Book of da Week: Batavia’s Graveyard by Mike Dash

Batavia's Graveyard - Mike Dash
Mike Dash’s rather brutal and compelling Batavia’s Graveyard.

It’s time for some history with Mike Dash’s eerie Batavia’s Graveyard, a tale of mutiny, shipwreck, murder, and survival, all of it led by one charismatic psychopath. In June of 1629, the Dutch trade ship Batavia hit rocks off the shore of Houtman Abrolhos in western Australia. The result? With 322 folks on board, it wasn’t pretty.

What unfolded after the crash is one of those cautionary tales about destructive and manipulative human behaviour which, tellingly, our species continues to ignore at every given opportunity. Indeed, the events are rather similar to what William Golding covered in Lord of the Flies, except this tale is very real indeed and it’s all the more terrifying for it.

Batavia’s Graveyard

According to historical records, the tale of the Batavia disaster stood as a warning to the maritime industry for decades afterwards – a leaflet about it was handed around as a stark warning. It subsequently disappeared into legend as time passed but, thanks to Mr. Dash, we’ve now got a frightening reminder of how it all went a bit, how you say, wrong.

The Batavia was built by the Dutch East India Company and set off for the East Indies on its maiden voyage (a certain other ship springs to mind here, too) in October 1628. Eight months later it sailed by Houtman Abrolhos, a notorious spot where ships would often run aground (almost exactly 100 years after the Batavia incident, another Dutch East India Company ship called the Zeewijk was also scuppered there). Disastrously, it bulldozed into some rocks and began to sink.

In vivid detail based on survivors’ accounts, we get an insight into the carnage which ensued. For a start, everything was made worse as it was early in the morning and pitch black. The scene must have been appalling: deranged criminals onboard who were fleeing the law were now completely lawless and free to run amok – they began actively looting the ship as it was sinking. Many began to drink heavily and guarded their stolen possessions violently.

In the meantime, families and crew began to panic as the ship went down in the middle of nowhere. Despite this mayhem, the ship’s crew managed to remain professional enough to save 200 lives, with these lucky individuals transported to one of the desolate nearby coral islands.

A Charismatic Psychopath

Hopelessly stranded, the ship’s captain soon set off in a desperate search for assistance. With dithering subordinates left in charge, a certain Jeronimus Cornelisz (a bankrupt pharmacist fleeing the Netherlands) emerged to lead a brutal mutiny which placed him in complete control of this new society.

This is where Dash reveals the rather grizzly fate of many innocent people, as Cornelisz quickly lost his head and formed a brutal regime which led to the deaths of over 100 people. It’s scary stuff, and Dash brilliantly paints a, dare we say, dashing tale of horrible circumstances made all the worse by one devious lunatic.

Thusly, we’ve got a riveting historical record tinged with such horrible tragedy. It’s approaching 400 years since the Batavia disaster occurred, but this one will shock you big time. Indeed, quite why the story hasn’t been made into a film we don’t know.

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