Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

New techniques reveal details of Batavia

Engraving of the massacre that followed the Batavia shipwreck – from the Jan 1647 edition of Ongeluckige Voyagie. WA Museum

Robyn Williams, New techniques reveal details of Batavia and her crew, The Science Show ABC, 4 July 2020

The Batavia tragedy was an horrific incident in the history of Dutch travel and trade along the Western Australian coast and is a story that has been kept alive for nearly four hundred years. It was the ship’s maiden voyage from Texel, Holland to the exotic East Indies as the flagship of the Dutch East India Company in 1629. She was commanded by one of the company’s most experienced merchants, Francisco Pelsaert. In a fleet of seven other ships, Batavia started her journey to the East Indies with a precious cargo carrying silver coins and antiquities. The expedition got off to a bad start with four ships being separated from the fleet in a violent storm in the North Sea. Then from the Cape of Good Hope, the remaining three vessels were separated, and Batavia sailed alone.

In the early hours of 4th June 1692 Batavia hit rocks and was wrecked on Morning Reef, in the Abrolhos archipelago. She was the first Dutch ship to be lost off the west coast of Australia. The crew were then split with two groups scattered across two desert islands in search of water with others still on board. What followed was a horror story of mutiny and executions.

The basics of the story are not new. The Western Australia Museum displays a replica of the Batavia. But now universities and museums from Australia and the Netherlands are employing new techniques to gather further details and stories of survivors of the Batavia and other vessels which came to grief along the western Australian coast.

Listen here

Guest: Corioli Souter, Curator Maritime Archaeology, Western Australian Museum
Presenter: Robyn Williams
Producer: David Fisher

Duration: 9min 35sec
Broadcast: Sat 4 Jul 2020, 12:11pm


Robyn Williams: But the European arrival off that West Australian coast was often unintended as so-called East Indiamen, sailing ships slammed into land nearly 400 years ago. I’m with Corioli Souter, whose Shakespearean name comes from Coriolanus, at the WA Museum in Perth.

Now, the Roaring Forties, very strong winds, and they are pointing at Western Australia. Many of these boats, going back hundreds of years, were trying to get not necessarily to Western Australia, where they? Where were they headed?

Corioli Souter: The Dutch had very strong interests in what they called the Dutch East Indies which is present-day Indonesia. They had been going there pretty much since the Portuguese had settled. The Houtman brothers went around and basically stole the secrets to get to the Dutch Indies, and then the Dutch took over there, so from pretty much the early 17th century the Dutch had quite a strong presence in Indonesia. They were going there in search of spices and for trade, it was an entrepôt, so an area where people could have goods for exchange.

Robyn Williams: And the spices were worth a fortune, weren’t they.

Corioli Souter: Absolutely, and it was also a place where you could interact with Chinese merchants and people from around the world, it’s a global trade all occurring around this Indonesian archipelago.

Robyn Williams: So there you are covering all these vast distances, and you’ve got the Roaring Forties, these huge winds behind you, and you want to turn left, but you can’t stop, and so what happens?

Corioli Souter: Well fortunately, if you don’t know, there’s the Great South Land in front of you, that had only been discovered just prior to the wreck of the Batavia in 1629, and there were really only learning to turn north through dead reckoning, so it was a lot of guesswork and that’s why we have four Dutch East Indiamen on our coastline in Western Australia.

Robyn Williams: Four big ships. And what about the other ones, smaller ones?

Corioli Souter: Our earliest shipwreck is an English East Indiaman called The Tryall that wrecked in 1622. But we don’t have a great deal left of that, but certainly the Dutch East Indiamen have been quite useful in terms of their artefact material, and we’ve now got a whole museum dedicated to it.

Robyn Williams: So you’re looking not simply at the material you’ve got in the museum, you’re looking at material that’s on the site. What are you doing on the sites where they got wrecked?

Corioli Souter: Well, we are revisiting a lot of the terrestrial sites, so most of the wrecks have been quite fully excavated, and the material is now in the museum, but there is an opportunity to go back and apply some new technology and methodology to the archaeological sites on land. So in particular in the case of Batavia we been able to go back and actually look at the sites that haven’t been looked at because previously we had crayfish men living there. It’s now a national park, so these guys have moved off the islands, leaving these great swathes of area which we can really have a look at, so we are using geophysical techniques to examine what’s below the subsurface, and then applying archaeological techniques to see what we can find.

Robyn Williams: Batavia, one of the most shocking stories in the history of sailing, with a maniac doing terrible things to people, and the misery was extraordinary, wasn’t it.

Corioli Souter: Yes. I mean, a lot of the work we are interested in is getting an idea of who the people were and what they endured when they were wrecked on the Batavia and Beacon Island. And we are doing that by working with forensic anthropologists and we were able to do morphological studies. We were also looking at stable isotopes on some of the skeletal remains that we’ve excavated, and that allows us to get an idea of who these people were, of where they came from. We can look at stable isotopes of strontium and that gives us a background reading, and we can work out where these people lived.

And interestingly the VOC is a multinational company, so these people aren’t all Dutch and at least three individuals we know are possibly from the UK, France, southern Scandinavia, but they are certainly not Dutch. So it shows you the reach of the company.

