In the early hours of 4 June 1629 the Dutch East India Company ship Batavia, with 316 people on board, was wrecked on Morning Reef in the Wallabi Group of the Abrolhos Islands just 60 km off the coast of Geraldton, Western Australia. (See map)
What followed was the most horrific mutiny in the annals of maritime history with the systematic torture, rape and murder of 125 shipwreck survivors at the hand of a religious fanatic - one of the ship's senior officers - and his followers.
On October 28 1628 the VOC East Indiamen ship Batavia sailed from Texel, in the North of the Netherlands, on her maiden journey to Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia). Seven other ships of various sizes accompanied her.
In command of the Batavia and the fleet was Francesco Pelsaert, a senior merchant. The VOC's policy of appointing a merchant to command the ship was one with which the ship's skipper Adriaen Jacobszoon did not concur. The two men were enemies from a previous journey and this attitude would play a significant part in the events that followed.
Other major characters on board the Batavia that were to play a significant part on the voyage were the Undermerchant Jeronimus Corneliszoon, an ex-apothecary, a young Lady called Lucretia van der Mijlen traveling to join her husband in Batavia, and Zwaantje Hendrix her maid. Jacobszoon tried but failed to seduce Lucretia and she became a close friend of Pelsaert. Jacobszoon instead took up with the lady's maid with greater success.
The relationship between Pelsaert and Jacobszoon became more and more acrimonious as the journey progressed to the point that Jacobszoon started to fantasize about taking over the ship and turn to a life of piracy on the high seas. This was dangerous territory yet his feelings for Pelsaert were such that he spoke about it often with Corneliszoon.
The Batavia reached the Cape of Good Hope on April 14 1629. During their stay in port Jacobszoon went on wild and violent drinking binges with Jeronimus Corneliszoon and Zwaantje. Pelsaert received complaints about Jacobszoon's behaviour and publicly dressed him down which enraged Jacobszoon even more.
Soon after the Batavia left the Cape for its journey East. During one of Jacobszoon next low moments Cornelius encouraged his fantasies and the possibility of mutiny. The plan was to commandeer the ship with the aid of specially selected key personnel, kill the soldiers, throw Pelsaert to the sharks and take control of all the treasure. This would allow them to turn the Batavia into a pirate ship, live the life of piracy on the high seas and then settle down in some safe haven in the Indies.
The Mutineers' plan was simple. They arranged for Lucretia van der Mijlen to be assaulted by several of their men. This was done to provoke Pelsaert into taking disciplinary action which in turn was the signal for the mutiny to proceed. She was able to identify one of her attackers and Pelsaert was forced to take disciplinary action.
But before he could do that the Batavia ran violently aground on a reef in the Houtman Abrolhos. All attempts to refloat her failed and she soon began to break up. The mutiny was over before it had started, or was it? Other things had to be done first.
Most of the passengers and crew and most of the food and water were ferried to nearby islands using two boats - a skiff that could hold 10 people and a yawl that could hold 23. Water was in desperate short supply on the islands. Pelsaert and Jacobszoon, realizing the problems they were facing, decided to take the two boats to search for water on the mainland.
After several attempts and not finding any water on the mainland they set sail for Batavia. All 48 people on the boats, which included most of the ship's officers, survived the trip to Batavia arriving on the 7th of July.
In Batavia, on Pelsaert's indictment, the high boatswain is arrested and executed for negligence and for outrages behaviour before the loss of the ship. Jacobszoon was arrested for negligence. The Governor General of the VOC then dispatched Pelsaert in the jacht Sardam back to the Abrolhos to rescue the treasures and survivors.
Meanwhile back at the Abrolhos the survivors, on Batavia's Graveyard, quickly ran out of water and many died of thirst. Some rain provided them with a sufficient supply for a few days. Then Jeronimus Corneliszoon arrived from the wreck site and assumed control. As undermerchant he was now the most senior officer amongst the survivors. At first there was overwhelming approval for this move - but it would not last long.
He took charge of all weapons and water and discipline. He ferried one group of 20 soldiers commanded by Wiebbe Hayes, potential rivals to his future plans, to two large islands to search for water. He left them hoping they would perish there.
Then the killings began!
With a dedicated band of murderous young men Corneliszoon 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 knife to death any of their victims that included women and children.
Their bodies were placed in mass graves!
With each killing Corneliszoon's plans to take over any rescue ship, retrieve the treasure the Batavia was carrying and begin a life of piracy on the high seas became more feasible.
Meanwhile, Wiebbe Hayes and his soldiers had found good sources of water and food on their islands. Being unaware of the murderous events on the other islands he had send pre-arranged smoke signals announcing their find. Corneliszoon must have been in two minds about this new information for though their own supply of water was running low the continued survival of the soldiers threatened his own success.
Hayes had wondered why his signals remained unanswered until escapees from the islands under Corneliszoon's reign of terror began to arrive by boat, raft, skiff or just swimming and told their stories. He realized they were under threat and that an attack was on the cards so they set about fortifying the island and making weapons of any material at their disposal. By this time the population of the island had grown to 45 which was more than Corneliszoon had under his command. Hayes trained his men in the use of their new weapons and waited for the attack.
Starting in the last week of July 1629 there were several attempts made by the mutineers to overthrow Hayes and his men. Corneliszoon tried false diplomacy and brute force but all attempts failed. Many were killed on both sides and in one of the battles Corneliszoon himself was captured. The remainder of Corneliszoon's men tried again on September 17 for, what proved to be, the last time. During the battle the rescue ship Sardam was sighted.
What followed was a race to get to the rescue ship for Wiebbe Hayes to warn the Skipper about the mutineers' plan to take the ship over and for the mutineers to fulfill their original plan. Hayes was the first to speak to the Commodore, none other than Francesco Pelsaert, and warned him of the mutineer's intentions. Pelsaert took appropriate action and....
Wiebbe Hayes fort on West Wallabi Island as it looks today.
Then the killings began!
The mutiny was over.
The mutineers were rounded up, questioned and tried in a formal court on Batavia's Graveyard.
They had murdered 125 men, women and children. To get to the truth some form of water torture was used, where necessary. Sentences were carried out on an adjoining island.
Some mutineers were hanged, including Jeronimus Corneliszoon, who first had both of his hands cut off.. Other mutineers were taken back to Batavia to face execution there.
Before leaving the Abrolhos Pelsaert sent the skipper of the Sardam, Jacop Jacopszoon, and four others in a boat to search the islands for any of the Batavia's treasures. They were never seen again, probably the casualties of bad weather.
On their way to Batavia, two mutineers, Wouter Loos, a soldier, and Jan Pelgrom de Bye, a cabin boy, were left marooned on the Australian mainland at Wittecarra Gully, near the mouth of the Murchison River, thereby becoming Australia's first European settlers.
Upon their return to Batavia, Wiebbe Hayes became a hero, was decorated by the VOC and promoted to sergeant.
Pelsaert was blamed for what happened and all his finances and belongings were seized. He died a broken man within a year.
Views of the Abrolhos
The hangings on Long Island