From The Prologue: Morning Reef
“The pack of all disasters has moulded together and fallen on my neck.” Francisco Pelsaert
The moon rose at dusk on the evening of 3 June 1629, sending soft grey shafts of light skittering across the giant swells of the eastern Indian Ocean. The beams darted their way from crest to crest, racing each other for mile after mile across the empty vastness of sea, until at last they caught and silhouetted something for an instant, a great black mass that wallowed in a trough between the waves.
In another second, the shape surged onward, rushing up the shifting wall of water in its path until it breasted the next swell. As it did so, it reared up momentarily and the moon fixed it as it slapped back into the water and sent plumes of fine white spray into the air on either side.
In the half-light of the southern winter, the black mass stood revealed as a substantial ship, steering north with the sting of a sharp wind at her back. She was built in the European style, squat and square-sailed, and she looked unbalanced, being considerably lower forward than she was aft. Her curved beak of a prow hung so close to the sea that it was frequently awash with a foam of dark water, but from there her decks curved sharply up like some massive wooden scimitar, rising so steeply that she towered almost 40 feet out of the water at the stern. As the ship came on, the moon was bright enough to pick out some of the larger details along the hull: her figurehead (a wooden lion springing upward), a tangled mass of rigging, the giant iron anchors lashed upside down along her sides. Her bows were blunt, and both the broadness of her beam and the fullness of her draught marked her as a merchant vessel.
Although the moon was bright that evening, there was too little light for the ship to be identified by the flags that writhed and snapped from all three of her masts, and there was little sign of activity on deck. The gunports had all been closed, and not even the quick glint of a lamp or two, shining through chinks in the hatches, hinted at life within. But an enormous lantern, five feet tall, hung over the stern, and its yellow glow illuminated the richly decorated woodwork beneath just well enough for a keen eye to pick out painted details that revealed the great ship’s name and her home port.
She was the East Indiaman Batavia, seven months out of Amsterdam on her maiden voyage and still some 30 days’ sailing from her destination, the Dutch trading settlements on the island of Java. Behind her, trailing in the phosphorescence of her wake, lay 13,000 miles of sea. Ahead were another 1,800 miles of uncharted ocean that had, by the end of the third decade of the seventeenth century, been crossed by only a handful of European vessels. There was rumor and speculation aplenty, among the geographers of England, the Netherlands, and Spain, about what might lie over the horizon in the immense blank that stretched south on their globes from the known waters of the Indies, but little information and no certain knowledge. The few charts of this unknown region that the Batavia carried were fragmentary in the extreme, and all but useless as navigational aids. So she sailed on blind into the gathering night, trusting to God and the skipper as the hourglass trickled away the minutes to midnight and the change of watch.
The ship had been brand-new when she left the Netherlands, but she was weathered now. Her upperworks, which had been painted pale green with embel-lishments in red and gold, were chipped and worn and scoured by sea salt. Her bottom, which had once been smooth and clean, was now festooned with so many barnacles and weeds that their drag slowed her progress north. And her hull, built though it was from oak, had been subjected to every conceivable extreme of temperature, so that it now shuddered as the ship rolled in the swell. First the Batavia’s timbers had swollen in the northern winter, for she had left Amsterdam late the previous October when the northern seas were already cold and stormy. Then they had been shriveled by the sun as the ship sailed along the fever coasts of Africa, swung west on passing Sierra Leone, and crossed the equator headed for Brazil. Off the coast of South America she had at last turned east, picking up a current that carried her to the Cape of Good Hope and then fierce easterlies that took her through the Roaring Forties and the Southern Ocean, where it was winter once again and perpetual gales hurried her onward, between the barren little islets of St. Paul and Amsterdam and into the unknown waters to the east.
