The Historic Dutch Ship Batavia, And Its Blood-Curdling History

Sep 22, 2016 1 comments

Moored at Bataviawerf, in Lelystad, in the Netherlands, is an authentic replica of a 17th-century ship named Batavia that once belonged to the Dutch East India Company. The replica was created by master-shipbuilder Willem Vos, who carries an extraordinary mission —to reconstruct famous ships from the golden age of the Netherlands' maritime history using traditional ship-building techniques that were popular during that period. So far, he has built Batavia, while a second ship “The Seven Provinces”, is a work-in-progress.

Willem Vos originally owned a company that built wooden and polyester boats, but with modernization demand for handmade boats was falling. Once, when Vos went to the bank to ask for credit, the bank tried to belittle his company by saying that his profession belonged in a museum —and inadvertently gave him the idea for Bataviawerf.


The replica of Batavia at Bataviawerf. Photo credit: Malis/Wikimedia

Vos realized that if he could successfully build a large 17th-century ship using only 17th-century materials and methods, people would be more than willing to pay to see this kind of work in action. Willem Vos decided that he would reconstruct the Dutch merchant vessel Batavia, a project that soon developed into a unique experiment in historical shipbuilding.

The replica of Batavia was built between 1985 and 1995 using traditional materials, such as oak and hemp, and using the tools and methods of the time of the original ship's construction. Vos made extensive research of the subject using historical sources, such as 17th century ship-building descriptions and prints and paintings by artists of similar ships. Long forgotten, traditional crafts such as woodcarving, forgoing and rigging had to be re-learnt. The remains of the original ship in Fremantle, as well as the Vasa in Stockholm, provided invaluable information.

The Story of Batavia

The original Batavia set sail from the Netherland on June 4, 1629, with a crew of 332, but became wrecked on its maiden voyage off the coast of Western Australia. The survivors managed to swim to the nearby Beacon Island, but about 40 people drowned. What then played out on the tiny coral island is a fascinating tale of maritime treachery, murder and heroism that has inspired movies, books and plays.

Even before the shipwreck, a bankrupt former pharmacist named Jeronimus Cornelisz, who was fleeing the Netherlands in fear of arrest because of his heretical beliefs, had been conspiring with the ship’s captain, Ariaen Jacobsz, and other crew members, to raise a mutiny, and sail the ship away to an unknown destination which would allow them to start a new life using the huge supply of gold and silver on board. The crew tried to provoke the ship’s commander, Francisco Pelsaert, by molesting a high-ranking young female passenger. The idea was to provoke Pelsaert into punishing the crew, which would then be used as a pretext to rise in revolt. However, Pelsaert choose not to act until they reached land, and the mutiny failed.


Photo credit: unknown/Public domain

Before the conspirators could make another move, the ship struck a reef near Abrolhos Islands and sank. Forty people drowned, but the rest managed to swim to Beacon Island. The survivors took with them most of the food and other provisions from the ship, but there was no fresh water on the islands. Realizing their dire situation, the ship’s commander Pelsaert, Captain Jacobsz, a few crew members, and some passengers —a total of about forty-eight people—left the others on the island on another boat in search of fresh water.

After an unsuccessful search for water on the mainland, the party headed north in a danger-fraught voyage to the city of Batavia, now Jakarta, to obtain help. The journey took 33 days, and extraordinarily, all aboard survived.

On arrival in Batavia, the ship’s boatswain was arrested and executed for negligence. Skipper Jacobsz was also arrested, but Pelsaert was unaware of his hand in the potential mutiny. Meanwhile, a search party, lead by Pelsaert himself, was organized to rescue those still stranded on the islands. With extraordinary bad luck, the search party took two months to arrive at the islands, only to discover that a bloody massacre had taken place among the survivors, reducing their numbers by more than one hundred.


An image from the 1647 Dutch book Ongeluckige voyagie, van't schip Batavia ("Unlucky voyage of the ship Batavia")

After Pelsaert had left the islands for Batavia, Jeronimus Cornelisz, the bankrupt pharmacist, who failed to raise the mutiny on board the ship, once again gathered some of the men and asserted himself over them. Cornelisz’s devilish plan was to seize any relief ship that might return and take off with it, along with the riches of the wrecked Batavia. To carry out his plans, Cornelisz had to eliminate all possible opponents and anybody that was a burden on their limited resources.

At first, he sent a party of cabin boys, men and women, to another island under the false pretense of searching for water and abandoned them there. He did the same to a group of soldiers, taking care to confiscate their arms before they left. He drowned a good many by sending them out in boats on useless errands and having his accomplices push them overboard. The remaining were systematically murdered by Cornelisz’s psychotic men.

A reign of terror ensued as the mutineers became intoxicated with murder, and began killing for pleasure. Survivors sent to the other islands were hunted down and killed if they hadn't already succumbed to thirst or hunger. Some of the women were kept alive and repeatedly raped.


Beacon Island, where the horrific events unfolded. Photo credit: Vunz/Wikimedia

Unknown to Cornelisz, the group of soldiers led by Wiebbe Hayes, who were left to die on an island, actually found good sources of water and food and survived. When the soldiers learnt of the barbarity taking place on Cornelisz’s island from survivors fleeing the massacre, they devised makeshift weapons and built a small fort out of limestone and coral blocks. Then they sent smoke signals to Cornelisz and waited for the mutineers to arrive.

The news of water on the other island, and the survival of the soldiers, threatened the success of Cornelisz’s plans. As predicted, Cornelisz sent an attack party to eliminate the soldiers, but the soldiers, now much better fed than the mutineers, easily defeated them in several battles and eventually took Cornelisz hostage. At this point, Pelsaert’s rescue ship arrived. Wiebbe Hayes raced to the ship to warn the rescuers about the mutineers, and explained what had happened.

Pelsaert captured Cornelisz and the remaining mutineers and held an impromptu trial on the island itself. The worst offenders were executed, while Cornelisz and several others had their hands chopped off before being hanged. The remaining mutineers were taken to Batavia for trial. Five were hanged, one was broken on the wheel, the most severe punishment available at the time, and several others were flogged.

The wreckage of Batavia was found and salvaged in the 1970s. Some of these items, including human remains, are now on display in the Western Australian Museum in Fremantle, Australia. A large part of the wreckage still remains at the original site and is now a premier dive site on the West Australian coast.


The hangings on Long Island as illustrated in the Lucas de Vries 1649 edition of Ongeluckige Voyagie


The replica of the Batavia on the Markermeer during a filmshoot. Photo credit: authorities/Wikimedia


Photo credit: Mali/Wikimedia


Photo credit: Mark Ahsmann/Wikimedia


The gundeck on the replica Batavia. Photo credit: Whitestar401/Flickr


Photo credit: Frank Van Laanen/Flickr

Sources: Wikipedia / Western Australian Museum /


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