The coast of western Australia is littered with shipwrecks with terrifying stories, but none may be as horrific as that of Batavia. Mutiny, murder, and slavery among its survivors lasted for months after the vessel’s maiden voyage ended tragically in 1629, and the tale has become a foundational story of Australia’s history.
Now archaeologists have released a new study of the shipwreck’s aftermath that supports the story of the Batavia wreck, but also provides “material insights that you couldn’t get any other way,” says Alistair Paterson, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia and lead author of the study. “The archaeology compliments the historical accounts.”
Among the discoveries: a graveyard of those who died of thirst or disease soon after the wreck; evidence that many survivors were murdered afterward; signs of desperate resistance, including a stone fort and makeshift weapons; and the gallows where the perpetrators of the terror were eventually hanged.
“It may be the most notable shipwreck in Australian history,” says maritime archaeologist Kieran Hosty, a curator at the Australian National Maritime Museum who was not involved in the latest study. “It’s an incredible story of bloodshed.”
The ‘unlucky voyage’
In 1629 Batavia, a three-masted sailing ship bound for the Dutch East Indies, ran aground on a coral reef in the arid Houtman Abrolhos Islands off western Australia, which was then uninhabited by Europeans.
About 300 survivors made it to a small island, now called Beacon Island, roughly a mile away; in a few days, the ship’s commander and a small team, concerned about the lack of water, headed off in a small boat toward the East Indies for help.
Meanwhile, many of the crew stayed on board the stricken ship, getting drunk. They were led by Jeronimus Cornelisz, third in command on Batavia, who’d plotted a mutiny before the ship wrecked. When the vessel broke apart about a week later, Cornelisz’s men made their way to Beacon Island.
Cornelisz soon learned that the rest of the survivors were aware of his plans for mutiny, and that they’d surely be punished when the commander of Batavia returned. Cornelisz ordered all weapons from the survivors seized, and many were banished to nearby islands. More than 100 of the remaining men, women, and children were massacred or enslaved.
The despotic reign of Cornelisz and his accomplices lasted five months, until they were captured by the crew of a rescue ship from the Dutch East Indies. Cornelisz and six of his men were hanged on nearby Long Island in October 1629—Australia’s earliest-known executions.
Thirst, disease, and violence
The Batavia wreck was discovered in 1963 and underwater excavations carried out in the 1970s; eventually part of the hull was raised and put on display in the Western Australian Maritime Museum in Freemantle. Several sites on the islands associated with the wreck were also excavated over the decades that followed. The latest discoveries are the result of archaeological research by Paterson and his colleagues between 2014 and 2019. They include the graves of a dozen people on Beacon Island, who probably died from thirst or disease before the mutineers seized control.
Earlier excavations revealed clear signs of violent deaths, with the remains hurriedly buried in shallow graves. But these graves seem orderly and without signs of trauma. Some of the dead were buried with personal belongings: a pewter spoon, a comb, some amber beads. Paterson said isotope analysis and other tests will now be carried out on the remains to find out more about the people buried there.
Many of the victims were first exiled by the mutineers to Long Island, less than a mile from Beacon Island, before being murdered—sometimes a dozen at a time, according to accounts by survivors. Their bodies were thrown into the sea to cover up the mass murders: “There was an attempt to try to keep it hidden,” Paterson says.
The archaeologists have also created a photogrammetric 3D model of a stone building on West Wallabi Island—the remains of an unlikely resistance against the mutineers. A group of about 20 soldiers from Batavia had been disarmed and banished by Cornelisz to West Wallabi, the largest of the Houtman Abrolhos island group.
The soldiers were lucky to find both water and food (in the form of tammar wallabies, the first marsupials encountered by Europeans) and later attracted survivors fleeing Beacon Island, some five miles away. The residents of West Wallabi successfully fended off two attacks from Cornelisz’s men.
According to the ship’s commander, the soldiers had “set out to defend themselves if [the mutineers] should come to fight them, and made arms from hoops and nails, which were tied to sticks.”
Archaeologists found a similar makeshift weapon on nearby Long Island: a club or mace made from folded lead, with holes for protruding nails.
Another find made on Long Island is the remains of the gallows where Cornelisz and his accomplices were hanged. According to the commander’s account, they’d first had their hands cut off—a common punishment in Holland at the time, Paterson says.
Another two mutineers, judged less guilty, were marooned on the Australian mainland. They were the first Europeans to permanently settle in Australia, but what happened to them is not known.
The brutal story of Batavia is now recognized as an important moment in Australia’s early colonial history and is even the subject of an opera.
The national museum’s Hosty says the story has often been championed by western Australians, sometimes as an alternative to stories of the early convict colonies in the east of the vast country.
Paterson adds that it shows there is much more to early European history in Australia than Captain Cook’s explorations in the 1770s. “This is a reminder that other parts of history are relevant to Australia as well,” he says.