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Unlucky Voyage of the Ship Batavia.

  • Title:
    Unlucky Voyage of the Ship Batavia.
  • Text:

    A first edition of this illustrated book, or pamphlet, Ongeluckige voyagie, van’t schip Batavia (Unlucky voyage of the ship Batavia) is now held by the State Library of Western Australia’s Battye Library, as well as in the Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth, together with Joost Hartges’s pirated 1648 edition. It tells the horrifying story of the 1629 shipwreck of the Batavia off the coast of Western Australia, followed by mutiny and the massacre of many survivors.

    The ill-fated ship Batavia was sailing on its first voyage with a cargo mainly of jewels and silver designed to increase the Dutch East India Company’s (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC) influence and wealth in the Indies. Two hours before dawn on 4 June 1629, the ship struck the Morning Reef, part of the Houtman Abrolhos off the almost unknown coast of western Australia. While most of the 322 passengers and crew made their way to the flat, inhospitable islands of the archipelago, commandeur Francisco Pelsaert and others left in a longboat to search for water, and when they were unsuccessful, continued on the long journey north to Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies (today Jakarta, Indonesia). Meanwhile undermerchant Jeronimus Cornelisz, the most senior VOC officer remaining with the survivors, led a group of mutineers who planned to kill most of the survivors, seize any rescue ship, and go pirating. They separated the group of survivors into smaller parties isolated on different islands, and marooned the VOC soldiers on the seemingly barren Wallabi Island with instructions to look for water. The mutineers began to kill the remaining survivors a few at a time, often secretly or at night, although after several weeks they launched several open massacres, eventually murdering over 120 people. In the meantime, the soldiers on Wallabi Island unexpectedly found water, and led by Wiebbe Hayes, managed to fend off attacks from the mutineers. A battle between the two forces was dramatically interrupted by the return of Pelsaert from Batavia in the ship Sardam, and the mutineers were captured, interrogated with torture, and several executed, including the ringleader Cornelisz. Two were abandoned on the mainland, and their ultimate fate remains unknown.

    The pamphlet was published in Amsterdam in 1647, almost twenty years after the event, by Jan Janssonius (born Jan Janszoon) a leading Amsterdam publisher specialising in navigational and cartographical material. It was based on Pelsaert’s journal, edited by Isaac Commelin.i  The cheap printed pamphlet catered to a large international audience, and as one of the first accounts of disaster at sea, Ongeluckige voyagie became highly popular, as indicated by eight reprints and further pirated editions, helping to shape a new genre of shipwreck narrative. The booklet expressed the preoccupations of contemporary visual culture - including global exploration and trade but also shipwreck, human wickedness and bloodlust, and the punishment of immorality. It reflects a perennial human fascination with danger, as well as a specifically Dutch frontier history, where survivors brave the waters and inherit the promised land in a ‘trial by water’ in which sin is divinely punished, but expiation follows through suffering and providential intercession.

    It included fifteen copper engravings, comprising six full pages, that focused and dramatized key moments from the narrative. These illustrations expressed new ideas about pictorial and political space as a result of collaboration between cartographers and artists, and it used new techniques of montage and vignette to convey the narrative’s drama.

    In 1897, a time of nationalist debate leading up to Federation (in 1901), its first English translator Willem Siebenhaar, a Dutch ex-patriate socialist and then clerk in the Western Australian Land Titles Department, suggested that while “its heroes and villains are Dutch and Frenchmen, and its publisher honest Jan Jansz, of Amsterdam, the whole deals with Australia and Australian settlement, and gives us a glimpse of [A]borigines similar to those who still inhabit our colony.” As he noted, this “earliest of Australian books” told the story of “the first settlers — involuntary, it is true — in Australian territory”.ii  

    The tale of the Batavia continues to be offered as an alternative national foundation myth, contributing to a long-term, Asian-centred Australian past, revealing the cosmopolitan networks characterizing this region from the sixteenth century, and undermining the narrative of fatal British impact in the east. The Batavia disaster continues to grow in cultural significance. Now, as then, these illustrations provide a vivid counterpoint to its audience’s comfortable lives.

