Ghosts in paradise
Photo Edwina Pickles
From The Age
In 1629, the Batavia sunk on the stunning coral isles west of Geraldton. Linda Jaivin visits the wreck’s site, and discovers a dark past.
Shipwreck, skulduggery, madness, murder and mayhem.
As we fly over the Abrolhos Islands, 122 wisps and droplets of land in the coral sea 80 kilometres west of Geraldton, WA, our pilot, Brendan, points out an execution site here, a mass grave there.
Then he dips the wing of the little seven-seater GA8 Airvan. As the horizon falls away on one side, the glittering turquoise of the Indian Ocean fills the windows on the other.
A patch of electric light blue shimmers up from the aquamarine, with a shape that suggests both boat and gravestone.
An instant later it disappears like a mirage in the slanting afternoon light. Flying at 500 feet, we make several passes around this eerie watermark on the gem-like sea: the site of the wreck of the Batavia in 1629, and the first chapter in one of the most chilling and riveting episodes in maritime history.
The Batavia, of the Dutch East India Company, was seven months out from Amsterdam on her maiden voyage.
In her hold, the tightly packed cargo included chests of silver, fine velvets and a sandstone portico for the Dutch fort at Batavia, today's Jakarta, where she was bound.
The 50-metre ship rounded the Cape of Good Hope and was tacking north on the final leg of the voyage. Her fresh-food supplies were exhausted and worms swam in the drinking water.
The ship stank of urine and unwashed bodies and there was a whiff of mutiny in the air.
At 3am on June 4, 1629, most of the Batavia's passengers and crew - 322 men, women, children, soldiers and sailors - were asleep.
A sailor on watch alerted Captain Ariaen Jacobsz to a patch of white water dead ahead.
The navigational science of the time was better at judging latitude than longitude; the captain hadn't realised how close to the Great Southern Land the strong westerlies known as the Roaring Forties had blown the ship.
Jacobsz dismissed the sailor's concerns; it was just moonlight. Minutes later, that moonlight - in reality a coral outcrop 4.6 metres beneath the surface - snagged the rudder and the Batavia slammed into the reef.