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The Mysterious Murder Island of Australia

History is riddled with odd anomalies and mysteries which have seemed to have fallen through the cracks into obscurity. Sometimes it is hard to say just why this is, or why some things stand out to remain prominent while other equally amazing or tragic events get relegated to the background, and there are amazing tales that have somehow managed to remain off the radar for most. One such account is a curious case of intrigue, alien lands, high seas adventure, survival, and sinister murder, which has gone on to become one of Australia’s most gruesome, yet mostly little known mysterious crimes. Steeped in a tale that almost seems ripped from the pages of an adventure or horror novel, the case of Australia’s Murder Island is truly a gripping story of mystery and suspense.

The whole shocking mystery begins on October 27, 1628, when the brand new Dutch East India Company ship the Batavia set sail on its maiden voyage from the island of Texel, in the Netherlands, on a journey towards Jakarta, Indonesia to pick up a cargo of spices under the command of Francisco Pelsaert and skipper, Ariaen Jacobsz, after which it would then move on to the exotic, faraway land of India. Aboard the Batavia were over 300 passengers and a vast load of valuable treasure, including massive amounts of gold and silver coins for the purpose of buying spices, as wells as numerous chests of jewels and precious works of art meant to be sold to the Mogul Court in India on the second leg of its voyage.

Things were tense to begin with on the ship, as by all accounts Pelseart and Jacobsz did not really get along. Besides reportedly not particularly liking each other to begin with, they had also had an altercation in the past in Surat, in which Jacobsz had been publicly dressed down after an ill-advised drunken rant at the commander. Jacobsz had apparently not forgotten this embarrassing and humiliating incident, and along with the enticing and considerable cargo of chests upon chests of treasure below decks he began to concoct a plan to take over the ship, oust Pelsaert, who he despised, and take the coins and other valuable artifacts for his own. To this end, he began to conspire with a fellow crew member by the name of Jeronimus Cornelisz, a bankrupt pharmacist trying to flee the Netherlands, in a dark plan to take the ship.

Replica of the Batavia

The idea was for them to deliberately set the Batavia off course to get away from the rest of the fleet and then spring with a cadre of armed men and sympathizers, after which they would take the treasure and go off to start a new life over the horizon, wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. As the ship stopped at the Cape of Good Hope for supplies the mutiny scheme was begun, with Jacobsz throwing the Batavia off course just as planned. In order to recruit new members into their mutinous plan, Jacobsz and Cornelisz tried to manipulate the commander into doling out unfair punishments, such as molesting a high ranking female passenger by the name of Lucretia Jans, who was the daughter of a well-respected merchant. It was expected that the repercussions of this would be substantial, and that the commander would be ruthless in his punishments. However, the commander came down ill and as a result the harsh punishments expected to be carried out on the crew never materialized, and they were not able to gain the sympathy to their plight that they had hoped for.

The mutiny would never really gel together at the time because before it could be carried out the wayward vessel drifted towards the West Australian coast and vanished into history. It would many years later be found that the ship crashed upon a reef off the tiny atoll of Beacon Island. It had been no walk in the park, as 40 of those on board drowned in the ensuing initial chaos, but most of the passengers and crew somehow managed to make it to shore on this tiny speck of uninhabited land, including women and children. Clawing their way to land seemed to be just the beginning of their woes, however, as there was found to be no freshwater on the island and very few food resources, consisting only of any birds, fish, sea turtles, or sea lions they could catch.

Knowing that their days were numbered if they chose to stay put, a 30-foot long longboat was sent out with a group to scout for a place where they could more easily procure water and food, including amongst their ranks Captain Jacobsz, commander Francisco Pelsaert, a few senior officers, some other crew members, and some passengers. Unbelievably, Pelsaert was still completely unaware that a mutiny was brewing, and thus ignorant of the fact that he was taking this last ditch effort with the very man who wanted him dead.

Beacon Island

Their main objective was the mainland, but they had no luck in finding what they were looking for so they next headed out to present day Jakarta, then called Batavia, all the while making frequent forays onto the mainland for water. For 33 days they continued this trek, and were finally able to find water at the island of Nusa Kambangan and at Yardie Creek in Western Australia. They finally managed to reach Batavia, now Jakarta, where the Governor General instructed them to go and try to salvage what they could of the vast riches their doomed vessel had been carrying, and also rescue the other survivors. If they could. But get that treasure.

In the meantime, Jacobsz’s co-conspirator Cornelisz was looking after the ones left behind. And by “looking after” I mean embarking on a horrific campaign of violence against the ragtag group that has been called a “modern day Lord of the Flies.” Practically as soon as the longboat slipped over the horizon Cornelisz and his dark cabal of mutineers began a campaign of terror on the over 200 people with him. He immediately commandeered all of the food and water resources that they had, putting everyone at his mercy, and he also made plans to selectively weed out those who might eventually defy him. One of the survivors, a soldier named Wiebbe Hayes, was sent away to a neighboring island to search for water along with his men, although the real reason was to effectively exile them and take them out of the equation.

