The Shipwreck of the Batavia: A Tale of Mutiny and Murder
The Shipwreck of the Batavia: A Tale of Mutiny and Murder

The Shipwreck of the Batavia: A Tale of Mutiny and Murder

Wyatt Redd - November 5, 2017

During the 17th century, the average European viewed the tropics as a dark and mysterious place. They were the sort of places that many feared to visit. Many tropical colonies were even referred to as the “white man’s grave” due to the high mortality among European colonizers in these places from tropical diseases like malaria.

The threat of an early grave loomed large for those who were sent to manage these far-flung outposts of empire. And surely, it must have weighed heavily on the minds of those aboard the Batavia.

Setting sail on her maiden voyage from the Netherlands to the Dutch East Indies in 1628, the ship was tasked by the East India Company to carry a load of much-needed silver to sustain the company’s operations in the colony.

The people on board were a motley collection of hard-bitten sailors, soldiers, and colonists, all under the command of senior merchant Francisco Pelsaert. The passengers and crew must have felt some fear at the idea of a long voyage to such an unforgiving environment.

What they didn’t realize is that what they should have feared most was not a disease; it was each other.

In fact, the man they should have feared most was Jeronimus Cornelisz. Cornelisz was a bankrupt pharmacist fleeing the city of Haarlem. He was hounded by accusations of associating with a heretical Dutch painter popularly known as “Torrentius.” Torrentius’s libertine lifestyle and unorthodox religious beliefs led to a trial and the persecution of his followers. We don’t know for certain that Cornelisz bought into the painter’s ideas, but we do know that he decided to flee the city within a few weeks of the trial and secured a position as under-merchant on the Batavia.

The Shipwreck of the Batavia: A Tale of Mutiny and Murder
A modern recreation of the Batavia. Wikimedia Commons

Once onboard, Cornelisz quickly struck up a friendship with the ship’s skipper, Ariaen Jacobsz. The pair bonded over their shared distaste for their commander, Francisco Pelsaert. Cornelisz and Jacobsz were both convinced that Pelsaert was a tyrant who dealt out unfair punishments on the crew. And together, they hatched a plot to remove him from command. The plan they came up with was to organize a mutiny, take command of the ship, and use the ship’s hoard of silver to start a new life somewhere far from the reach of the Dutch Navy.

The Shipwreck of the Batavia: A Tale of Mutiny and Murder
Dutch East Indies. Wikimedia Commons

Cornelisz’s plan to turn the crew against Pelsaert centered on another passenger, Lucretia Jans. Jans was one of the few young, attractive women on board and most of the crew instantly desired her, including Cornelisz. Cornelisz decided to have a group of men assault Lucretia while wearing masks, which meant that Pelsaert wouldn’t know who to punish for the attack. That would require him to discipline the crew at random, driving the men to mutiny. And so, one dark night at sea, a group of masked men prowled the decks of the Batavia, searching for their prey.


The Shipwreck of the Batavia: A Tale of Mutiny and Murder
Beacon Island. Wikimedia Commons

Lucretia survived her assault, but the attack didn’t turn out the way Cornelisz expected. Lucretia was able to identify several of her attackers and Pelsaert, who was suffering from a serious illness, never punished anyone. It’s likely that at least a few of the conspirators would have been arrested, but fate intervened. In June, the Batavia was sailing off the coast of Australia through a chain of islands called the Houtman Abrolhos. The area was largely unexplored and the dangerous coral reefs were unmapped, making navigation treacherous. On June 4, the ship struck one of these reefs and began to break up.

The survivors of the crash hurried to the lifeboats, which ferried them to nearby Beacon Island along with all of the ship’s remaining freshwater. The officers quickly realized how bleak their position was. Beacon was over two thousand kilometers from the nearest Dutch settlement. More importantly, the island was completely barren, with little to eat and no freshwater. Pelsaert knew that without help, they had little chance of surviving. The only hope was to sail one of the small, open lifeboats to the East Indies and return with help.