    i.The pamphlet contained two other disaster stories, the “Happily Ended Disaster which Befel the Servants of the East India Company in the Year 1636, at the Royal Court of Siam, in the Town of Judia, Under the Command of the Worthy Jeremias Van Vliet,” and “The Acts of Extreme Tyranny of Abas, King of Persia, in the Year 15, to the Highest Dignitaries of his Empire, at his Royal Court of Ispahan.”

    ii.The Mail’s introduction to Siebenhaar’s translation noted that “A translation was made in French in 1663 for the ‘Recueil de Divers Voyages Curieux’, by Thevenot. On this, which is very much abridged, all the subsequent English translations even more condensed have been based. They are to be found in Harris’s ‘Collection of Voyages’, Callander’s ‘Terra Australis Cognita’, and Major’s ‘Early Voyages to Terra Australis’ (Hakluyt Soc.). Other French translations have been made, but they are little more than reprints of that by Thevenot.”

    “No. 1” (a., wreck of the Batavia on 4 June 1629, “about 2 hours before daybreak”;
    b., before dawn; c., the next day, 5 June 1629). Commelin, Ongeluckige
    . Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia .
    First we see the moment just before impact, as the Batavia, under full sail, crashes on to the reef, barely visible here as a watery disturbance under the bow. The first illustration (“No 1”), actually comprises three engravings that the eye follows clockwise, from top to bottom left, to create a visual narrative.

    The face of God looks sombrely through the clouds. (Detail from “No. 1.” Commelin, Ongeluckige voyagie. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia .)

    “No. 2.” Commelin, Ongeluckige voyagie. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia .
    At top, the wreck, figures still visible on deck, while a rowing boat hovers near the bow. A figure can be seen jumping from the boat into the water holding a plank—this was the brave carpenter Jan Egbertsz of Amsterdam, who swam through high surf from the ship to Pelsaert’s yawl, bringing Cornelisz’s request for rescue, and back again, taking timber to make sweeps.

    “No. 3” [Massacre]. Commelin, Isaac, ed., Ongeluckige voyagie. Tot Amsterdam: Voor Jan Jansz, 1647. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia .
    Next we see a single scene of massacre, signalling its central importance,
    and the most spectacular form of murder.

    “No. 4.” Commelin, Ongeluckige voyagie. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia .
    Pelsaert is shown returning from Batavia (“No. 4” in top left corner), sailing towards the Abrolhos islands on the Sardam and so dating it between 15 July and 7 September. At top right the Sardam approaches an island where smoke rises from three fires and figures are fighting, indicating the battle between the mutineers and the soldiers then underway (7 September).

    “No. 5” Commelin, Ongeluckige voyagie. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia .
    Here we are shown successive moments from the dramatic denouement in a rapid-fire filmic mode, as the survivors are liberated.

    “No 6.” Commelin, Ongeluckige voyagie. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia .
    We see the consequences of immorality, showing the punishment by mutilation and hanging of the ringleaders; below, in an enclosed space, torture is inflicted on four men by the VOC as permitted by the States General of the Netherlands in Batavia’s courts.

    Sourced from the collections of the State Library of Western Australia and reproduced with the permission of the Library Board of Western Australia.

    Commelin, Isaac, ed. Unlucky Voyage of the Ship Batavia (Ongeluckige voyagie, van't schip Batavia), Tot Amsterdam: Voor Jan Jansz, 1647.

    Gehring, Ulrike, and Peter Weibel, eds., Mapping Spaces: Networks of Knowledge in 17th Century Landscape Painting, Munich: Hirmer Publishers, 2014.

    Lydon, Jane, ‘Visions of Disaster in the Unlucky Voyage of the Ship Batavia, 1647’, Itinerario, Vol. 42, No. 3 (2018) , 351–374.

    Siebenhaar, Willem. “The Abrolhos Tragedy”, Western Mail (Christmas Number), 24 December, 1897, 5-7.

    Wattel, A. 2020 (forthcoming) Content Matters: VOC Silverware for Mughal India. In J. Green and A. Paterson (ed.), Shipwrecks of the Roaring 40s. Researching some of Australia’s earliest shipwrecks, Perth: UWA Publishing.

    Word Count: 1391

  • Author:
    Jane Lydon
  • Publish?:
  • Suggested citation: Jane Lydon, Unlucky Voyage of the Ship Batavia., in Collecting the West: "99 Collections That Made Western Australia", 2020. (

    Collecting the West is an Australian Research Council funded project: LP160100078