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Batavia, the galleon of horrors

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About thirty kilometers from Amsterdam (once we made the journey by bicycle, like some good Dutchmen), a town called Lelystad overlooks the sea, which is notable for hosting the perfect reconstruction of a galleon sunk in 1629. The ship thus rebuilt today it can be visited, you can go up and walk around it (“Batavia Replica Museum”, Bataviaplein, 8242 PN Lelystad); the original vessel was called Batavia and in its time it was the most powerful of its time, but that is not why they chose that galleon, rather than another, to rebuild it for public use: the reason for attraction is that the Batavia was object of the most sinister and ferocious mutiny in naval history, with horror movie details.

The historical context is the Dutch colonization of the island of Java, in the remote East. The Dutch founded a city there called (also her) Batavia – which today has become Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. Java with its crops was by far the most profitable European colony in the world in the seventeenth century, and the Dutch flocked there in large numbers. The hot-humid tropical climate was infamous for them, the men and women of the North, who died there like flies, and their graves lined up alongside the plantations. But the Dutch continued to go to the colony, because the desire for gain prevailed over everything. Particularly noteworthy: men and women in the Tropics wore the same closed and heavy clothes that they wore in Amsterdam, because the decorum and morals of the seventeenth century required it; and this did not improve the quality of life, rather it increased the number of heat sickness and premature deaths (air conditioning, of course, was still to come).

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And now we come to the fact. On a night in 1629, the Batavia galleon, set sail from Amsterdam, sails towards the colony of Batavia with 316 people on board (among them dozens of women) when it runs aground on a coral reef in Western Australia, land at the time unexplored. The castaways land on an uninhabited, deserted and off course coast, with no hope of help. They face the horror of starvation as the 80 sailors celebrate the shipwreck and the near end by getting drunk to dizziness.

But even before the shipwreck the germ of a bloody mutiny was harboring on board. Under the heavy black robes the most murky passions were boiled during the voyage. A beautiful named Lucretia van der Mylen, who was on her way to join her husband in the East, had made a lot of attention, and perhaps had had a clandestine affair with Captain Pelsaert. Navigator Jacobsz was also in love with it, as did ship’s Purser Cornelisz. From the plot, in which Lucretia’s charming maid had inserted herself, an intertwining of desires, hatreds and jealousies was born, which produced a criminal plan: Jacobsz and Cornelisz agreed with a part of the sailors to take over the ship, kill all the other people on board (except some of the most beautiful women …) and escape with the 250,000 florins in the cash box.

The shipwreck caught the conspirators off guard. While Captain Pelsaert with a lifeboat and a few sailors decided to go out to sea with some sailors on a lifeboat, in an attempt to row to Batavia and ask for help (a crazy journey of 4,000 kilometers), Cornelisz took command on land. Aware of having a few weeks to live, the criminal decided to spend them in a delirium of omnipotence and in an orgy of sex and atrocity. Wearing a scarlet cloak, he began to give extravagant and bloodthirsty orders. He separated the survivors between various islets and then began to massacre those who opposed his will. He enslaved women for the benefit of his acolytes and convinced or forced Lucretia to become his mistress. A faction of castaways opposed him with weapons and created an alternative government on another island …

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Surprise ending: Captain Pelsaert, who everyone gave up on the Batavia route, incredibly managed to get there (rowing for 4 thousand kilometers eight the sun and the storms of the tropical sea!) And then returned to the site of the shipwreck with a other ship. Horror: the new arrivals found very few survivors, and the obvious signs of unspeakable atrocities. The innocent were rescued, while Cornelisz and his six surviving accomplices were arrested, tried and sentenced to death; in Batavia they suffered torture, amputations, the torture of the wheel and finally hanging.

Lucretia was also tried. The other 4 surviving women accused her in court of having been an accomplice, and not a victim of Cornelisz; but Lucretia was acquitted and reunited with her husband.

This true story is told in the book Il cemetery of Batavia by Mike Dash (Rizzoli 2002), which is also a document on how the murderous and raping madness of a “herd” can arise from a single madman and then organize itself by becoming a system.

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