Built in Amsterdam in 1628 and sailing from Texel to the Dutch East Indies later that year, on the surface the Batavia was just another merchant ship heading east. What followed was a horrifying story of brutality in the name of self interest that is still remembered almost four centuries later. Commanded by Francisco Pelsaert and captained by Ariaen Jacobsz, the ship carried a huge supply of trade gold and silver, and a junior merchant named Jeronimus Cornelisz, a bankrupt pharmacist from Haarlem who was fleeing the Netherlands.
During the voyage, Jacobsz and Cornelisz conceived a plan to take the ship. On 4 June 1629 the ship struck Morning Reef near Beacon Island off the Western Australian coast. Most of the passengers and crew managed to get ashore on an island but 40 people drowned of the 322 aboard. After realising there was no fresh water and limited food on the islands, Pelsaert headed to the mainland in a 9.1m longboat, only to discover it was also without fresh water. In what is considered one of the greatest feats of navigation in open boats, Pelsaert, Jacobsz and some others took a 33 day voyage to Batavia, now Jakarta in which all survived. Batavia’s Governor General, Jan Coen, immediately gave Pelsaert command of the Sardam to rescue the other survivors, as well as to attempt to salvage riches from the Batavia’s wreck.
Arriving two months after leaving the wreck of the Batavia, what he discovered was horrifying. Cornelisz, left in charge of the survivors, realised that should the party going to the city of Batavia succeed the discovery of the planned mutiny would lead to possible executions, so he planned to hijack any rescue ship and try to find shelter somewhere remote, using the gold and silver to start a new kingdom. Opponents would need to be eliminated, however. After gaining control by sending the soldiers to nearby West Wallabi Island, under the false pretence of searching for water and then abandoning them there, Cornelisz took complete control. Over the next two months, “With a dedicated band of murderous young men, Cornelisz began to systematically kill anyone he believed would be a problem to his reign of terror, or a burden on their limited resources. The mutineers became intoxicated with killing, and no one could stop them. They needed only the smallest of excuses to drown, bash, strangle or stab to death any of their victims, including women and children”. In total, his followers murdered at least 110 men, women, and children.
The soldiers Cornelisz thought he had abandoned had in fact found good food and water supplies, and learning of what Cornelisz had done they fabricated some weapons and built a small fort. After several battles with musket-armed men sent by Cornelisz, they prevailed until Pelsaert arrived with reinforcements which together soon captured all the mutineers.
Pelsaert held trials on the islands and the worst offenders were hanged after having their hands cut off. Others were punished in Batavia, even Pelsaert not escaping as a board of inquiry decided that Pelsaert had exercised a lack of authority and was therefore partly responsible for what had happened.