The Batavia Story

This was the first illustration made for the tapestry, showing the Batavia sailing before the shipwreck. In the creation of the drawing I researched ships of the era and referenced the modern day replica of the Batavia, in the ornament and design on the stern. I show a solitary sailor high in the rigging and a proud stern skipper below.

Before the shipwreck, the lookout warned the skipper below that there was broken water ahead, but his warning was not taken seriously. Discipline had really broken down aboard the ship, since the Batavia parted from the rest of the fleet.

There was a sex scandal, in which a beautiful married woman aboard called Lucretia was assaulted by soldiers, who managed to escape conviction. The crew had divided loyalties and there were rumours of a mutiny to break as soon as the ship sighted the Southland. Inevitably though, the skipper Jacobs was responsible for the wreck for failing to take heed of the lookout’s warning. Jacobsz was also involved with the mutineers during the passage and had made Lucretia’s maid Zwaantje, his mistress. They played an active part in shaming Lucretia, but were pardoned later, for their role in navigating the longboat with the ship’s captain all the way back to Indonesia…

During the shipwreck, they tried to cut the main mast down in hopes that they would be freed but all was lost. It became total anarchy! There’s a young crew member being sick over the side of the ship, while a sailor looks on laughing amidst the chaos.

The sick captain Pelsaert is shown running out in his night shirt to confront the skipper, Jacobsz, while a mutinous crew around to them in a panic drank and fought over treasure, before realising that their fate was sealed. The ship was lost, they were marooned and all the wealth aboard was relatively worthless. With the ship wrecked, the most precious commodities left were the rapidly dwindling supplies of water, bread and cloth.

Following the wreck, Commandeur Francisco Pelsaert set sail in search of water in the ship’s longboat. Overloaded with passengers and provisions, Pelsaert set sail for the journey he ultimately made to Indonesia, in order to organise a rescue ship. This image is like my Sergeant Pepper’s Album cover, showing all the important characters aboard. There was actually 48 people aboard including two women and a baby in a boat not much bigger than a Couta boat!

Meanwhile a band of pirates, led by Jeronimus Cornelisz, had seized control and begun to massacre the marooned survivors of the shipwreck on the Abrolhos Islands.

With the departure of Pelsaert, officers and crew of 48, no castaway held a higher position than Cornelisz. There on the islands, he alone represented ‘the Company’ and exploited the position, calling himself Captain-General. Any disobedience was considered mutiny, including stealing food, water or wine and was brutally dealt with.

This young man represent the youth and blind ambition of the pirates plotting to take over the islands come hell or high water.

“We shall be the Devil’s Own” was the oath of loyalty signed by Cornelisz and his followers and they were. For four months Cornelisz held the power of life and death over the castaways. The former ‘supercargo,’ Cornelisz, resplendent in a redcoat and lace, sentenced over 125 men, women and children to their death. Only 73 of the original crew survived Cornelisz’ ‘reign of terror’.

This image shows the first open killing of Andries de Vries, a young officer who was forced to kill the sick and then executed for speaking to the pirate king’s favourite, Lucretia.

This image shows a large raft inspired by the Raft of the Medusa, showing how the mutineers did away with passengers secretly at sea.

This is seal island, where many of the older women and children were taken and killed. The sick were the first to go, and then women and children were separated and slain by the mutineers.

Meanwhile, on the High Island, a group of loyal soldiers camped. Their leader Weibbe Hayes organised a band of loyal soldiers to stand and fight the mutineers.

The soldiers had been deliberately marooned there by the mutineers, as they might have prevented their rising to power. The cunning Cornelisz had the soldiers depart from the wreck site of Batavia’s Graveyard (Beacon Island) on the pretence of having them search for water. In reality he hoped they would not find water and die.

But these men were tough; many would have been veterans from the 100 years war in Europe and seasoned to fighting and killing. The soldiers were without shelter, tents or blankets throughout the winter, apart from two ‘huts’ built from coral slabs that appear like world war 1 trenches with men leaping from them. These coral huts are in fact the oldest structures known to have been built by Europeans on the Australian continent, and can still be seen today on West Wallabi Island.

When the mutineers of Batavia’s graveyard saw the smoke signals made by the loyal soldiers, when they found supplies of water, Cornelisz and his men knew they had to take the island by force or by bribery. But Weibbe Hayes and his loyal men refused to take the bait. The defenders stood their ground and in an epic battle made their stand against the mutineers and were successful in capturing their leader, Cornelisz.

Every recorded person by name is depicted in the tapestry and some figures like Pelsaert, the skipper Jacobsz and the pirate king Cornelisz’ henchmen are shown several times, in their acts of violence and murder. This image shows a secret killing on East Wallabi island, which was not inhabited by the castaways, but mentioned in the captain’s journal of the events.

I wasn’t able to show everything that happened, in the Batavia shipwreck story, such as Pelsaert’s discovery of Australia, in his search for water and the fate of the two youngest pirates who were marooned in Australia, spared from the gallows, when the pirates were eventually captured and tried for murder. What I show, in the tapestry is the climax of the story, when at the height of battle, sails appear upon the horizon and the mutineers race towards the returning rescue ship… 

… But Wiebbe Hayes, the leader of the good soldiers fought desperately to warn the Sardam, and made it just in time to warn the captain of the mutiny. When the mutineers reached the ship, they were cast in irons and subsequently they were hung for murder.

The history of the Batavia shipwreck is a tale of treachery, death and disaster, mutiny, murder, courage and conviction, escape, revenge and ultimately heroism—

The tapestry project is my passion and intended as a gift for future generations to enjoy. I also wish to publish a book, narrating the legendary Batavia shipwreck next year. My aim is to raise awareness of an extraordinary episode from the beginning of our history.

I feel I have been able to connect with the past, through the process of making the tapestry. It has expanded my knowledge, research, skills and understanding. I have learnt how to splice, serve and knot rope, how to spin and weave fabric, embroider and make lace.

I feel engaged with history through creating and researching this project, as if I had seen and walked the decks of the Batavia myself, many years ago.

I would describe the project as Australia’s contemporary Bayeux Tapestry. The embroidery is historically accurate, based on hours of archaeological research and historical journals, its visually engaging and near completion.

I am seeking to launch the project shortly and would love to invite your comments on how best to achieve my goal of launching the project and getting it on permanent public display.

Melinda Piesse, July 2016