The Curious Tragedy of the Batavia

The Batavia was a merchant ship which set sail on its maiden voyage in 1628 from the Netherlands to Java under the command of Dutch East Asia Company official, Francisco Pelsaert. The ship, for its time, was massive—it carried 330 people and was double hulled for the 15,000 mile journey. (It was, in fact, so tall that a replica could only clear Sydney Harbor Bridge at low tide.) Such a long and dangerous voyage in the largely unexplored Southern Ocean attracted only the most desperate crew, who were unable to find employment in the Dutch Navy or the Army. Pelsaert was a merchant, not a sailor. The actual skipper, a drunk named Ariaen Jacobsz, was therefore technically not in charge of the ship and the two men hated one another. Also aboard was Jeronimus Cornelisz, a failed apothecary who now worked for the Dutch East India Company. Cornelisz was a known associate of the painter Torrentius, who had recently been arrested for heresy and satanism, and the authorities were searching for any accomplices.

The atmosphere on the ship was stifling. “These ill-assorted individuals,” Leys wrote, “were bundled up in the heavy black suits that the Dutch sense of proprietary dictated they wear, even in the tropics.” Ten men succumbed to scurvy, the cause of which was not yet known. During the voyage, Cornelisz began sharing some of the ideas he had learned from Torrentius with Jacobsz such as, “Are crimes by God’s elect crimes at all?” and tried to persuade the skipper to join him in a mutiny to seize control of the ship from Pelsaert. The ship was carrying 12 treasure chests to buy spices, and Cornelisz wanted to divert to an English colony.

The mutiny didn’t take place as planned but the situation onboard the ship was tense and restive. Then, on June 3rd, 1629, the ship’s lookout saw what he thought were waves breaking over shallows. He alerted Jacobsz who told him this was impossible because he thought the ship was 600 miles to the north in open seas. But at that time there was no easy way to measure longitude. In reality, the Batavia was wildly off course, close to the West Coast of Australia, and sailing amidst an archipelago of tiny coral islands called the Houtman Abrolhos. It was there that the Batavia struck a reef.

This seemed to spell certain death for the passengers. The sea would break the ship apart and drown them all. Lifeboats had not yet been invented and few people could swim. Authority and discipline dissolved. “Mercenaries and sailors broke into stores of wine and spirits and engaged in a wild orgy,” Leys wrote. “Every taboo was swept away.” However, as the tide receded, it became possible to wade to a nearby island, and most onboard made it to safety. But 70 were too fearful to leave the wreck, and chose to stay on the ship until the very end. When it broke apart nine days later most of them drowned. But even for those who had made it to the island, chances for long-term survival were bleak.

The Batavia carried a small open boat, and under cover of darkness, the skipper and captain set off from the island to Java over 1,800 miles away to seek help (or simply to save themselves). The survivors of the Batavia awakened to find that they had been abandoned. Cornelisz was the most senior remaining Dutch East Asia Company employee and was therefore the natural leader of the survivors. Unfortunately, he turned out to be a psychopath. Under Company rule, all decisions had to be made by committee. Cornelisz had made certain that all committee members were his fellow plotters in the planned mutiny. Now, they controlled all of the weapons from the Batavia, as well as a few rafts constructed out of its wreckage. The committee almost immediately ordered the execution of a soldier accused of stealing wine. This was the first of many murders.

Next, Cornelisz culled the population, particularly the strongest men, by shipping them to remote atolls where he believed there was no water and where he left them without a boat. One group, led by a soldier named Wiebbe Hayes sent a smoke signal indicating that they had found water, which is not something Cornelisz anticipated. And there were abundant wallabies to eat! When other survivors took to rafts to join Hayes, Cornelisz’s men dragged the rafts back to shore and beat the men, women, and children to death on the beach.

Cornelisz established a terror state and ordered arbitrary executions. He retitled himself “Captain General” and made everyone swear loyalty to him. He and the committee wore beribboned officers’ uniforms salvaged from the Batavia and drank the wine. Women were held as slaves and raped. A Dutch aristocrat named Lucretia van der Mijlen, who had been travelling as a passenger along with her maid, was spared and told to become Cornelisz’s concubine. She refused until a deputy explained that either she accede to the Captain General’s request or she would be killed or raped or both. Upon receiving this news, she complied.

Although Cornelisz’s personal psychology explains some of this violence, Leys stresses that his actions were informed by the heretical and libertine theories of Torrentius, who claimed the Devil helped him to paint. Torrentius was jailed and tortured in 1628 and his paintings were burnt. Only one of his works has survived—“Still Life with Flagon, Glass, Jug and Bridle” was rediscovered in 1913 being used to cover a barrel of raisins and now hangs in the Rijksmuseum. It remains mysterious—with no visible brushstrokes it resembles a photograph, and Torrentius may have used an unknown chemical process in its creation.

But Cornelisz held his own heretical beliefs which were independent of the provocations of Torrentius. Cornelisz was an Anabaptist, an often violent millenarian sect that favored adult baptism—a profoundly shocking and subversive heresy at the time—and foresaw an apocalyptic struggle for salvation as described in the Book of Revelation. (In 1553, the Anabaptists established a millenarian proto-communist city state in Münster, characterized by common property, polygamy, and terror.)

A handful of escapees managed to flee Cornelisz’s island on rafts and warned Wiebbe Hayes and his fellow soldiers about Cornelisz’s reign of terror. Anticipating an attack, Hayes’s group built a makeshift fort out of coral, the first European structure in Australia. Two months after the original wreck, Cornelisz’s men attacked Hayes and his largely defenseless companions with muskets. Amid the final battle, a ship was spotted on the horizon. The commander Pelsaert had made it to Java and had returned to rescue the company’s treasure chests and the survivors. Hayes got to the rescue ship first.

Pelsaert could hardly believe what had occurred in his absence. Cornelisz was arrested, tortured, and tried “on the spot,” and his hands were cut off. He was sentenced to death, along with six accomplices. He remained faithful to his heresy and declined to be baptized before he was hanged. Two of his junior henchmen were spared the rope and left on the Australian mainland to fend for themselves with toys to establish friendly relations with the natives. They were never heard from again.

The previous account is taken from a description of totalitarianism and the work of Simon Leys in the magazine Quillette.

Here is the enigmatic sole surviving painting by Torrentius.

Emblematic Still Life with Flagon, Glass, Jug and Bridle, Johannes Torrentius, 1614

A pewter flagon, a wine glass, an earthenware jug, a bridle or rein, and a piece of paper with two staves and inscribed ‘what is out of measure, perishes in immeasurable evil.’ These are exhortations to moderation. You must cut wine with water, curb your appetites. This strict message contrasts sharply with the reputation of the painter, who was repeatedly accused of whoremongery and heresy. [Rijksmuseum, Netherlands]

To me, this is a good example of stiob, which is the Soviet name for the practice of adopting a view so strongly that it’s not clear if you’re being ironic or not. Torrentius is punking the staid moderation of the Dutch Christians of his era but in a way that maintains plausible deniability. A particularly dour clergyman might display this dark painting, which seems to celebrate the doing of nothing unto death, in his parlor.

There is definitely something grim about it. There is more void than anything, for example, including inside the clear goblet, which reflects no viewer. Right there at the center of the circle, we find not a full cup of life but a sort of sterile emptiness surrounded in black.