The Batavia: a bloodcurdling tale of mutiny, mayhem & murder

One of the world’s great commercial powers in the 17th and 18th centuries – so powerful it operated on a quasi-governmental basis – the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, VOC) was a key player in the Asian spice trade. Considered by many to be the world’s first multinational corporation, the company dispatched nearly 5,000 ships to Asia between 1602 and 1796. Destined to be the stage for an epic tale of mutiny, mayhem and murder, one of those ships was the Batavia.

Batavia Replica
Photo of replica Batavia (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Built in Amsterdam in 1627-28, the Batavia was purchased by VOC to transport personnel, goods and coinage between company HQ in the Netherlands and Batavia (modern Jakarta) on the island of Java. Extremely well armed, with 24 cast-iron cannons united with a number of bronze guns, the ship had the capacity to carry over 300 people. The Batavia set sail on 27 October 1628 on her maiden voyage. It would also be her last.

There were officially 341 people on board the Batavia when she left the Netherlands, including more than 200 crew and employees of the VOC, 100 or so soldiers and a small group of civilians. The commander of the vessel was not the captain, but the VOC senior merchant, Francisco Pelsaert, with the actual captain, Adrian Jacobsz, being Pelsaert’s 2nd in command. This was VOC policy, and was not well received by some skippers employed by the company. Pelsaert and Jacobsz had a history of hostility in any event, having clashed on the homeward voyage of the Dordrecht in 1627.

Loaded with twelve chests of silver coins, as well as antiquities belonging to the artist Peter Paul Rubens, the Batavia sailed with several other ships on the voyage to Java. The fleet was not to stay together for long, however, with a violent storm separating the ships soon after leaving port. Progressing well, the ships made the Cape of Good Hope a month ahead of time. Whilst in what would one day become Cape Town, South Africa, Pelsaert gave Jacobsz a public dressing down following a drinking spree, and the animosity between the two men intensified significantly as a result.

After setting sail again, Pelsaert fell ill, and in his absence, discipline was eroded and a plot hatched by Jacobsz to take over the ship. His plan was to take over the heavily armed Batavia, killing those he didn’t need, and use the ship to hunt down other VOC vessels – whilst naturally taking possession of the huge amount of silver coins on board. His chief collaborator in this murky endeavour was one Jeronimus Cornelisz. A bankrupt pharmacist on the run from Dutch authorities due to his heretical beliefs, and VOC ‘under merchant’ on this particular voyage, Cornelisz also turned out to be a psychopath. As the vessel neared the coast of Western Australia, before her northward passage to Java, the mutiny was about to be put into action – when disaster struck.

Inaccurate longitudinal measurements often placed Dutch East India Company vessels too close to rocks off the coast of what they called Groot Zuydtlandt – the Great Southern Land. There were several VOC shipwrecks off the Western Australia coast, with Batavia undoubtedly the most famous. In large part, that fame is due to the appalling tale of horror that unfolded after she struck a reef in the Abrolhos Islands on 4 June 1629.

Of the 300+ people on board, around 40 drowned after the Batavia hit the reef, with the vast majority of passengers and crew making it to shore. Most were ferried to an island that became known as ‘Batavia’s Graveyard’, with Pelsaert, the skipper Jacobsz, senior officers and some passengers on a nearby island. After failing to find water on the mainland, Pelsaert decided that the only option was to head for Batavia in Java in one of the ship’s longboats to seek help. Those left behind were so distraught at what they believed to be their desertion by the commander, they dubbed the nearby isle, Traitor Island – a name it still bears today.

Amazingly, in one of the greatest feats of navigation in an open boat, the group successfully traversed over 3,000km, making it to Java in 33 days. Seeking to save the survivors of the shipwreck, and reclaim the cargo, Pelsaert’s return voyage, in the VOC ship the Sardam, took 63 days. In the 90 days since the commander had left the forlorn survivors of the shipwreck, much had changed.

As undermerchant, Jeronimus Cornelisz had been left in charge when Pelsaert had set off to Java. Whether it was because he feared he would be implicated in the mutiny plot, or whether it was because he was on the run due to his radical religious beliefs, Cornelisz determined to hijack the first passing ship. He realised, however, that other survivors from the shipwreck, including the contingent of armed soldiers, may well oppose his plan. Commandeering the weapons and food supplies, and having recruited about 40 men as unscrupulous as himself, Cornelisz began thinning out the numbers.

