“Gaze these"

Excerpt from BATAVIA ! Film script by
Bruce Bilney - Copyright © 1993


The Wreck at the End of the World

“Sometimes, circumstances force one to do a great many things one would rather not have to do.” - Jeronimus Cornelisz, at his trial on the island  Batavia’s Graveyard, shortly before his death on the gallows in 1629.

Batavia was no ordinary trader. She was the VOC’s treasure ship, the finest Dutch East Indiaman afloat. Seven months into her maiden voyage, she was wrecked on Morning Reef,  2 miles from Beacon Island,  in the tiny,  arid  W.A. archipelago  know as the Abrolhos: a Portuguese lookout’s cry,  meaning  Sailor, Beware !

What happened next amongst the 316 castaways is an epic defying parallel, a saga of mutiny and massacre, in which rape and savagery were daily entertainments - and self- preservation and grandest larceny the twin goals.

Yet dramatic though it is, Batavia’s is more than just the story of the bloodiest chapter in Australia’s history. It is a freakish allegory for an over-populated world confronting the new millennium.

Even before the voyage begins, the Skipper, Ariaen Jacobsz, harbours a grudge against  Francisco  Pelsaert.  And  now  here  Pelsaert is,  Fleet Commandeur  aboard Batavia, usurping the Skipper’s own Great Cabin . . .  !  Jacobsz is furious.

Relations between the 2 men worsen early in the trip, as the insubordinate Jacobsz baits Pelsaert with outrageous behaviour. His open attempts to seduce a voluptuous young married passenger, Lucretia van den Mylen, infuriate Pelsaert, who seems to be interested in her himself. Lucretia rebuffs Jacobsz in stinging terms, until he finds solace in the company of her spiteful maid, Zwaantje, in her stead.

Lucretia has a third, more subtle admirer: Suave ex-Haarlem apothecary Jeronimus Cornelisz, Batavia’s Undermerchant, a man with whom Pelsaert is at first very impressed. The charming Jeronimus wins the trust of skipper; Jacobsz too, turning a blind eye to his illicit relationship with Zwaantje - and the trio are firm friends by the time the fleet anchors to take on fresh provisions at the Cape of Good Hope.


While Pelsaert is ashore, Jacobsz rows from one ship to another, picking fights wherever he goes. Eventually, the drunken Jacobsz is returned to Batavia under close arrest. Pelsaert, livid, threatens once again to place Jacobsz on report - and the resentful Skipper, for his part, begins to hatch a mutinous plot : a plan to seize the ship and its treasure, throw Pelsaert to the sharks, and to take to a life of piracy.

He begins by sailing Batavia away from the other ships. Then one evening a dozen men grab Lucretia in a gangway, strip her naked and obscenely molest her. This is done to provoke Pelsaert into taking disciplinary action, which in turn is to be the signal to mutiny - and the conspirators, mostly Jacobsz’ own crewmen, are sleeping with their weapons at the ready. But before Jacobsz has a chance to seize the ship, Fate reveals a Joker in its hand : A strange wild-card, that will change everything.

In the dim eerie moonlight, 2 hours before dawn, on June 4, 1629, Batavia lurches to a grinding halt, stuck fast on a coral reef, 2 miles from the nearest island. All attempts to refloat her fail, and she soon begins to break up. Hastily Jacobsz and Pelsaert begin ferrying people to the islands, using 2 boats, a skiff designed for 10, and the yawl, a longboat built for 23. Seventy men are left to sink or swim when conditions worsen: about 30 drown. Water is desperately short on the islands, and those in the boats, including Jacobsz, Pelsaert and most of the VOC officers, seize the chance to head for Java. All 49 people aboard miraculously survive, arriving in the city of Batavia on July 7th. Pelsaert is ordered to return immediately to the wreck site in the yacht Sardam, and he sails within the week. The return journey takes 8 weeks, for a round trip of over 3 months.

As he approaches the islands, 2 men run towards him, warning him that a boatload of mutineers even now threatens to seize Sardam. Cannon trained on the approaching boat convince the richly-clad crew to surrender; then, as they are taken into custody, a strange and terrible tale begins to emerge : -

The castaways had run out of water within days, and about 20 had died of thirst. Luckily it had rained, and the Hollanders, water-wiser now, had caught a few weeks’ supply in sailcloth. Hope glimmered . . . and when Jeronimus Cornelisz, last of the abandoned 70, had come ashore 10 days after the wreck, there had been general rejoicing, for he was the one person with the authority to requisition goods, to ration water, and to establish discipline.

Those things he did indeed. Declaring himself Captain General, he had first taken charge of all weapons and water. Next he had sent his only rivals, a group of soldiers commanded by Wiebbe Hayes, on a mission to find water on two large islands. No-one had really expected them to, and Jeronimus had believed himself rid of them forever.

Then the murders had begun.