The plan was desperate, but with no alternative, Pelsaert and a few of the ship’s officers set off- including Jacobsz- leaving Cornelisz as the senior officer among the survivors on their island. Cornelisz, with his natural charisma and his senior rank, quickly convinced the rest of the survivors to make him their leader. He then gathered a group of men willing to follow his commands and set them to removing anyone he thought was a threat to his rule. To Cornelisz, that meant anyone whom he thought was unlikely to obey him or even just people he thought of as “useless mouths.”

He began by sending a group of these people to another island- now called Seal Island- with the false promise that they would find a source of freshwater there. Once they landed, one of Cornelisz’s men in the boat sailed away, leaving them to die. Cornelisz then gathered a group of soldiers and confiscated their weapons before sending them off to the distant West Wallabi Islands. Over the next few days, he sent the other people he wished to dispose of out in boats with some of his men. Once out of sight of the other survivors, they were then pushed into the water and left to drown.

The Shipwreck of the Batavia: A Tale of Mutiny and Murder
A depiction of the murder of the survivors. Wikimedia Commons

With control over every weapon on the island and the remaining food and water, Cornelisz had the literal power of life and death over those left. His plan was to reduce the population to around 45 people, allowing him to survive long enough to hijack a passing ship. At his command, the mutineers began to systematically murder the other survivors. With no one to stop them, they were free to indulge their worst impulses. Many of the remaining women were subjected to horrible sexual abuse and Cornelisz seized Lucretia Jans for himself. But if Cornelisz thought that he had removed every threat to his rule, he was wrong.


The Shipwreck of the Batavia: A Tale of Mutiny and Murder
A modern reproduction of an East India Company Ship. National Geographic AU

As Beacon descended into an orgy of violence, smoke began to rise from West Wallabi, where Cornelisz had banished the soldiers. Though he had expected them to die there, the men had survived. Cornelisz quickly dispatched a group of his followers to the island with orders to murder anyone they found. But the soldiers had already made contact with some of the survivors from Seal and knew what their visitors had planned. Led by a man named Wiebbe Hayes, the soldiers fought off the mutineers and sent them sailing back.

Cornelisz was now in a difficult position. The soldiers could signal any passing ships and tell them of his crimes. Cornelisz knew he had to silence them first. Rather than fight, Cornelisz decided to try deception. With four mutineers, Cornelisz landed on the island and tried to coax Hayes away from his men with an offer to trade supplies. Hayes didn’t fall for the ploy and the soldiers overwhelmed the party, killing everyone but Cornelisz. The remaining mutineers launched a final assault with their muskets to free their leader. They began to overwhelm the soldiers, but just then, as if by divine intervention, a ship appeared on the horizon.

Despite all odds, Pelsaert had managed to reach a Dutch settlement and returned at the helm of a navy vessel. With Cornelisz in custody and facing Pelsaert’s cannons, the remaining mutineers surrendered. Pelsaert then began the grim task of justice. The most severe punishments were reserved for the ring-leaders like Cornelisz. Each had their right hand chopped off with a hammer and chisel- except for Cornelisz, who had both removed- and then were hanged on a crude gallows. During the trial, Jacobsz role in the mutiny was uncovered- though not proven- and he was hauled back to the Indies, where he died in prison.

A few of the other mutineers were also taken back to the colony and keel-hauled during the voyage. Keel-hauling was a common punishment in navies of the era and involved being dragged under the ship while it sailed, allowing the sharp barnacles on the hull to shred the skin of the victim. And of course, once they arrived, they too were executed. Only two of the mutineers on the island escaped execution. Instead, they were put ashore on the coast of Australia with a few supplies, technically making the pair the first Europeans to settle on the continent.

The Shipwreck of the Batavia: A Tale of Mutiny and Murder
Human remains found on Beacon Island. WA Museum

The whole episode put a strain on Pelsaert’s already weak health. Within a year, he was dead- another corpse in the “white man’s grave.” Hayes was widely hailed as a hero and promoted, at which point he disappears from the historical record. Lucretia Jans was unfairly charged as an accomplice in the murders but was acquitted and eventually returned to the Netherlands. It’s hard to say how many people died on the island, but at least half of the people on board the Batavia perished. Even today, the mass graves of the victims are being uncovered on the island, a grim reminder of the danger that can come from unchecked power being placed in the wrong hands.