Cornelisz began by sending parties out to nearby islands. He told the members of those parties that they were vital in the mission to find food and fresh water sources, but in reality acted in the hope that they would find nothing and die. As for the poor souls that remained on the main island with Cornelisz, they would face a more immediate threat.

Batavia HistoryEngraving of the massacre that followed the Batavia shipwreck (Source: www.museum.wa.gov.au)

Looking to eradicate those who may oppose him, and those who would be a drain on limited resources, Cornelisz manipulated those he had recruited to kill members of the marooned party. Initially justifying the killings by suggesting that crimes such as theft had been committed, Cornelisz and his henchmen soon became blasé and indiscriminate in the murderous rampage, with men, women and children all fair game. The merest excuse for murder was all that was required. Allegedly, some ended up killing out of boredom. Ultimately, more than 100 of the shipwreck survivors were slain.

Cornelisz’ reign of terror was soon to end, however. Before the killings began, he had dispatched a group of soldiers led by Wiebbe Hayes to another island in hope that they would find no water or food and die. They had been told to signal Cornelisz should they find resources, and duly did so when they discovered their island could provide both food and water. The soldiers’ survival surprised and concerned Cornelisz greatly, and he at first attempted to persuade Hayes to join forces. The soldiers refused, so Cornelisz sent a force to eliminate them. Even though the soldiers did not have any weapons, they defeated Cornelisz’ men. Cornelisz then personally led a second attack with five of his men, and they were duly overpowered. Cornelisz was made captive, with his five accomplices summarily executed by the soldiers.

It was around this time that the commander of Batavia, Francisco Pelsaert, finally returned to the site of the shipwreck, more than three months after ‘deserting’ his charges. Wiebbe Hayes was first to address the senior merchant, describing exactly what Cornelisz had done. Pelsaert interrogated the mutineers, discovered the extent of the atrocities, and instantly set about summary justice.

On the 2nd of October, 1629, the chief culprits were put to death. Each man had his right hand cut off before hanged at the neck until dead – except Cornelisz, who had both hands severed before swinging from the rope. Two mutineers were left marooned on the mainland, with the rest transported back to Java for trial. These so-called ‘lesser offenders’ faced a grim, short future. Flogged, keelhauled, and dropped from the yard arm on the journey to Java as some sort of interim punishment, most were executed upon their arrival.

Cornelisz Execution
Engraving of mutineers being put to death (Source: www.executedtoday.com)

After all the executions had taken place, and the number of those murdered by Cornelisz accounted for, only 116 people of the more than 300 that had left the Netherlands aboard the Batavia on her maiden voyage were still alive. Of the survivors, different fates awaited. Wiebbe Hayes and his soldiers were rewarded for their efforts in resisting the murderous rampage of Cornelisz, with Hayes receiving successive promotions. The captain, Adrian Jacobsz, was tortured having been implicated in the original mutiny plot, but would not yield. His fate is unknown, although many believe he died in prison in Java.

As for the commander of the ill-fated mission, Francisco Pelsaert, he was punished for his failure to maintain discipline on the voyage, had his financial assets seized, and died within a year, a broken man.

One of the earliest points-of-contact between Europe and the Australian continent, the tale of the Batavia, and of the mutiny, mayhem and murder that followed her shipwreck, form a crucial part of Australian history.

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The World at War…

Strictly limited edition!
Just 1,000 issued worldwide!

The perfect partner for the highly sought after World War II Collection of Banknotes, Stamps & Coins,  sold out at super speed in 2011, Downies is delighted to present its successor – the 20th Century Wars  Collection of Banknotes, Stamps & Coins!

A hundred years of bloodshed…

A sweeping overview of one of the most devastating periods in the history of warfare, this dramatic presentation comprises an intriguing array of currency issues from nations involved in the major wars of the 20th century – World War I (1914-18), the 1917 Russian Revolution and subsequent Civil War, the Chinese Civil War (1927-50), the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), World War II (1939-45), the Cold War (1948-91) and the First Gulf War (1990-91). In highly collectable quality, with many items in perfect, unused condition, the set includes 12 banknotes, 7 coins and 30 stamps from 21 different countries!

