Retourship Batavia

Mar 10, 2015, 7:00AM EST
Retourship Batavia
The gruesome but true story of shipwreck and murder

 A retourship was a heavily armed and well-manned merchant ship of the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnia or VOC), specifically designed for the long roundtrip (retour) voyage from the Netherlands to the East Indies.  Numerous retourships were built and put into service, but the most notorious had possibly the shortest career.  Batavia was completed in 1628 and armed with 24 cast-iron cannons and a number of bronze guns.  It sailed on 27 October 1628 from Texel for Batavia, Dutch East Indies with 341 persons on board, including passengers and supercargoes.  It sailed in company with a warship, three other retourships, two storeships, and a small yacht.  Senior merchant Francesco Pelsaert was placed in command, making him senior to the ship’s master, Ariaen Jacobszoon.  Relations between the two men were strained from the beginning.  Also on board, in the position of junior merchant, was Jeronimus Cornelisz, who turned out to be a homicidal maniac.  In accordance with standard practice of the time to take best advantage of wind and currents, the plan was to sail 2,800 miles east after rounding the Cape of Good Hope and then turn north for the East Indies.  During the long voyage, the ships in the flotilla became separated. Unfortunately, Captain Jacobszoon miscalculated Batavia’s position and underestimated the ship’s progress.  He turned north too late and grounded hard on the largely barren Houtman Abrolhos Islands off the west coast of Australia.  The islands are a series of coral reefs and may have been difficult to detect until the grounding.  Batavia sank quickly, with the loss of 40 persons.  The remainder reached shore on Beacon Island, but with limited resources.  There was little food and water to be found on the island or on the other nearby islands.  Using Batavia’s longboat, Pelsaert, Jacobszoon, and a few others departed for the Dutch East Indies to obtain a means of rescue for the survivors.  Cornelisz was placed in charge of the survivors in the interim.  He recruited a cohort of desperate and murderous young men willing to follow his orders.  He persuaded groups of others to disperse to nearby islands, supposedly to look for food and water.  Actually, he intended for them to die of thirst and starvation.  He and his men then started killing the remaining passengers and crew.  Eventually, 110 men, women, and children were murdered.  When he became aware that those sent to one of the other islands had actually found water, he launched a series of unsuccessful attacks.  It was during the fourth attack that Pelsaert and his rescue ship arrived.  Cornelisz and his men were arrested.  He and his principals were tried and convicted on the island and promptly executed by hanging.  The other murderers (as well as the 68 remaining survivors) were taken to Batavia, Dutch East Indies.  The murderers were convicted.  One was broken on the wheel, five were hanged, and the others were flogged.

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