Imagine you are a young Dutch woman setting sail for the other side of the world. The year is 1628 and the voyage you are about to undertake is extremely dangerous. Your husband waits in Batavia (now Jakarta) and you are apprehensive as to what lies ahead, but never in your wildest dreams would you believe the horror that is about to unfold.
The Abrolhos Islands in Western Australia have long been renowned for their abundant fishing grounds. The lobsters caught there are exported all over the world. The islands are even more famous for being the scene of almost unparalleled wickedness and debauchery.
John and I had read books and articles about the events so were keen to travel there and imagine what it would have been like for the passengers on board the Batavia, flagship of the Dutch East India Company. The Commander and the Captain were already enemies when the voyage began, but it was the under-merchant Jeronimus Cornelisz, a bankrupt pharmacist from Harlaam, who was largely responsible for the chaos that ensued.
The Captain and Jeronimus engineered a change in course as they planned to take over the ship and become buccaneers. However they didn’t plan to be smashed on the rocks of Houtman Abrolhos. Incredibly, of the 322 on board, only 40 drowned and the bedraggled survivors found themselves on a rocky island. Water and food was in short supply so both the Captain and the Commander set sail in a 30 foot longboat (with 46 passengers including a baby) hoping to add to the provisions or find help.
Two months later the Commander was back, having sailed all the way to Batavia where he was immediately given a ship to rescue the shipwrecked survivors (and the riches on board the sunken ship).
Before I tell you what he found I will drag you back to the present. We arrived in Geraldton after a long drive down the WA coast and booked two nights in a caravan park. In the office I found a brochure on flights to the Abrolhos Islands. The next morning we were skimming over the town of Geraldton and heading out to sea across clear blue green water barely covering endless coral reefs.
Our pilot, Josh, landed gently on the red, gravel airstrip. We were on East Wallabi Island, 80 kilometres out to sea from Geraldton. It is only one of 122 islands that make up the group. Rocky and barren, only a few have fresh water but the Tammar wallaby which still hides amongst the scrubby bushes of East and West Wallabi would have provided food for some of the shipwrecked survivors.
Maybe the men, women and children who huddled on that shore would have survived if the under-merchant, Jeronimus, had drowned. He couldn’t swim and stayed on board the damaged ship, paralysed with fear until he could no longer stay above water. Fate gave him a plank to hold and threw him up on the beach of Beacon Island. With the Captain and the Commander gone he took charge of the group. Moving most of the soldiers to West Wallabi Island under false pretences he then marooned them there to die of thirst and starvation.
Gradually, any opponents were cruelly murdered. Jeronimus did not commit murder himself but coerced his followers to perform more and more atrocious acts. By the time the Commander returned 110 men, women and children had been slaughtered.
What of Lucretia, the elegant Dutch woman travelling to meet her husband? Her beauty saved her, although becoming the unwilling mistress of Jeronimus Cornelisz, to her mind, would have been “a fate worse than death”.
You can read more about this exciting story in the book Batavia, written by Peter FitzSimons. It is not for the faint hearted. Less fictionalized versions of the events are available as well including The Wreck of the Batavia: A True Story by Simon Leys and Batavia’s Graveyard by Mike Dash.
It was hard to believe, as we snorkelled off one of East Wallabi’s pristine beaches, that the bones of murdered Dutch citizens still lie beneath the sand.
As we flew back to Geraldton, Josh swooped low over four crumbling walls on West Wallabi Island. It is the stone fort built by the soldiers who were marooned there. That’s right! They didn’t die of thirst as they discovered water on the next island. It is the oldest European surviving structure in Australia as it was built in 1629. That was 151 years before Governor Phillip arrived with the First Fleet on the East Coast and changed the nature of buildings in this country forever. You will have to look hard but it is approximately in the centre of the picture. Here it was that the true hero of the story, Wiebbe Hayes, led the courageous group which stood up to Jeronimus and his followers.
Our pilot also pointed out a white blemish on the reef. It was the actual spot where the Batavia came to grief. The coral was forever marked where the ship came grinding to a halt.
The next day we were on our way in the caravan, heading south to Perth. The Abrolhos Islands had left an impression never to be forgotten as we continued our exploration of the Land of Oz.