and perhaps Frisian, too. He had a quick tongue, and he could often be good company: “Well spoken,” Pelsaert called him, and skilled at getting on with people; the sort of man who would make a good companion on a long ocean voyage.

But Cornelisz used his superficial charm to ingratiate himself with others and then to manipulate them. Gijsbert Bastiaensz’s account of the under-merchant’s execution agrees with Pelsaert’s in stating that the other mutineers condemned their former leader as a “seducer of men,” and there can be no question that Jeronimus was adept at using others to achieve his aims. Yet he was also weak and thoroughly incompetent in key respects. He shrank from the prospect of physical violence—his only victim on Batavia’s Graveyard was a defenseless baby—and he put up no resistance when he himself was captured. He was a poor judge of other people’s character; at home in Haarlem he had hired an insane midwife and a diseased wet nurse for his wife, and in the Abrolhos he badly underestimated Wiebbe Hayes. Moreover, Cornelisz showed little enthusiasm for making detailed plans and rarely thought ahead in any but the most general terms. It may be that this weakness first manifested itself in his mismanagement of his failed apothecary’s shop, but it was certainly in evidence on Batavia’s Graveyard, where the mutineers neglected to guard their boats, gave Hayes’s Defenders more than two weeks to prepare for an attack, and failed to bring their superior weaponry to bear on them with decisive effect. Jeronimus’s strategy was disastrous, yet he displayed such a bloated sense of his own self-worth that he promoted himself to the post of captain-general, dressed in outlandish uniforms, tried to seduce Creesje Jans, and ventured—fatally—onto Wiebbe Hayes’s Island with such a tiny bodyguard that he was captured without difficulty.

Other facets of the under-merchant’s personality are not mentioned in the journals but may be inferred nonetheless. Cornelisz appears to have been impulsive and easily bored; many of the murders that took place in the Abrolhos, particularly the later ones, were ordered on a whim. The sufferings of others had no apparent effect on him; he stood and watched as people died, ignoring all their pleas for mercy. Freed of normal constraints by the wreck and the departure of the ship’s officers, Jeronimus took to living by his own moral code. It may well be that he adopted the tenets of the Libertines not out of any religious conviction, but because they mirrored the feelings he already had.

Seen from this perspective, Jeronimus Cornelisz was almost certainly a psychopath: a man devoid of conscience and remorse, living his life free from the shackles of normal self-restraint. Though years of casual usage have stripped the word of much of its meaning—so that any violent criminal now tends to acquire the label—true psychopaths are not evil men incapable of self-control. On the contrary, they are always chillingly in command of their emotions. What they actually lack is empathy: the capacity to either understand or care what other people feel.

Dr. Robert Hare of the University of British Columbia, who developed the “Psychopathy checklist” widely used today to diagnose the syndrome, notes that:

“Most clinicians and researchers know that psychopathy cannot be understood in terms of traditional views of mental illness. Psychopaths are not disorientated or out of touch with reality, nor do they experience the delusions, hallucinations or intense subjective distress that characterise most other mental disorders. Unlike psychotic individuals, psychopaths are rational and aware of what they are doing and why. Their behaviour is the result of choice, freely exercised.”

A psychopath, in other words, understands the distinction between right and wrong. He robs or hurts or kills not because he does not know what he is doing but because he does not care that his actions have consequences for other people. A convicted psychopath thus goes not to a mental hospital, but to prison.

The psychopath’s inability to feel guilt is his most distinctive trait. Ordinary criminals operate within the parameters of a well-defined code of conduct; they may reject everyday society, but they are still constrained by a sense of what is right and wrong. Such men may, for example, never hurt a woman or a child, or go to prison rather than betray a colleague to the authorities. Psychopaths simply do not think this way. A man afflicted with the syndrome will transgress all accepted boundaries if it benefits him to do so. He will rob his parents and abandon his own wife and child without feeling remorse.

Other relevant symptoms of psychopathy include glibness and superficiality, impulsive behavior, and the lack of any sense of responsibility. Psychopaths are deceitful and manipulative people; they like to exercise power over others. Most possess good social skills and can be highly persuasive, even though they also lie “endlessly, lazily, about everything.” They remain characteristically unperturbed when their deceits are exposed; if one lie is disposed of, they will simply spin another, often unrelated, to take its place. They lack the capacity to plan ahead, preferring grand fantasies to realistic short-term goals. Above all, as Hare explains,

“psychopaths have a narcissistic and grossly inflated view of their self-worth and importance, a truly astonishing egocentricity and sense of entitlement, and see themselves as the centre of the universe, as superior beings who are justified in living according to their own rules.”