With his most dangerous potential enemies out of the way, Jacobsz and his fellow mutineers went about killing off anyone they thought might oppose them, slaughtering those who did not follow their orders or who they though would be a waste of limited resources, including women and children. Some of the women were kept as sex slaves for both Cornelisz and the men who supported his traitorous mutiny, and the other survivors lived in abject fear of him and his men, who would savagely beat and kill people at the slightest perceived slight and often without any clear reason at all. Jacobsz believed that 45 people was the right number that could be sustainable for a long period of time, and he was not shy about whittling their numbers down further and further, eventually killing over a hundred people in an orgy of terror and bloodshed.

An engraving depicting the carnage at Beacon Island

The increasingly delusional Cornelisz began to entertain the idea of simply taking over the longboat upon its return and then loading it with gold, silver, and the select few who he had deemed worthy in order to go start their own kingdom somewhere. Both he and his followers had become hopelessly drunk on power and the thrill of killing, and they most certainly believed that they were invincible gods in a sense, there on their little island completely dominating and controlling the lives and deaths of the people in their charge, who had nowhere to go or escape to, at the mercy of their barbaric overlords. Alistair Paterson, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia, has said of Cornelisz’s ruthless reign thus:

We’re dealing with a psychopath and some pretty horrible events.There’s nothing like it in Dutch history or Australian history. Horrible things happened to these individuals. They clearly were victims.

Things might have gotten even worse yet if it wasn’t for the soldier Hayes, who had been sent on a fool’s errand to die on a barren, forgotten and possibly even uncharted island. Yet unbeknownst to Cornelisz the band of soldiers had actually managed to find water and food on their supposedly doomed mission, and had even announced their survival and discovery through smoke signals. It was not until some bedraggled, terrified people came through on makeshift rafts in their bid to flee the mayhem that Hayes found out about the coldblooded campaign of murder going on over there.

Horrified but undaunted, Hayes and his men went about fashioning weapons from whatever they could find and building a makeshift fort out of slabs of coral and limestone, knowing that the mutiny would come for them sooner or later, especially as they had advertised with their smoke signals that not only were they still alive, but that they had found fresh water. They did not have to wait long, as Cornelisz and his men came for them just as expected, their own resources depleted beyond hope and looking to steal and kill. The attack did not go well for the mutineers, and not only were they driven back by the trained soldiers but Cornelisz himself was captured.

A stone fort used by Wiebbe Hayes

The mutineers had suffered heavy losses hurling themselves against Hayes’ fortifications, but they nevertheless regrouped to try again, this time under the command of a Wouter Loos, and this time armed to the teeth with all of the firearms they had been able to salvage. This time they were able to do more damage against their foes, and Hayes was almost defeated, but they held strong against the vicious onslaught. Not long after this, commander Pelsaert and his companions returned from their voyage, nearly two months after they had departed.

The appearance of the longboat signaled a significant change and balance of power, and when Hayes was able to reach them and explain what had happened and about the planned mutiny and all of the senseless death, their combined forces were able to overcome the mutineers and finally put an end to these dark days. A trial was organized right then and there, and many of the mutineers were promptly taken to nearby Seal Island to be summarily executed, with Cornelisz himself being sentenced to having both of his hands chopped off and then hanging without ever showing the slightest bit of remorse. Some other conspirators, including Loos, were banished to mainland Australia and never heard from again, and still others were eventually shipped off to Batavia to be put on trial, after which most of them were executed.

Amazingly, Pelseart was accused of having been somewhat derelict of duty for not having sensed the upcoming mutiny, and he had most of his assets frozen as punishment. The once proud commander would eventually die a poor man. Hayes came out the best of all involved, hailed as a hero and promoted by the Dutch East India Company. As for survivors, only 68 of the 341 people who had embarked on the initial voyage made it through the horrifying ordeal, and their story would not be truly understood for centuries. But hey, Palseart was able to salvage some of the treasure in the end, so there’s that.

For decades the Batavia was considered one of the most mysterious sea disappearances there was, and there were extensive search efforts and expeditions launched to find the lost vessel. Although there would be frequent reports of finding the missing Batavia, it would not be until 1963, a full 335 years after its mysterious disappearance, that the wreck would finally be located and combined with what would be found on the adjacent island a picture could be painted of what had transpired, and archeologists and scientists are even now still trying to piece together just what exactly really happened and the full story of these events that unfurled hundreds of years ago on this remote island in the middle of nowhere. Even now archeologists from the Netherlands and Australia are unearthing more remains on the island and it is not even known just what the death toll really was, with more bodies being found all of the time, or in many cases how they died. It is considered to be the worst mass murders in Australian history, and there are many aspects of this historic curiosity that remain unsolved, with more clues and pieces of the puzzle surfacing even now, and it was the subject of a fascinating piece on 60 Minutes called 60 Minutes Australia: Island of Horror, which you can watch here.

The tale of the mutiny of the Batavia has gone on to become one of the most thrilling, bloody, and at the same time most obscure maritime accounts in history. Just what exactly happened out there on that remote, lonely island? What did these people see and endure at the hands of their evil overlords? How many really died and how many remain buried and forgotten on this speck of land? We may eventually find the answers to these questions and more, but for now it remains a murky, violent episode in history, filled with swashbuckling adventure, horror, and unsolved mysteries.