The Perils of Seafaring 1

The Portuguese had pioneered the sea voyages to the Indian Ocean.  Along the way they had constructed fortified trading posts on the coasts of Africa and on the key entrances to thee Indian Ocean (Straits of Hormuz, Malacca).  This gave them control of the spice trade.  (See: “We’ll be rich as Nazis!”—Montgomery Burns.)

In the 17th Century the Dutch desired to challenge the Portuguese for control of this trade.  They short-circuited the Portuguese control of the sea lanes by building ships that need never touch land before they reached the East and by selecting routes that took them well out of the established shipping lanes.  The course followed by their ships ran down the central Atlantic, then ran east across the lower end of the Indian Ocean, in the belt of high winds known as the “Roaring Forties.”  They were many months out of sight of land.  (See: green drinking water; see: biscuits with weevils; see: stir-crazy.)  With their advanced navigation systems, the Dutch East Indiamen were the 17th Century equivalent of the space shuttle.  Still, as with the space shuttle, accidents do happen.  (See: Insurance, origins of.)

In 1629 the ship “Batavia” left Holland for the East Indies, carrying a rich cargo and over 300 passengers and crew.  While qualified officers operated the ship on a day-to-day basis, the ship was commanded by Francisco Pelsaert, a merchant.  His chief assistant was Jeronimus Cornelisz, a psychopathic pharmacist.  (See: CVS.)  On the long voyage eastward he plotted a mutiny.  He hoped to seize the ship and turn pirate.  (See: any little boy.)  However, one night the ship struck a reef off the western coast of Australia.  Once daylight came, about 200 passengers were ferried to a little island nearby.  Pelsaert and some others soon set off in the ship’s boat to try to reach the Dutch colony in Java.  Pelsaert left Cornelisz in charge of the shipwrecked passengers.

It took Pelsaert a month to reach the port of Batavia in Java, 2,000 miles away over uncharted open seas.  (That works out to 2.5 miles per hour, with no iPod or PS2.)  It took another month for a ship to rescue the survivors.  In the meantime, the demented Cornelisz established a reign of terror on the little island that they had come to call “Batavia’s Graveyard.”  He and the followers he had recruited for the mutiny they had planned before the shipwreck killed off 125 of the 208 surviving passengers.  Their intention seems rather like building a cult: people had to identify with the group in order to stay alive; once they had participated in a killing they had no choice but to continue supporting Cornelisz.  (See: fraternity/sorority.)  His plan was to capture the rescue ship and turn to piracy.  In the meantime, they would reduce the number of mouths that had to be supported from the limited supplies of food and water.  (See: Darwin.)

When the rescue ship finally arrived, a few of the survivors managed to warn the crew about Cornelisz.  He and the ring-leaders were arrested, tried, and hanged.  (First they chopped off Cornelisz’s hands with a hammer and chisel.)

You can read about this story in Mike Dash, Batavia’s Graveyard: The True Story of the Mad Heretic Who Led History’s Bloodiest Mutiny. (New York: Three Rivers Press. 2003.)

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