The wreck of the Batavia [9 June 1927]

[Editor: An article about the Batavia, a vessel of the Dutch East India Company, which was shipwrecked off the coast of Western Australia in 1629. Published in The Capricornian, 9 June 1927.]

The wreck of the Batavia.

It is seldom realised how narrowly Australia escaped being a Dutch colony, as the first visit of British explorers (Dampier) to Western Australia was 91 years after Wytfliet published his map at Louvain in 1597. This map showed Australia separated from New Guinea by a narrow strait. Subsequent to this, the Dutch turned their attention to exploring the north and western portions of the new land, and names like Duyfken, Keer Weer; Pera and Arnhem in the charts of the Gulf of Carpentaria, and Tasman, Leeuwin, Dirck Hartogs, Nuyts, Houtman and Amsterdam on southern and western charts are a lasting monument to early Dutch exploration of a land they were never to colonise. So far did the Dutch go operating from Batavia and through the Dutch East India Company, that they sent out a fleet of 11 ships to take possession of New Holland as it was then called.

Of these one was the frigate Batavia, under the command of Francis Pelsart. She had on board a crew of about 200 men, together with passengers to the number of 100, many of whom were women and children. Not much is known of the movements of the rest of the fleet, but the Batavia came to a sudden stop on the reef system now known as Houtman’s Anrolhos. The date of her stranding was June 4th, 1629, or just 298 years ago on Saturday last. The Houtman rocks or reefs lie almost due west, 30 miles from Geraldton, W.A. They are made up of a fringe of reef rising out of about 50 fathoms of water, and enclosing a number of small reefs and two or three islands of small extent. On the eastern side is a narrow island about six miles long, but it is little more than a ridge of heaped-up coral, with a clump of stunted mangroves as a sort of a waistbelt. It was on the southern end of this that the Batavia ended her days.

There seems to have been little trouble at the actual stranding, it apparently being a tame sort of affair in which nobody got their feet wet. But the Batavia remained hard and fast, and after a while Pelsart determined to sail back to Batavia for help. He faced no small undertaking in the small boat at his disposal; but it seems to have been a habit of navigators in those days to sail great distances in cockle shells. Perhaps it appears this way because it is only of the successful ones that history has anything to say. Pelsart had not been gone long when the supercargo, Jerom Cornelis assumed charge of the whole party. Being imbued with the spirit of the time and ambitious to start a kingdom of his own, he sounded out the feelings of his fellow castaways on the subject. These seem to have been mixed, though there was strong tendency on the part of a number to wait the return of Pelsart and let him do the arranging of kingships and other trifles. But the sounding out had one effect, and this was to place the ambitious Jerom in possession of knowledge as to who were his friends and who were against him. He therefore took heart of grace, got his allies together, and among them they systematically murdered 125 of the would-be colonists. It is one way of getting rid of opponents, but it uses up too many colonists to be economical.

Having placed himself in a strong strategic position, Jerom laid in wait for Pelsart. He had planned a little surprise for the returning commander, a sort of a house warming in which Pelsart was to follow the dead 125, together with such of the crew of his vessel as elected to stand in with him and out with the mutineers. But although he had been most careful in selecting who were to know of his amiable plans, there was one man named Weybuthaps who figured that next to a live commander a dead mutineer was most desirable He therefore watched Pelsart arrive is the frigate Saardam, and got his information off his chest in time to enable Pelsart to greet Jerom and his friends with a running noose and a drop from the yard-arm. They appear to have made a job of the cleanup, as the mutiny seems to have been most efficiently stamped out. But then, the spectacle of a limp figure dangling from each yard-arm has a wonderfully steadying effect on discipline, and they seem to have had no compunction in those days to so decorate their ships.

The whole business knocked the heart out of the party of colonists, and they decided to pack up and leave for home again after they had salved some of the chests of silver from the wrecked Batavia. Rightly or wrongly, the story has been passed down that immense quantities of silver were left in the wreck, and there have been several attempts made to locate and recover it. None of them have been successful even in locating the site of the wreck.

This is a case where the greed or ambition of one man altered the trend of Australian history. Had it not been for Jerom’s attempt to grasp the sceptre and crown of his party, that Dutch settlement would, in all probability, have settled at about Geraldton. The declining seapower of the Dutch might have rendered the infant colony difficult to hold, but this is by no means certain. Western Australia was therefore lost to the Dutch because Jerom Cornelis wanted to be king of it, and was not beyond murdering half of his fellow castaways to bring it about.

The Capricornian (Rockhampton, Qld.), 9 June 1927, p. 48

Also published in:
The Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld.), 4 June 1932, p. 4 (author’s name given as “Junius”)

Editor’s notes:
salve = salvage; to rescue or recover from loss or destruction, especially regarding a ship or its cargo

[Editor: Corrected “him map” to “his map”; “tat history” to “that history”; “sustematically” to “systematically”; “Belsart arrive” to “Pelsart arrive”; “spactacle” to “spectacle”.]

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