Category Archives: History
A visit to the Abrolhos Islands has been on my bucket list for a long time and now I’ve finally done it. On a picture-perfect day we flew out of Geraldton airport on a small plane, headed for the Abrolhos archipelago, 55 to 60 km off the coast.
I’ve seen the maps and other people’s pictures but seeing the place for yourself is very different. The islands are spread over a long distance, organised in four groups. We flew over the Pelsaert Group and the Easter Group before heading for the Wallabi group, which is where the VOC ship Batavia was wrecked in 1629. That was my focus; how well had I depicted the setting in my book To Die a Dry Death, and what effect would this place have on me.
To start with, we flew over West Wallabi, where the soldiers under their inspirational leader Wiebbe Hayes, defended themselves against Jeronimus Cornelisz’s thugs. There, I took a picture of the ‘fort’. Fort is the wrong word, I think. They probably built a shelter to protect them from the everlasting wind. Our visit took place on a rare day when the wind didn’t blow.
Then we landed on West Wallabi. If anything, I think I underestimated the term ‘High Island’. Certainly East and West Wallabi are much higher than anything else out there – but most of the islands are pancake flat, little more than reefs left exposed above the sea. The High Islands are low sandhills built on a limestone platform. That said, they’re positively spacious in comparison to Beacon Island (Batavia’s Graveyard), the Long Island and Traitor’s Island. Wildlife is abundant. We saw lizards everywhere, a number of the resident wallabies, sea birds, dolphins cruising the reefs, every variety of fish. Because of the Leeuwin current, the water is warmer out there, so coral gardens grow in the shallow water.
The plants on the islands are another story. All the growth is stunted, with most bushes not much more than knee high. A few plants grow a little higher but shade would have been hard to find. I stood on the highest point of East Wallabi and looked across the sea to the line of bright sand which was the Long Island and the smaller low island which was Batavia’s Graveyard. Yes, I’m sure Wiebbe would have posted lookouts here when he learned of Cornelisz’s reign of terror.
We flew over Batavia’s Graveyard on the way back and also saw Traitor’s Island, where the survivors were first landed from the shipwrecked Batavia. It was from here that the ship’s longboat, loaded with all the senior officers, set sail for the city of Batavia (now known as Jakarta), leaving the rest of the survivors to fend for themselves. The fishing shacks on the islands are now empty and the plan is to remove them so that this island where so many horrendous events took place, can be properly excavated and its ghosts left in respectful peace.
After nearly 400 years, the hole the Batavia gouged in the reef is still visible. The Dutch ships Batavia and Zeewijk are just two of a large number of ships wrecked on these treacherous islands. On a normal day, when the white caps would cover the ocean, it’s easy to imagine mariners in peril of running onto these reefs. At night – well, it’s hardly surprising.
And me? What did this trip do for me? It was sobering. It was so easy to imagine people from another world landing here, maybe grateful to be alive but faced with the enormous problem of survival in a harsh, uncaring land. Complicate that with a psychopath and you have a horror story that no novelist could have dreamed up in a nightmare. Yet it’s also a story of great courage, ingenuity and the strength of the human spirit. Seeing what those people faced all those years ago simply highlights those qualities.
If you’d like to know more about the wreck of the Batavia, check out my history pages.
I’m delighted to announce that my historical fiction novel, To Die a Dry Death, is back on Amazon. Fingerpress has released to paperback first, but the e-book should be available shortly. It’s the same great, true story with a fabulous new cover.
280 survivors. One tyrant. The true story of the Batavia shipwreck.
The chilling, true story of the shipwreck of the Batavia could so easily have been the template for William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
In June 1629, the Dutch merchantman Batavia, laden with treasure and the riches of Europe, smashed into an uncharted reef thirty miles off the coast of Terra Incognita Australis-the unknown Great South Land. 200 survivors-women and children, sailors, soldiers and merchants-scrambled ashore on a small group of uninhabited, hostile islands, with little food or fresh water. Desperately seeking help, the ship’s officers set out in an open boat to make a two-thousand-mile journey to the nearest port. While they were gone, from the struggle for survival on the islands there emerged a tyrant whose brutal lust for power was even deadlier than the reef that wrecked the Batavia.
A lot of things we believe come from some pretty suspect sources. If you’re like me, you believe that in the days of sail navies – both military and merchant – were full of press-ganged victims, that the food was foul, the officers brutal and you could be flogged for little or no reason. In short, a pretty poor sort of life. That’s how it’s portrayed in the movies we watch. Mutiny on the Bounty springs to mind.
Then I happened across this documentary debunking some of these myths – at least as far as the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars was concerned.
Some of you know I wrote a historical fiction novel about a 1629 shipwreck off the West Australian coast (To Die a Dry Death – it will be back soon). In order to write that novel, I needed to have some sort of understanding of shipboard life. This was an earlier, less enlightened time. But a number of points made in the documentary resonated with me. A sailing ship is a complex machine which can only operate efficiently if its crew is able to function. Have you ever climbed a high ladder without a safety harness? Try climbing a rope ladder up a high mast, then inch along a spar and haul up the ropes on the sail to bring it in. Then do all of that in a gale, with the ship tossing like a cork, the waves crashing over the bow and almost as high as you, the rain lashing your face, the canvas and the ropes sodden. Yet we’re expected to believe that sailors could do this sort of hard, physical work on lousy food, driven like slaves by uncaring officers? It doesn’t make sense, does it? And indeed, the documentary notes that in Nelson’s day, the ships’ captains were very concerned about the health and welfare of their crews.
I’m beginning to think some of the horror tales about the Dutch East India Company (VOC) may have been a little over the top, too. Punishments were severe. I talked about keelhauling here, dropping from the yard here. Sure, punishment was draconian – but then, so it was throughout society. However, if you didn’t do anything to warrant the punishment, it wouldn’t happen. Makes sense to me. Sure, there was a distinction between the privileged wealthy in the stern apartments and the sailors. But that was the norm in society in general. Captains could not afford to alienate their crews, nor to incapacitate them. Certainly captains could benefit financially by purchasing poor rations for their crews and I’m sure it did happen, but there would have to be a trade-off. Skilled seamen were hard to find and it’s hard to imagine a man wanting to sail with a skipper prepared to short-change his crew’s conditions. The sailors had to be able to respect and follow their officers, most especially their captain. This all had real meaning for me, because in the history books the captain of the Batavia is portrayed as a villain. In my novel I have portrayed him in a quite different light, as a rough, hard-drinking womaniser, sure, but as a leader, respected and followed by his crew.
One more point. Women were on the ships that fought the British navy’s wars. And despite the myth about women on ships being bad luck, it seems they were out there, anyway, sharing the conditions with their men. When the Victory went to war at Trafalgar, women were there, fighting alongside the boys. How about that?
The documentary is a real eye-opener. Recommended – but be warned, it’s about 48 minutes long.