Notes from an author: Stuart Turton on how a mysterious 17th-century voyage inspired his most recent novel
A voyage to 17th-century Java inspires Stuart Turton to write a historical murder mystery set on the high seas.
A few years ago, I decided to write a murder mystery novel set on a boat in 1634. I like boats, and I like history, and I thought it’d be fun. That’s as far as my thinking took me. I had no idea that researching the story would drag me from Australia to Indonesia and Europe.
The book is called The Devil and the Dark Water, and takes place on a merchant galleon transporting spices from Batavia to Amsterdam on behalf of the Dutch East India Company. The inspiration for the story came from an exhibition in the Perth Maritime Museum. A galleon called the Batavia was wrecked off the west coast of Australia in 1629. Most of the passengers survived the wreck only to find themselves trapped on a tiny island with a psychopath, who proceeded to butcher the majority of them.
Bleak, I admit. But I kill fictional folk for a living, so bleak is my bedrock. The very same day I saw the exhibition, I chartered a ferry out to the Abrolhos Islands, where the massacre took place. I expected rolling thunder and moaning spirits, and instead found one of the most beautiful places on the planet. No fewer than 122 white-sand islands dot the turquoise ocean, which churns with turtles and schools of fish. Watching tanned snorkellers, it was difficult to imagine what these islands must have looked like to the passengers of the Batavia, who had no water or shade, and nowhere to run when they were being hunted.
The truly awful thing is that, in a way, most of them were dead the moment they left Amsterdam. A third of everybody who boarded those ships died of illness or accident, which meant you had to be truly desperate to risk the crossing in the first place.
As soon as we got back to land, I booked myself a flight to Indonesia. I wanted to finish the journey they never did and understand why they’d risked it in the first place. Batavia — their final destination — doesn’t exist anymore. It became Jakarta in 1945 after the Indonesians declared independence from the Dutch, but a small chunk of the old city has been preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It takes 10 hours to fly from Perth to Jakarta, but it felt like I’d landed on another planet. After the natural beauty of the Abrolhos islands, I was now drowning in fumes and heat, honking horns and irate rivers, desperate to be places they couldn’t reach. Beautiful skyscrapers clawed at the smoggy sky, with the most incredible poverty gathered in their shadows.
Normally, I’d have fled, but these details are why I travel. I want my readers to feel like they’re in the story I’m telling. I want them to feel the sun beating against their skin. I want them to have dirt under their fingernails. That only works if you can slather them in the world you’re creating. Being in Jakarta was wonderful for that. An hour after landing, I was soaked through with sweat, confounded and alone, entirely lost in the din.
A cab took me to the old town, but with preservation comes sterility. The canal would once have been the primary method of transport around the city. Nowadays, it’s a an oblong of murky water with a sign detailing these activities.
Grand buildings that once greased the world’s economy are now quiet coffeeshops and museums. Peak colonialism has become peak tourism. After an hour of aimless wandering, I asked a cab driver to show me the older bits of the Jakarta.
For two hours, we crept through alleys and lanes. Entire eras flickered into view, before disappearing again as the architecture changed; wrought iron lamps and rust-coloured tiled roofs surviving amid brick factories and rows of slumped houses. I asked the driver why more of it wasn’t preserved,
but he just tutted at the idea. “This isn’t life now,” he told me.
I left Jakarta with a notebook drenched in sweat. My final flight took me to Lelystadt, just outside Amsterdam, where they’ve built a galleon like the Batavia. It’s a museum, its holds full of history instead of spice. Even so, it’s a menacing space, simultaneously huge and cramped, sturdy and fragile.
And here, at last, was how I wanted my book to feel: just like this menacing space — simultaneously huge and cramped, sturdy and fragile. A floating cathedral filled with ghosts, at the mercy of the sea. The rest was just writing.
Stuart Turton is the author of The Devil and the Dark Water, which is published by Bloomsbury Publishing, £8.99.
Published in the July/Aug 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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