Western Australian Maritime Museum Shipwreck Galleries - The Batavia Story by Gregory Blaxell

The Shipwreck Galleries were originally the Fremantle Commissariat building. It was convict built 1856-1862. The gallery where the remains of Batavia are found was completed in 1895-96.
The area was then used as a liquor store and known as The Drum. Over the years the building has been used as a public storehouse but in 1979, after extensive restoration and adaptation, it was opened as a museum.
The Western Australia coast formed a signpost to ships of the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) that traded with what is now Indonesia. After heading east from the Cape of Good Hope, they rode the roaring forties then turned to port and sailed parallel to and sometimes perilously close to the Western Australia coast. Several were wrecked on the landmass or on offshore islands. The calculation of longitude in the early 17th century was inexact.
One of these island chains was Houtman Abrolhos consisting of 122 islands and associated coral reefs and located about 50 nautical miles west of Geraldton. The islands were first sighted by the Dutch East India ships Dordrecht and Amsterdam in 1619 which is only thirteen years after the first authenticated voyage to the Great South Land by the Duyfken. Captain-General of the Dordrecht, Frederick de Houtman, was credited with the discovery. The islands were charted in 1622 but remained unnamed on the charts until 1627.
Cannon in the Entrance Gallery almost beneath the anchor for the Dutch ship Zuytdorp.The Batavia came to grief on 4 June 1629 on a reef near Beacon Island, one of the Wallabi Group, the most northerly of three groups of islands that constitute Houtman Abrolhos. The second group is the Easter Group, situated to the southeast and separated from the Wallabi Group by the 5nm Middle Channel. Further to the southeast and separated by the Zeewijk Channel is the Pelsaert Group.
Today, Houtman Abrolhos is Australian territory and part of Western Australia. The islands are the centre of the Western Rock Lobster fishery which is the largest single-species fishery in Western Australia. Fishing for scallops is also carried on near the island group. Pearl aquaculture is expanding in the Pelsaert Group and in 2002, the Abrolhos was among the areas released for further petroleum exploration. Magnificent snorkelling, diving and deep sea fishing plus the inspection of significant historical sites and rare flora and fauna populations, make Abrolhos a significant tourist destination. However, tourists cannot camp on any island but come and go through flights from Geraldton.
A replica of the Batavia was built at the Batavia Wharf in Leyland in the Netherlands (1985-1995). In September 1999, the ship was transported by barge to the National Maritime Museum, Sydney. In 2000 it was the flagship for the Dutch Olympic team during the Olympic Games. It returned to Holland in 2001 and is on permanent display at the Batavia Wharf. The Batavia displaced 1200 tonnes and her trip to Batavia was her maiden voyage. She sailed from Amsterdam on 29 October 1628 accompanied by seven ships and an armed escort. She was 56m long with three masts and four decks, was triple planked and well armed.
She carried 316 passengers and crew and her cargo was silver in the form of 12 chests of silver coins. These were kept in a locked compartment. The value of the cargo was estimated to be worth $20M in today’s currency. Her captain was Ariaen Jacobsz and the two VOC officials on board were Francisco Pelsaert (the senior man) and Jeronimus Cornelisz.
The boozy skipper Jacobsz sought a relationship with one of the female passengers on the long voyage but this was rejected. He then switched his attention to her maid and a torrid relationship ensued.
Looking at the timbers on the inside of Batavia’s hull.Pelsaert, already known and disliked by Jacobsz, disapproved of Jacobsz’ drunkenness and whoring and, after provisioning at Cape Town, Pelsaert had the skipper confined to his cabin. Jacobsz confided his intense dislike of Pelsaert to Cornelisz and the pair secretly plotted to get rid of Pelsaert and steal Batavia’s cargo.
They precipitated an incident they believed would create a mutiny but Pelsaert did not react although he was aware of the ruse. He reasoned that it would be safer to reveal all once the ship reached its destination, Batavia.
As the convoy made its way up the Western Australian coast, Batavia separated and took a more easterly route. On 4th June white water was sighted but the captain ordered the ship to continue under full sail. She slammed into Morning Reef (adjacent to what is now called Beacon Island but then became known as Batavia’s Graveyard).
AttemptsA replica of the stone portico intended for the Batavia Castle and located aft of the Batavia’s partial stern section. The original is in the Geraldton Museum. to refloat next morning were unsuccessful and the captain ordered the evacuation of the passengers. Two of the ship’s boats started carrying passengers to shore. Some who had been left on board tried to swim ashore and drowned. The survivors were landed on Batavia’s Graveyard.