A few women had been saved “for common service”, to be available on call. Jeronimus had selected the beautiful Lucretia as his own concubine, and he guarded her jealously. Most of the others, along with their children, had been mercilessly despatched, by drowning, bashing or by strangulation. The unwanted men had been stabbed, or hacked to death with adzes. With each death Cornelisz’s new scheme grew more achievable: to seize the hoped-for rescue ship, salvage the treasure, and to live out Jacobsz’s fantasies of piracy on the high seas.

But on one of the larger Islands, Wiebbe Hayes’s soldiers had eventually found one good source of water. Suspecting nothing of the grisly events on Batavia’s Graveyard, they had sent the prearranged smoke signal: a perplexing message to Jeronimus’ mutineers, for though their own water was running low, the continued survival of the soldiers threatened their own success. When one of their intended victims had managed to swim to the soldiers’ island and warn them, Wiebbe Hayes had set about defending their position against attack. Sure enough, the mutineers had attempted several times to take the island, first by treachery, and at last by all-out war. Men on both sides had been killed, and Jeronimus himself captured by the resourceful Wiebbe Hayes. The mutineers, who still had all the guns and swords, had prepared to mount one last desperate assault. Battle had been joined, and the first shots had brought down 4 soldiers. The mutineers had withdrawn off shore to reload before pressing their advantage. It was at that very moment that the yacht Sardam had appeared.

With the mutiny put down, Pelsaert set his divers to the task of salvaging the treasure. He then set up a formal court on Batavia’s Graveyard, employing a form of water torture where necessary to get at the truth. The sentences were passed and executed on Seals Island. Seven men were hanged, with Jeronimus singled out first to have both hands cut off. Two more were left marooned on the Southland, and still others taken to Castle Batavia, where if anything the punishments were even more gruesome.
Jacobsz was imprisoned for a long term for “de-navigating” Batavia, while High Boatswain
Jan Evertsz was hanged for his involvement in the assault on Lucretia van den Mylen. For her part, the woman who had briefly been concubine to Australia’s first dictator still had one sorrow to face: the news that her husband had in the meantime died in Java. She returned to Holland and remarried, and there her record ends. Her home in Holland stands to this day.
Soldier Wiebbe Hayes became a hero. The VOC decorated him and promoted him to Sergeant. Most of the blame for what had happened was laid on Francisco Pelsaert, notwithstanding his super-human efforts to protect VOC interests. He was stripped of his commission, and all his wages and possessions were confiscated. Physically and mentally broken by illness and stress, he died in Sumatra less than a year later, in September 1630.
Of the original 316 aboard Batavia, only 107 men, 7 women and 2 children survived.




Five Bells : All’s Well : It’s 1629, the fourth of June :
Batavia, sea-tossed Eastward, flees the moody setting Moon;
Treasure-laden, on her maiden voyage—Proudest craft afloat ! -
Fifty guns—Three hundred star-crossed souls—And one heroic boat.
Like Cupid’s Bows the silver bow-waves purling at her prow :
The Kiss of Circe, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” on her brow;
But, “Mutiny !” she hisses - and the Skipper nods, and scowls -
Eyes spiteful, scheming, narrowed, gleaming, watchful as an owl’s.
But his eyes stare, wide with disbelief—His hand starts for the bell -
“Say, Helmsman, what’s yon misty wraith? - I’ Faith, I cannot tell !”
“’Tis but Moon upon the water, Sire . . . ” - Too late, the Look-Out’s yell : -
“ABROLHOS ! - LOOK OUT ! - ROCKS AHEAD !” - ( O Helmsman! Steer us well ! )
Too late the Hand of Fate rings out a frantic final knell -
The sneering snag-toothed Sea-Hag snaps the trap-door jaws of Hell !
Copyright © 1993  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


The loss on her maiden voyage of the Dutch treasure ship Batavia on the reefs off the Houtmans
Abrolhos in 1629, and the subsequent events amongst the survivors, make a story beside which the Bounty mutiny is a petty and anaemic affair, and the Titanic sinking a weekend mishap. Carefully documented at the time, this is a tale of mutiny and betrayal, murder and courage, vast riches and wild ideas, . . . But I’m not going to start telling the story now. What I mean to say is that in Holland they have built a new Batavia, all using ancient techniques – she is unique amongst the world’s tall ships in this regard ! - and the huge news is that She’s Coming To Australia ! Now, as I write this, she must be nearly here. Her mast is too tall for Sydney Harbour Bridge so they have to do a ship in a bottle trick with her so she can swan around the Bay. I’m going to see her or die trying.
I have been held in thrall by the saga and by thoughts of the movie that must one day be made about it. I will update this page as time and info come to hand. Watch this space !
News— Early December 1999— Batavia Under Sail in Sydney Harbour !
More News : An OPERA based on the story is to be performed at the Festival of Melbourne in 2001 ! Some songs from it are in the December Adelaide Review.