“It was sometime after 3 A.M. when the alertness of the crew was at its lowest ebb that the lookout, Hans Bosschieter, suspected that all was not well. From his position high in the stern, the sailor noticed what appeared to be white water dead ahead. Peering into the night, Bosschieter thought he could make out a mass of spray, as though surf was breaking on an unseen reef. He turned to the skipper for confirmation, but Jacobsz disagreed. He insisted that the thin white line on the horizon was nothing more than moonbeams dancing on the waves. The skipper trusted to his own judgement, and he held the Batavia’s course, sailing on with all canvas set.”
Batavia’s Graveyard:
The True Story of the Mad Heretic
Who Led History’s Bloodiest Mutiny

With a tremendous crash, the flagship of the Dutch East India Company slammed into the coral reef, its bow settling high out of the water, its 270 souls thrown about the ship’s holds like driftwood. In the darkened chaos that ensued, sailors, soldiers and passengers clambered to reach the deck. Among them was Jeronimus Cornelisz, the under-merchant for the Company, an educated, albeit bankrupt and disgraced apothecary who had signed aboard in a desperate attempt to salvage his name and standing.

The Batavia had a regular captain, Ariaen Jacobsz, as well as an upper-merchant, Francisco Pelsaert. While the captain’s word is law on most sailing vessels, the Dutch East India Company’s goal was profit. As Mike Dash relates in his exhaustively researched Batavia’s Graveyard, the upper-merchant could overrule the captain should the financial interests of the Company require it. The reason behind this arrangement was due to the vast fortunes which ships like the Batavia carried in their cargoholds. Rather than trade goods, the ships headed to Java and points east carried huge chests of silver coin, the one commodity which the locals would accept in return for nutmeg and the other spices Europe coveted. The value in today’s dollars would exceed thirt-five million.

The temptations afforded by such a vast fortune are obvious, although mutinies were relatively rare. Life aboard ship in those days was quite an ordeal. Hundreds of human bodies crowded together in small spaces, with overpowering tropical heat and freezing cold. Few sanitation amenities, no water for washing and, when the voyage was several months at sea, drinking water that was barely so. Seamen who signed aboard such voyages tended to be the dregs of the wharf. They were fed a diet of salted fish and pork, often spoiled and insect-infested. “Every sailor who made the passage to the Indies learned to tap his ration of bread [hard tack] to dislodge the insect life within. Any that remained were eaten away. Novice seamen learned to distinguish the flavors of the different species: weevils tasted bitter, cockroaches of sausage, maggots were unpleasantly spongy and cold to bite into.”

One captain became so discouraged by the vermin that he “offered his sailors a tot of brandy for every thousand cockroaches that they killed. Within days, the crushed bodies of 38,250 insects had been presented for his inspection.” Sleeping was extremely difficult, with every square inch of floor space covered with mats and bodies in suffocating enclosed areas below deck. In the case of the Batavia, however, the usual animosities amongst officers and crew were heightened by the character flaws of both the captain and upper-merchant, and the presence of Cornelisz, whose heretical theology would result in what remains to this day the bloodiest mutiny in maritime history.

The recovered hull of the Batavia. On display at the Western Australian Museum.

It is difficult to know what influences are determinative in shaping how an individual will deal with his fellow creatures, but Cornelisz was clearly an ally and confidante of those who opposed the strict Calvinist theology that predominated in the Dutch Republic. Dash traces his associations with the painter Torrentius, who was subsequently imprisoned for heresy. Torrentius, in turn, was a colleague of Geraldo Thibault, a man who ran a popular fencing club for the elite and who was not shy in dispensing his aberrant philosophies. Torrentius was fond of telling stories about how spirits came and painted on his canvasses and was reported to have toasted to the devil in local taverns.

It was with such bits and pieces of Libertine philosophy and heterodox theology that Cornelisz fashioned a personal philosophy that made him immune to the normal constraints of Christian society. All of these forces would conspire to produce a hellish result when Cornelisz discerned the weaknesses of both his captain and his upper-merchant. The two senior men would joust for the attentions of a married woman aboard ship travelling to be reunited with her husband. And when the upper-merchant overrode the captain’s wishes on one occasion, the drunken captain vowed revenge within earshot of Cornelisz. “And how would you do that?” quietly inquired the young under-merchant.

The conspiracy Cornelisz subsequently hatched with the greedy and irresolute captain grew. The under-merchant quietly recruited mutineers by observing the attitudes and opinions expressed among the crew and officers. During the long voyage, Cornelisz had become bolder in expressing his own unorthodox opinions, the basis of which he had formed in the libertine salons of the Dutch Provinces. Now, far from the constraints of the Dutch Reformed Church, he began discussions that deluded others into, at least in part, adopting his views that there was no Hell, the Bible was a book of fables and that in his own case, he knew that any action he committed was approved by God and therefore sin was impossible. Dash recounts the saga of crewmembers that participated in his outrages later making allusions to Cornelisz’s antinomian views as, in part, justification for their own heinous acts.

Massacre of the Crew from Pelsaert’s 1647 book. Courtesy State Library of Western Australia, The Battye Library

The planned mutiny was interrupted by the wreck and as the upper-merchant and captain hastily attempted to ferry the passengers and crew to a series of tiny islands spotted in the distance, Cornelisz seized his opportunity. When the upper-merchant Pelsaert and the captain left the stranded party in a small boat in hopes of reaching Java, a distance of 1,800 miles, the marooned passengers and crew found themselves scattered in several locations. Cornelisz convinced his cohorts that they should take control and murder anyone they thought might be a threat to their rule. His plan was to lure a passing merchant ship to their aid, seize it, kill the crew and embark on a life of piracy. Central to his thinking was that many of those stranded with them must be eliminated.

