Batavia by Peter FitzSimons

This book is an exciting read for those interested in European maritime or early Australian history. In the early 17th Century the Dutch had largely cornered the European market in spices by the establishment of colonial outposts in the Spice Islands, which are now part of modern day Indonesia. Spices were highly prized in Europe and massive profits could be made from their trade. In the early days of the spice trade, spices were shipped from the Spice Islands to India and then overland through Arabia to the Turkish spice markets from where European traders transported them to Northern Europe. The Dutch, through the formation of the Dutch East India Company, began to transport spices and other valuable commodities directly to Europe by ship. The Dutch East India Company, the world’s first multinational company, became so rich and powerful from this trade that it was almost a state within a state with its own navy and army.

The voyage from Europe to the Indonesian archipelago via the Cape of Good Hope was extremely hazardous in the 17th century. In the early days of trade the preferred route was to follow the coast of east Africa after leaving the Cape and then travel in a north-easterly direction to India before turning eastwards to the Spice Islands using the monsoon trade winds. This voyage could take up to 12 months. From 1617 onwards the Dutch realised that considerable savings in time could be made by travelling due east from the Cape of Good Hope across the Indian Ocean to near the coast of the “Southland”, now Western Australia, using the strong westerlies (the roaring forties) then turning north to the Spice Islands . The only problem with this route was that east-west positions (longitude) could only be determined by “dead reckoning” as the chronometer, essential for determining longitude, was not invented till over a hundred years later (1762).

In October 1628 the new flagship and pride of the East India Company, the Batavia, left the Netherlands on its maiden voyage to the Spice Islands. The Batavia was a huge boat for the times – 600 tonnes, and was carrying large amounts of money and treasure. She was under the command of one of the East India Company’s most experienced captains, Ariaen Jacobsz.

After reprovisioning at the Cape of Good Hope, the Batavia set a course due east to the coast of Western Australia as directed by the East India Company. Though aware of the dangerous coastline ahead, Jacobsz misjudged his position and in June 1629 the Batavia ran aground on the notorious reefs of the Houtman’s Abrolhos Islands, 50 miles off the coast of Western Australia.

The author provides a riveting account of the horrific events that took place following the shipwreck. While Jacobsz and 47 others sailed to the East Indies in an open boat to get help many of the survivors remaining on the Islands were brutally and systematically murdered by a group of mutineers and the few women among them were subject to monstrous sexual abuse and slavery. A group of soldiers under the remarkable leadership of a private was able to escape the treachery of the mutineers and thwart their plans till a rescue vessel arrived.

Peter FitzSimons, through extensive research has written an absorbing account of the tragic events that took place on Australia’s western coast with the wreck of the Batavia. While most Australian school children have heard of Dirk Hartog and his pewter dish, few Australians are familiar with the momentous events that occurred on the sinking of the Batavia. With this book, the author has highlighted the significant place of the Batavia in Australia’s early maritime history.

FitzSimons’s writing makes compulsive reading. The author writes with a pace more akin to a fictional thriller than an historical recount. Using hard facts as the scaffold he has built a compelling and fascinating account of an important historical event. It is a story of treachery, greed, resilience, courage, honour and nobility. It is satisfying that in the end, against all odds, courage and nobility shine through.

Peter Gordon is a freelance reviewer.