Secondly, we are getting an idea of how they lived in those final days. We can look at their diet, we can look at…certainly through some of the damage to the bones, how these people died as well. So it can be quite macabre but also extremely fascinating.

Robyn Williams: Some of them were murdered, weren’t they?

Corioli Souter: A lot of them were murdered. Currently there are have been 21 individuals that we’ve excavated since the 1960s or have come to the museum collection. We do think that about 120 people perished in the Batavia in the incident. Some died as they were coming off the vessel, a lot of them weren’t swimming. Some died in the early stages from thirst. In one of the excavations we found musket lead balls and we know that that wasn’t the cause of death, but at that time people believed that if they actually sucked lead they could stave off thirst, and so we think that that particular individual would have died early on in the piece before the actual mutiny occurred, because it was a few weeks before it really kicked off. The ship wrecked on 4 June in 1629, and it wasn’t until July that the bloodletting happened. I mean, there was a lot of psychological trauma going on beforehand, and we think the main action happened then.

Robyn Williams: There was a word that some of the Europeans went inland and were greeted by Aboriginal people, and somehow they settled down. Is that confirmed in any way?

Corioli Souter: That’s a really fascinating story. We know… Pelsart is one of the first Europeans to describe Aboriginal people in Australia, and we know that two of the boys that were involved in the mutiny weren’t executed on Long Island or taken back to Batavia that were set ashore. We don’t know what happened to them. There have been a number of studies to see whether we can find any archaeological trace, but presently that’s an unknown, so perhaps in the future we will find out, but presently we just don’t know.

Robyn Williams: Genome studies possible?

Corioli Souter: DNA is a really interesting one. We are using DNA presently with our skeletal remains, really as sex typing. But with all these great big genetic ancestry databases that are building up in the world, we think that the opportunities in the future are going to be quite vast, and that may also apply to trying to find ancestors to the people that were put ashore. But presently it’s still not quite there.

Robyn Williams: It’s an incredible project, isn’t it, huge, and you are with any number of partners, universities and such like, even international.

Corioli Souter: Yes, we’ve been very fortunate, we’ve had a great relationship with the Netherlands, in particular the Dutch Cultural Heritage Unit. We work with a fellow called Martijn Manders, and the embassy here in Australia. We are working with the University of Amsterdam and some forensic anthropologists there, and the museums too. We’ve got a great relationship with the Rijksmuseum, the Scheepvaartmuseum, and the Netherlands archives as well. So this project has allowed us to continue that relationship, which was really established almost 50 years ago now.

Robyn Williams: So how many sites have you got to look at on land?

Corioli Souter: Goodness. Well, they are almost like a suite of sites. If we are talking about the Batavia, you’re almost looking at every island as a potential site in the Wallabi group. So there’s three groups of islands in the Abrolhos, and the Wallabi group is the northernmost group, and that is where the drama of the Batavia unfolded. So we focused on Beacon Island, also known as Batavia’s graveyard because we know that’s where the majority of the deaths were, and we are finding a degree of burials there. My personal interest is in finding some idea of how people lived. We are not finding living surfaces, which is really interesting. So there’s something geomorphologically going on.

There was a wreck much later of the Hadda in 1877, and we found the campsite of the people who survived that. When we dug underneath we found the remains of a human being. So just before the surface you’ve got these burials occurring, but whether it’s there or not remains to be seen. We don’t have any idea of how people lived.

On the other islands we have the execution site of the Batavia, so this was on Long Island. After Pelsart returned with the rescue vessel Sardam he tried and executed the mutineers. Jeronimus Cornelisz actually had both hands amputated before he was hung by the neck until he was dead. As was the tradition of the time, they wanted to leave a warning to others, so they would have left the scaffold and the gallows and the bodies still there. So what has happened, that has all come down over time because people weren’t on those islands to the 20th century or late 19th century I should say, and you’ve actually got…the gallows have probably come down, the wood has dried up and disappeared and blown off the island, but the fastenings, little ships fastenings that would have held the gallows together have all fallen down through these great big coral lumps which make up the surface of the island. So we used a series of metal detection and other geophysical techniques to locate all these piles of iron nails, and that’s where we believe the gallows were actually erected, so we’ve got that place now.

Robyn Williams: When you’ve finished or as you proceed, will the public be able to see the evidence in the new museum?

Corioli Souter: Oh yes, we’ve got the shipwreck galleries, the shipwreck museum down in Fremantle, which is full of our material. But what is quite nice, the new museum gives us an opportunity to retell the story in a different way. So we are incorporating a lot of our stories from the Roaring Forties project in our Indian Ocean World Gallery which is part of our connections theme, and that allows us to look at material that are from the wreck site, and also look at some other material we’ve got from loans from the British Museum and some of the lenders here in Western Australia, so we can actually get a much broader story about the Dutch in the Indian Ocean during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Robyn Williams: And Corioli Souter and the rest of us are really looking forward to the opening in November of the superb new WA museum in Perth where those stories will be told, including the terrible tale of the Batavia. She is a curator of marine archaeology at the museum.

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