on 7 October 2012
This is an excellent work - well researched (with over 100 pages of notes at the end) and written in an entertaining style throughout. The reader can sense the passion with which the author approaches the subject. There is a well constructed interposition of re-telling the tragic, bizarre history of events on the Batavia, and background on life in 17th century Holland to set the context of those events. The book is non-fiction, and describes events in a dispassionate manner but with use of expression that maintains interest. The main characters are skillfully drawn from extant records, which the author concedes are so incomplete now that he can only speculate on why certain behaviour occurred. The story of the Batavia is a fascinating episode from 17th century history of the European spice trade and their exploration of the great unknown southern oceans and land mass of Australia. How one psycopathic man Jeronomius created a real life adult version of 'Lord of the Flies' on a wind-swept, barren coral reef 50 miles off the coast of Western Australia, and the herosim displayed by the Defenders, is a remarkable tale. This is perhaps the only surviving record from the era of a mutiny and subsequent trial with such detail that 400 years later it can be developed into an entertaining book.
on 7 June 2002
Quite apart from the terrifying events at the wreck site, which others have discussed, this is a well told and fascinating insight into Dutch life in the early seventeenth century. The detailed account of life aboard ship - including the overcrowding, the toilet facilities, the vermin, the food, the water, and the healthcare - are quite enough to put you off your breakfast. Or at least to dispel any overly romantic notions you might have.
The rate at which people died off from an enormous range of ailments, or were killed off by accidents or for seemingly minor offences, is almost incredible. The way Dash tells it, I couldn't help wondering how the Dutch were able to establish any kind of foothold in the Spice Islands at all.
One final thing: I had never really understood what it meant to be "broken on the wheel". Dash leaves you in absolutely no doubt. Grim, very grim...
I thoroughly recommend this book.
on 23 June 2003
In 1629, the Batavia, a giant ocean-going Dutch trading galleon, smashed onto an uncharted reef fifty miles off the west coast of Australia. Over the next few days, the once-mighty vessel was remorselessly pounded to pieces in the surf. The bedraggled survivors, perched nearby on tiny coral outcroppings virtually devoid of life or shelter, food or water, could only watch in utter dismay. The Batavia was a retourschep (a “return ship” – the very largest, and most magnificent, class of trading vessel, one designed to withstand the rigours of the round-trip passage between the United Provinces and the Dutch East Indies); she was also on her maiden voyage, having been built at tremendous cost; what is more, she was laden with a fortune in silver, precious jewellery and trading goods. Her destruction, the loss of her cargo, and the consequent loss of profits from the Spices she would eventually have brought home to Europe represented a major financial blow to her owners – the Dutch East India Company (the “VOC”).
However, and dramatic though such an event undoubtedly was, such losses were not uncommon, and the Batavia's destruction might have warranted little more than a foot-note in the history of European trading expansion in the East Indies but for the events which subsequently unfolded in the desolate little chain of low, barren islands where she met her end - Houtman’s Abrolhos. For the Batavia’s destruction precipitated amongst her survivors an explosion of hatreds and resentment that had been gestating in her foetid lower decks during the long, dreadful months of her outward passage. Indeed, the discord and sullen mutual resentments which ran amongst her officers and men like a fever were themselves a causative factor in her destruction. Now, while they awaited rescue, the dwindling survivors were preyed upon and terrorised by the worst of these malcontents, a band of mutineers led by a vicious psychopath named Jeronimous Cornelisz. This is a tale of depressing awfulness, though not without redemptive examples of dignity and courage, leadership and charity. What is more, we can only wonder at the faith, fortitude and determination of the victim-survivors – men, women and children - who clung to life amidst the barbarism, atavistic depravity, howling despair, desolation and abyssal hopelessness that was their daily lot in the sun-bleached, wind-scoured Houtman’s Abrolhos.
This marvellous book is a triumph on several levels. It is a great achievement of precise and orderly narrative history. Its clear, calm, unexcited prose never distracts from the intrinsically dramatic and shocking nature of the events. Such interpolation of events and dialogue as there is has been used only very sparingly, and for explanatory, rather than dramatic, effect. Speculations are clearly confessed, and supported by annotations explaining their justification. The book is also a triumph of meticulous historical research and scholarship. The author’s achievement in sifting, weighing and parsing centuries-old, conflicting, fragmentary sources of information, and assembling from these a coherent and logical exposition of the complex events of this affair and their antecedents, is singularly impressive. And yet the analysis, as forensically thorough and academically rigorous as it is, is never sterile or remote. By his frequent recourse – though not blind faithfulness - to the personal accounts and official records of what happened, the author conveys to the reader a powerful sense of communing with the long-dead protagonists themselves, as we hear, from their own lips, of their dreadful travails. I must add that the main text is augmented by an important and detailed set of notes, in which are to be found many further intriguing tit-bits of detail and information, which I confidently predict that most readers will greedily devour.
The book ends with an epilogue in which Dash briefly and efficiently relates the story of the re-discovery of the Batavia’s wreck in the 1960s, and the recovery of material, artefacts and human remains which have also been discovered in the Abrolhos. It is here that perhaps the most poignant vignette of the entire tale is to be found: Imagine, if you can, being marooned on an island some one mile by three, on which no part rose more than six feet above the lapping waves, with a gang of rapists and murderers who were, in the end, killing out of sheer boredom. Imagine lying at night in your flimsy tent, straining with every fibre in your body to hear the tell-tale clink and scuffing of men gathering outside. Imagine, night after night, hearing them pass by, whispering and grunting, and moments later, the shrieks and frantic imprecations of men and women being dragged outside in their underclothes and set upon with flashing blades as they lay upon the barren ground. Imagine reaching out for the comforting touch of your mother, and finding that she too shook violently in silent terror as she lay beside you... One of the sets of remains recovered from the Abrolhos was that of a small child; when the child’s skull was examined, it was observed that its teeth had been worn down to a degree quite exceptional in a person of such tender age. The cause of this accelerated wear was determined to be incessant grinding, of the sort associated with extreme anxiety.