A psychopath behaves this way because he lacks the range and depth of feelings that other men experience. He appears cold and unfeeling. Though he may well be capable of brief outbursts of emotion, “careful observers are left with the impression that he is play-acting and that little is going on below the surface.”

Plainly Jeronimus displayed many of these symptoms. His practiced tongue and agile mind, his grandiose plans, and his manipulations were all characteristic of the psychopath. He appears to have been impulsive and was frequently betrayed by his inability to plan ahead. At no point in Pelsaert’s account of the mutiny, moreover, is there any indication that Cornelisz felt genuine remorse for what he had done. On the contrary, Jeronimus continued to justify his actions all the way to the gallows.

True, not everything that the captain general said or did fits the psychopathic profile. Few psychopaths would have waited for nearly two weeks to impose themselves on Creesje Jans, and most would have actively participated in the slaughter that occurred in the Abrolhos. But Pelsaert’s journals and the predikant’s letter are patchy sources at best, and they may neglect to mention other incidents that might confirm the diagnosis. All in all, the evidence points strongly to the conclusion that Jeronimus was psychopathic.

Why he was a psychopath is much harder to explain. There is little consensus, even today, as to whether such men are born or made. Some psychologists believe that psychopathy is actually a form of brain damage, others that it manifests itself in early childhood, the consequence of a wretched upbringing. All that can be said with any certainty is that the syndrome was considerably less common in the seventeenth century than it is now. Modern estimates imply that as many as 1 in every 125 present-day Americans are psychopaths of one sort or another—a total of two million across the country, and 100,000 in New York alone. But the same surveys suggest that China has many fewer psychopaths than the United States, and that psychopathy flourishes best in societies where stress is laid on individual freedom and instant gratification. If this is true, the syndrome is unlikely to have been common in the Dutch Republic of the Golden Age, which placed such powerful emphasis on conformity and the notion of good citizenship. Most of the people on the Batavia would surely never have encountered someone in whom the major traits of psychopathy were present to such a remarkable degree. Cornelisz was an exceptionally unusual character for his time.

Even before he boarded the retourschip, moreover, Jeronimus would have been beyond help. There has never been a “treatment” for psychopathy, for those who suffer from the syndrome “don’t feel they have psychological or emotional problems,” says Hare.

“They see no reason to change their behaviour to conform to societal standards with which they do not agree. [They] are not ‘fragile’ individuals. What they think and do are extensions of a rock-solid personality that is extremely resistant to outside influence . . . . Many are protected from the consequences of their actions by well-meaning family members or friends; their behaviour remains relatively unchecked and unpunished. Others are skilled enough to weave their way through life without too much personal inconvenience.”

Even if Jeronimus had somehow survived the journey east, therefore, his behavior would not have changed. He would have remained cold, calculating, and ruthless for the remainder of his life. Psychopaths may learn to modify their behavior, having recognized that they can make their own lives easier by doing so, but they do not “recover.” They never get better. They cannot be cured.


One unanswered question still remains: what drove Jeronimus to act as he did on the Batavia? From what we now know of his psychopathy, there is no reason to suppose that the apothecary boarded the Batavia with the already-formed intention of seizing the ship. He is much more likely to have conceived the idea quite impulsively, and in all probability it was indeed Jacobsz’s grumbling, at the Cape of Good Hope, that first put the thought of mutiny into his head.

Pelsaert was therefore right, in one respect, to think of Ariaen as the key figure in the story. Sailing with another skipper, or on a different ship, Cornelisz would almost certainly have reached the Spiceries without undue incident—and, once there, he could well have been successful. His psychopathy might not even have been noticed by the self-serving servants of the Company, for though Jeronimus would no doubt have tried to cheat and lie to his employers, most of them were cheats and liars, too. A psychopath, indeed, would have enjoyed certain advantages over the petty criminals who infested the Indies; given the opportunity, he would steal more ruthlessly and recklessly than any ordinary man, and with such single-mindedness that he would soon amass a fortune if not stopped. Jeronimus might, perhaps, have overreached himself and been detected and disgraced. But since he would not have had to kill anyone to achieve his aims, he would at least have avoided the appalling death awaiting him in Houtman’s Abrolhos.

Nearly 400 years have passed since then, but the islands have hardly changed in all that time. Visions of the past persist in places such as these. At dusk on an October evening, with a full moon sailing in the sky, it is still possible to glimpse Jeronimus Cornelisz in the shadows on Seals’ Island. His body hangs there, swinging in the southwest wind that first brought him to the archipelago; the noose’s knot is tight under his ear and the head has snapped grotesquely to one side. The rope groans and creaks its way across the gallows tree, but the noise it makes cannot be heard. It is drowned out by the ceaseless shrieking of the mutton birds.

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