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Letter from Australia

Murder Islands

The doomed voyage of a seventeenth-century merchant ship ended in mutiny and mayhem

November/December 2022

Australia Pelsaert IslandTreeless, almost uninhabited, buffeted by winds and ocean swells, the 100 islands and coral reefs known as the Houtman Abrolhos, off Australia’s west coast, is a hazard that sailors have tried to avoid for four centuries. The islands teem with sea lions, wallabies, lizards, and seabirds. Trawlers today ply the waters nearby to scoop up fish and lobster by the ton. Yet as scores of sea captains have learned the hard way, the archipelago’s coral reefs can rip the bottom off a wayward ship. Sitting as monuments to hubris, or at least carelessness, remains of a few of these wrecked vessels can still be seen shifting in the waves.


Before dawn on June 4, 1629, with just over 300 people aboard, the Dutch merchant ship Batavia struck a reef near the northern end of the archipelago, becoming the first known European vessel to meet its end on the Houtman Abrolhos. In the final weeks of a nine-month journey to the Dutch entrepot of Batavia, on Java, the ship carried 12 chests packed with silver coins and treasure that merchants of the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), or Dutch East India Company, planned to trade for the spices, porcelains, and silks coveted by Dutch burghers. The cargo was worth about 250,000 guilders, or about $15 million today. Wealthy, self-confident Holland was in the process of throwing off the rule of the Spanish Habsburgs, and of creating its own commercial empire, which already extended to the far side of the Indian Ocean.


Australia Islands MapBatavia did not sink immediately. She listed in the swells for nine days, her wooden hull slowly disintegrating, giving time for all on board—crewmen, cooks, soldiers, and passengers, of whom about 20 were women, mostly wives of VOC merchants or administrators—to flee on boats and flotsam to two tiny islands. A rash few tried to swim and drowned. Once ashore, the survivors faced the immediate problem of finding water. They had managed to bring a few barrels of fresh water with them, but, in the absence of rain, which was scarce on the islands, it would soon run out. The ship’s commander, a VOC official named Francisco Pelsaert, sailed in a 30-foot longboat with some officers and seamen over the horizon to the Australian continent, about 50 miles east, in search of water. But the South-Land, as it was known, was so poorly mapped that they had no idea where to look. They sailed north along the coast, putting ashore here and there to search for a spring or river. They glimpsed Aboriginal people, but were unable to engage with them as they fled whenever the foreign men approached. In desperation, Pelsaert opted to sail to Java, a journey of nearly 2,000 miles. Thirty days after the ship wrecked, Pelsaert and his crew reached Batavia.



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