A group of 50 including Pelsaert and Jacobsz set up with provisions on another island. Pelsaert decided that the 70 crew remaining on the ship and now controlled by Cornelisz could not be trusted especially as they had quickly taken to the available alcohol.
Pelsaert searched for water at other nearby islands but found none. He decided to take two boats and sail the 1,988nm to Batavia. He took Jacobsz with him. When those on the nearby island saw he had abandoned them, they renamed his island Traitor’s Island.
The boat journey took 33 days and all survived. Batavia’s Governor gave Pelsaert command of another ship Sardam to rescue the survivors and salvage the riches. Jacobsz was jailed for negligence and another sailor executed for his part in the non-consecrated mutiny. The rescue party did not arrive back at the wreck site for two months. In that time, all hell had broken loose.
Partial stern section from the wreck of Batavia.As the ship broke up, those on board came ashore. Cornelisz was now the acknowledged leader and took command and began rationing food and water. Cornelisz, a disgraced apothecary who had abandoned his wife before joining the VOC, decided that the only way to survive was to reduce the number of survivors by half. Under the guise of sending some of them to other islands, supposedly that had a supply of food and water, he sent 40 men and women to Seal Island and 15 to Traitor’s Island. Another group consisting mainly of soldiers not aligned with Cornelisz, was sent to an area known as High Land.
Marine archaeologists surveying the wreck before systematic removal to the museum.The clear intention of this strategy was to maroon all the transported men, women and children and let them perish.
However, when those on High Land led by Wiebbe Hayes realised they were sent there to die, they crossed to a nearby island now known as West Wallabi Island. Here they found food and good, fresh water. To protect themselves from the Cornelisz’ mutineers, they built fortifications.
They also lit fires, to signal that they had found water and food. The few survivors remaining on Traitor’s Island saw the signals and attempted to make it to West Wallabi Island. They were apprehended by Cornelisz’ henchmen and were either slaughtered or drowned.
On Batavia’s Graveyard, the reign of terror had begun. Cornelisz executed those who would not swear allegiance to him, usually under the pretence that they had committed some crime. In all, only 70 now survived and of those, 35 were totally committed to Cornelisz. A party was sent to Seal Island to finish off any survivors there.
Display of silver plate from Batavia.Between the end of July and the beginning of September, Cornelisz’ men attacked the settlement at West Wallabi Island but were constantly repulsed. Cornelisz proposed a truce and he and five men went to the island to parley. This group was immediately captured. The remaining mutineers attacked but again were repulsed. Cornelisz was imprisoned and the other members of the negotiating party were killed.
One of two skeletons found on Beacon Island in 1963.The retreating mutineers, now under the leadership of an ex-soldier Wouter Loos, brought some of the salvaged guns from the ship and began to bombard the fortifications.
It was then that Pelsaert and the Sardam arrived. Seeing this, both Hayes and Loos headed for the ship to tell their respective stories. Hayes arrived first and gave his statement. The ship’s guns were turned on the mutineers who surrendered and together with Cornelisz were rounded up. Cornelisz and seven of the mutineers confessed their crimes and were sentenced to be summarily executed.
A gallows was erected on Seal Island and all seven men and Cornelisz were hanged. Cornelisz was the first to die but not before his hands were cut off, supposedly using a hammer and chisel. The rest also had their hands removed before being hanged. Their remains were left to rot on the gallows. Two other mutineers deemed less reprehensible were taken to the mainland and abandoned with little hope of survival.
Recreation of captain’s cabin aboard Batavia.When Sardam returned to Batavia with the few survivors, the remaining mutineers were tried, often tortured and most were executed. Pelsaert was seen by the VOC to be partly responsible for the debacle and died a year after returning to Batavia following the rescue. The VOC subsequently salvaged ten of the twelve chests of coin.
The remnants of the Batavia and the relics from the wreck are the most outstanding exhibits in the Shipwreck Galleries. The wreck was discovered by divers and marine archaeologists in 1963. Between 1972 and 1976, part of the hull and relics (including more than 8,000 coins) were recovered and treated but only after careful recording of the site. These fragments are now the nucleus of the Batavia exhibit. That material alone is worth a visit to this fascinating and totally absorbing museum.

* Gregory Blaxell is an historian and author. A new edition of his book The River: Sydney Cove to Parramatta is now available. Trade orders can be made through the publishers, Halstead Press.