The Batavia had crashed on the reef on June 4, 1629. By the first week of July, the first killings had commenced. As the highest ranking person in the party, Cornelisz convened a “council” and went through the motions of appointing officers. When a man was caught pilfering, Cornelisz demanded the death sentence not only for the thief, but for a man with whom he had shared. When the council refused to execute the second man, Cornelisz disbanded the council and appointed a new council composed of fellow conspirators. Immediately thereafter, a rumor circulated on the island that two other men were talking about taking one of the boats and fleeing. Both were summarily executed. Within days, several other men loyal to the Company were lured into a boat for a scouting party, but once out of sight of the main body of survivors, these men were overpowered, tied up and drowned.

What followed in the ensuing weeks is so gruesome that it staggers the imagination, but when the mutineers were finally brought to justice, the trial transcripts reveal in sobering detail how a group of men, led by a cold and calculating heretic, created a presage to the hell their leader denied existed.

Religious services were suspended while Cornelisz demanded that the men regularly use blasphemous language. At one point, a small group of “Defenders” managed to keep themselves out of Cornelisz’s clutches by digging in on a nearby island. Cornelisz sent raiding parties to dislodge them, murdering all who they overtook. On one raid, they ran down and hacked to death a number of young cabin boys. As the bloodlust grew stronger, Cornelisz would single out people on a whim and order particular individuals to stab them to death or suffer the same fate themselves.

The sole figure in a position to stand against his influence was a humble Reformed Church predikant, or preacher, who was sailing to a mission station along with his wife and eight children. Later, the Rev. Gijsbert Bastiaenz would testify he could not have known how desperately wicked the under-merchant truly was.

Bastiaenz was a man with little formal education. He sustained his family by operating a small mill in Dordrecht where he had been on the town council. His good standing in the community was further evidenced by his service to the local courts as arbitrator. The mill had fallen on hard times during the economic depression and the preacher had purposed to go on the mission field. It would prove a costly decision.
When one of the mutineers set his designs upon the preacher’s daughter, the poor man was presented with a choice. He could consent to a “betrothal” and hand over his daughter or she would be taken in common by the mutineers. He consented, but his feeble attempts to rationalize the atrocity led to a greater atrocity. One evening, the preacher was invited with his daughter to come to dinner with Cornelisz. While the poor man sat and slowly ate, a gang of mutineers were sent to murder his wife and remaining seven children.

Despite this outrage, the unlearned Bastiaenz rationalized his acquiescence once again, this time on the pretext of saving his remaining daughter’s life. In this he succeeded, for when rescue finally came, Bastiaenz and his daughter were among the few survivors.

The effects of life on the islands was terrifying to the non-conspirators who wondered daily who would be summarily butchered, but it was taking its toll on the mutineers as well. Dash recounts the state of one Jan Polgrom, a murderous cabin boy who in the ship’s journal is described as “mocking at God, cursing and swearing, also conducting himself more like a beast than a human being.” He would range about “Come now, devils with all the sacraments, where are you? I wish that I now saw a devil. And who wants to be stabbed to death? I can do that very beautifully.”

As the standoff between mutineers and Defenders continued, both parties scoured the horizon hoping to see a sail. On one day, their vigilance was rewarded as the upper-merchant Pelsaert came sailing into view aboard the Sardam. Incredibly, he had made it to Java and was frantically looking among the islands for signs that any had survived. Both parties set out in their boats in an attempt to reach Pelsaert first. The Defenders, led by a young soldier named Wiebbe Hayes, reached the rescue party first and began to tell the awful story of what had occurred. Even as they spoke, the mutineers rowed into view. When Pelsaert saw the heavily armed men, he knew that Hayes’ men were telling the truth.

As the mutineers made an attempt to board the ship, Pelsaert ordered weapons trained upon them and forced their surrender. The incredible saga was near an end. As Pelsaert sorted out the events, he convened a court. Cornelisz was tried and executed, along with the other murderers, while still others were shackled for transport for trial back in Holland. Jan Polgrom, the mad cabin boy, was set ashore on a deserted stretch of the Australian mainland and, along with another lad, became the first European settlers of that continent. The Sardam set sail with 77 survivors, 45 of whom were Defenders. All total, Cornelisz and his men had murdered 115 men, women and children.

Replica of the Batavia. Built at the Bataviawerf (Batavia Wharf) in Lelystad, Netherlands.

At his execution, Jeronimus Cornelisz was unrepentant, refusing to confess to any wrongdoing and spurning the entreaties of the predikant. Dash quotes Pelsaert who observed the scene. “He could not reconcile himself to dying, or to penitence, neither to pray to God or to show any face of repentance over his sins . . . And so he died stubborn.” Another observer wrote, “He died as he had lived, not believing there exists Devil or Hell, God or Angel—the Torrentian feeling had spread thus far.”

The Reverend Gijsbert Bastiaenz was called to answer before Batavia’s Council of Justice to inquire whether he had done all that he could under the circumstances, and to explain how he could have sworn an oath of loyalty to a heretic (which had been required by Cornelisz as a condition of remaining alive). He was cleared by the Batavian Church Council, but Dash noted that the civil authorities objected strenuously to having a public exoneration read. The church sent him to Java where he found a wife and embarked for the Bandas Islands to continue his ministry. He died 18 months later of dysentery and was buried in an unmarked grave. His daughter Judick was married, but her husband died within three months. She married again, this time to a preacher and moved to the Spice Islands. When he also died of dysentery, Judick returned to Dordrecht where her will stated that her worldly goods should be distributed to, among others, the Reformed Church and the poor.

Batavia’s Graveyard is a remarkable feat of scholarship by Mike Dash, author of Tulipmania. Published by Random House, 2002, and available at www.amazon.com and other online booksellers.