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  • Review: The Graveyard of the Batavia August 27, 2016

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


    Mike Dash, The Graveyard of the Batavia

    Beach took about two years to pluck up the courage to read this book. The problem was not the quality of the writing, which is excellent, but the painful subject matter. The story in brief. Over three hundred Dutch men, women and children sailing on the Batavia got shipwrecked, in 1629, on a Pacific island chain. They, then, over several weeks, butchered each other so that, by the time they were rescued, and punishment had been meted out, fewer than seventy of a pre-wreck crew of 320 were still alive. It would be tempting to, make a respectful nod to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. But the truth is that the kids on Golding’s island were doing just fine, thank you very much: sure they killed Piggy, that freak Simon and they were on their way to killing the priggish Ralph. But they’d also learnt to hunt and makes fires and created an orgiastic religion. If they had not been distracted at the end by the arrival of a vessel, they certainly would not have lost four fifths of their number to violence. As it was, in the case of the Batavia, the sick, the strong, children, pregnant women, single women and craftsmen were killed (in that order) by their fellow passengers.

    So how is it possible that a group of intelligent castaways fell into this kind of stupidity: the killing emphatically did not add to the chances of most of them passing on their genes? The murderous descent into social suicide depended on three factors, only the first of which was inevitable. There were the general depressing flaws in human nature: many on the island did not protest at appalling things, including allowing the murder and rape of family members; others enjoyed taking part. Second, we have a charismatic leader, Jeronimus Cornelisz, who held human life very cheaply. Third, we have a legal lock: Cornelisz and several others on board the Batavia had planned a mutiny. These potential mutineers had reason to believe that they would be executed if rescued. It was, therefore, in their interests to take control of the survivors so that they were subsequently in a position to hijack any rescuing ship and win their freedom. If any of these three factors had been missing, then the majority of the shipwreck survivors, perhaps the vast majority would have come through and survived until a tropical disease knocked them out a couple of years later in Java.

    Beach is full of admiration, as always, for Mike’s writing. But perhaps Mike’s real genius here is not his style or his asides or his wisdom but his nous at corralling such an outstanding tale off the plain and into the ranch. History does not always give us perfect narratives: the past stubbornly fails to respect our preferred models of story-telling and so many problems in history come from us pretending otherwise. However, here there is a neatly, self-contained not overlong yarn that gives us a problem, tension, reversal and finally the triumph of good and the punishment of evil. Beach, like most history readers, enjoys a good execution, and always slows down to read the details with guilty, flickering eyes. But the executions at the end of this book gave him something close to rapture: in fact, he even became angry with one of the judges for being too lenient. (It is not often that the seventeenth-century brings out Beach’s inner Tory.)  There is also the lingering sense that the experiences on Batavia tell us something important about human nature: in the same way that the holocaust is understandably rolled out by ethics teachers.

    Beach was most confused in this respect by  Jeronimus Cornelisz, the evil but empty-box genius at the centre of the story. JC was, in MD’s opinion, a psychopath. Perhaps. He was not a conventional sadist (at least in the normal sense) and did not, in fact,  kill a single person on the island (he tried but failed to kill a baby with poison); nor did he seem to particularly enjoy bloodshed in its own right. He even did one woman the ‘courtesy’ of not immediately sexually assaulting her (as was typical under his rule), but verbally bludgeoning her with sonnets, wine and finally threats till she agreed to become his ‘lover’: in modern legal terms there is no question that she was raped. Yes, JC seems to have relished his sense of power over the reluctant islanders: there are some incidents were he cherished not death or murder but seeing others’ reaction to the same – he, there is no question, ordered the killings. Most of his decisions, however, were cold and  self interested, with a crude logic to them. He is a contrast to some of his lieutenants who loved killing for killing’s sake and are are all too familiar to anyone with eyes.

    A book to be recommended: drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com

    Louis, 29 Aug 2016 with a new source: There might be some other force at work, at leat according to two comic writers in the Netherlands. In the comic “de Batavia”, from the series “Gilles de Geus”, they offer an alternative for the tragedy that took place on the island(s). You can download the series here, and read for yourself. Although it is all in Dutch. And of course it is rather anachronistic, as the series is supposed to play during the start of the Dutch Revolt, and the Batavia tragedy took place almost at the end of the 80-years war (the dutch name for the Revolt).

    DB, 29 Aug 2016, A few quick notes: The wreck of the Batavia is a source of horror and fascination in Australia to this day. There has been some archaeology on the Western Australian coast;  Beacon island in the Houtman Abrolhos chain in the _*Indian*_ Ocean. Amazingly, The woodcut picture that heads your article is approximately correct.  These islands are flat, flat, flat. No shelter, no trees, no terrain, horizontal … flat.  See the picture in the article below. These people were not the only ones to be shipwrecked on this coast. The fundamental problem was in calculating longitude without an accurate clock, and these reefs are offshore, downwind of the prevailing westerlys. DNA studies show that some shipwrecked people were befriended by the locals and survived and had descendants: (1); (2).  There is a great (mature) kids fiction book written by Gary Crew called “Strange Objects”. It has 3 concurrent threads, modern, ancient and an aboriginal time traveller.  Based in some facts, & IMO, Remarkable.  Here is another mystery. PS I thought that venereal disease was a significant contributing factor to the mercenaries’ insane behaviour.