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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars history as enthralling and readable as a novel, 5 May 2002
This review is from: Batavia's Graveyard (Hardcover)
A superb and fast-moving telling of the tragic story of the Dutch East Indiaman "Batavia" that ran aground on a archipelago of tiny islands off the coast of Australia in the early seventeenth century. The captain sails off in a small boat over a vast expanse of barely known sea to get help (shades of Captain Bligh and the "Bounty"). Ironically (and tragically) a mutiny among the merchants and crew is evolving at the time of the shipwreck, and from this murder and mayhem erupt among the survivors left to fend for themselves on the islands. Incredibly, there are enough survivors to eventually tell the world the whole story, and from their accounts and the archeological evidence Mike Dash weaves his story.
Dash tells the story at a fine pace in clear and readable prose. This, admittedly fascinating, slice of history is as enthralling as a novel. Interspersed in the narrative is everything you would want to know (and much you might not) about the Dutch East India Company, life in seventeenth century Holland (rapidly becoming the richest society in the world), religious dissent in early modern Europe, the spice trade, the early European explorations of Australia and the East Indies, and (what lingers in the mind longest) the truly appalling conditions of life at sea at the time. One ends up wondering why anyone ever went to sea during this period of human history, even if desperate, after reading about the putrid water, limited salty food, non-existent hygeine, infestations of lice and cockroaches, barbaric punishments and terrible risks.
The mounting horror of the murders and anarchy among those stranded on the island and the eventual rescue and response of the authorities is superbly evoked, together with the "follow up" of the survivors, as far as is known. History comes alive in the all too human stories of ordinary people desperately trying to survive under unimaginable conditions.
Only a couple of quibbles - Anabaptists were generally not violent (despite the exception at Munster where there was peculiarly individual circumstances, including a charismatic leader), many were pacifists (as are Memmonites today). To blame Cornelieuz' behavior on his religion is almost certainly misplaced, although combined with his personal disasters, it may have increased his sense of being an outsider. Secondly, diagnosing Cornelieuz as a psychopath (a twentieth century psychiatric term) is enormously difficult at this reach of time, there may have been other social, psychological or medical reasons for his (admittedly appalling) behavior, and simply calling him a psychopath is uncharacteristically glib and frankly unhelpful. These don't detract, however, from the well told story.
Highly recommended - read it.
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4.7 out of 5 stars (43 customer reviews)
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