A striking presentation…

An extremely professional presentation, the currency of each conflict is set behind archival quality plastic and housed in an embossed, hardback album comprising nine thick, sturdy pages. Beautifully illustrated, each page features an array of images from the war, and incorporates coins, stamps or banknotes, with the stamps and notes able to be removed and enjoyed ‘in the flesh’. Packed with information relating to each war, as well as the particular legal tender issues on the page, each hardcover album is housed in a sturdy, embossed outer case.

Just 1,000 sets issued!

A masterwork of military memorabilia, literally dripping with history, the 20th Century Wars Collection of Banknotes, Stamps & Coins is also extremely exclusive. A mere 1,000 sets have been issued worldwide! Given that its predecessor, the World War II Collection of Banknotes, Stamps & Coins, sold out so quickly that some of our clients were left empty-handed, we must recommend immediate action. Our limited allocation is sure to be overwhelmed by demand.

  • Exclusive! Limited edition just 1,000! Tiny number in Australia!
  • Includes 12 banknotes, 7 coins and 30 stamps – all in highly collectable quality
  • Each legal tender issue set behind archival quality plastic in illustrated, informative pages
  • Housed within a hardcover album in a sturdy, embossed outer case

The 20th century is largely defined by the two great global struggles of World War I and World War II. Sadly, however, these catastrophic clashes were merely the ‘highpoints’ of a century of human history that was engulfed by almost continuous conflict.

Comprising genuine, highly symbolic, official legal tender issues, the 20th Century Wars Collection of Banknotes, Stamps & Coins represents a fascinating record of this devastating period of bloodshed. Presented upon superbly illustrated pages, each packed with detailed information on the key wars of the last 100 years – WWI, WWII, the Civil Wars in Russia, China and Spain, the Cold War and the First Gulf War – the 20th Century Wars Collection of Banknotes, Stamps & Coins encompasses a whopping 30 stamps, 7 coins and 12 banknotes. Authentic artefacts of an horrific era of conflict – where major advances in the field of military technology only served to worsen the rate of casualties – each official legal tender issue found in this spellbinding presentation has a fascinating tale to tell.

From the last Hammer & Sickle coins of the USSR to the militaristic banknotes of communist Mozambique, from the Ho Chi Minh banknotes of Vietnam to the USA’s voluminous array of military commemorative stamps – to name but a few – every element of this outstanding collection forms a rich insight into the course of warfare during the 20th century.

A picture tells a thousand words they say, and this theory is potently illustrated by the art of propaganda – the means for the dissemination of often misleading information. It is easy to create a picture – but how do you ensure that your picture is seen by those you wish to see it? Throughout history, the world’s rulers have found the answer in official currency.

Whether conveying legitimate or misleading information, propaganda is never more important than during times of conflict. With the invention of the postage stamp in the mid-19th century, and the proliferation of official banknotes from the start of the 20th century, nations across the globe were armed with a three-pronged medium of propaganda. During the extraordinary variety of wars fought throughout the 20th century, virtually every government took advantage of official coins, stamps and banknotes as an effective means of propaganda.

Whether to extol the virtues of the issuing nation, or perpetuate myths about the enemy, official currency played a key role in getting messages across to the often beleaguered population of a country at war. Cheap to produce, colourful and used by millions of people, stamps were particularly useful in this regard – as illustrated by the great variety of fiercely propagandistic philatelic issues found in this outstanding presentation.

The Hitler Head and Swastika stamps of Nazi Germany, the Saddam Hussein portrait banknotes of Iraq, Canada’s ‘V’ for ‘Victory’ 1945 5c, the USSR’s Cold War stamps & notes, Fascist Spain’s vainglorious Franco stamps… the 20th Century Wars Collection of Banknotes, Stamps & Coins provides a compelling insight into the importance and widespread use of official legal tender as propaganda.

20th Century Wars Banknote, Coin & Stamp Collection Album is now available to purchase online from Downies.com!