At least it was warmer now, and the storms had abated as the Batavia headed north after more than seven long months at sea. But the endless discomforts of the voyage had if anything grown worse, and outweighed the slow improvement in the weather. The fresh food was long gone, the water was alive with worms, and below deck the ship herself stank of urine, unwashed bodies, and stale breath. Worst of all, in its own way, was the plodding monotony of the endless days at sea, which ate away the spirit of the passengers and undermined the efficiency of the crew.
At 12 the watch changed. The new watch, the midnight watch, was always acknowledged to be the most difficult and dangerous of all. Working conditions were at their worst, and the alertness of the men could not always be taken for granted. For these reasons it was customary for the skipper himself to be on deck by night, and as the last grains of sand slid through the glass, a small doorway opened on one of the upper decks and he came up.
The master of a Dutch East Indiaman was a man who enjoyed almost unlimited power in his small kingdom. He commanded a ship that had cost 100,000 guilders to build and contained a cargo that, in the Indies trade, was worth many times more. He was charged with the safe navigation of his vessel and responsible for the lives of all the hundreds of souls under his command. But, on the Batavia as on every other Dutch East Indiamen, the skipper was also the subordinate of an officer who typically had no experience of the sea and little understanding of how to manage a ship.
This man was the upper-merchant, or supercargo. He was, as his title implied, a commercial agent who bore the responsibility of ensuring that the voyage was a profitable one for his own masters, the directors of the Verenigde Oost-indische Compagnie–the United East India Company–which owned the ship. In the first half of the seventeenth century, the VOC was not only the most important organization, and one of the largest employers, in the United Provinces of the Netherlands; it was also the wealthiest and most powerful company on Earth. It had become wealthy and powerful by putting trade and profit ahead of every other consideration. Thus the supercargo and his deputy, the under-merchant, had the authority to order the skipper to make sail, or stay at anchor in some flyblown port until the holds were full, even if death and disease were striking down the crew.
The master of a Dutch East Indiaman was therefore in rather an unusual position. He was expected to combine the powers of seamanship and leadership that have always been demanded of any skipper with a degree of tact and even submissiveness that did not often come easily to men hardened by many years at sea. He had command of his ship from day to day, it is true, but he might at any moment be given an order he would be expected to obey. He could set a course but did not decide where his ship was heading. In port, he had very little power at all.
The skipper of the Batavia was a tough old seaman with considerable experience of the Indies trade, a man named Ariaen Jacobsz. He came from Durgerdam, a fishing village just a mile or two northeast of Amsterdam, and he had been a servant of the VOC for two decades or more. The upper-merchant, who was called Francisco Pelsaert, was in many respects Jacobsz’s opposite–not only in wealth and education, which was to be expected in this period, but in origin as well. For one thing, Pelsaert was no Dutchman; he came from Antwerp in the Southern Netherlands, the great rival of Amsterdam. Moreover, he had been born into a Catholic family at a time when the VOC required its officers to be Protestant; he lacked Jacobsz’s powers of leadership; and despite long service in the Indies, he was as indecisive as the skipper was self-confident. The two men were not friends.
As for Ariaen Jacobsz, he was a veteran of several voyages to the East and probably in his middle forties, which would have made him one of the oldest men on board. That he was a superb sailor is beyond doubt; he had already skippered another large VOC merchantman with some success, and the East India Company was not in the habit of trusting its newest ships to indifferent officers. But the records of his service show that Jacobsz was also choleric, quick-tempered, and sensitive to any slight; that he sometimes drank to excess; and that he was a lecher who was not above imposing his attentions on the female passengers whom he carried in his ships.
These, then, were the men charged with safeguarding the Batavia in the early hours of 4 June 1629. It was not a responsibility that weighed heavily on the skipper. For 211 days at sea, watch had followed watch with scarcely a noteworthy incident. The conditions on this night were good; the wind was blowing in gusts from the southwest, and with no sign of any storm or squall the weather was almost perfect for sailing. The ship was sound, and the noon position that Jacobsz had computed the previous day put the Batavia 600 miles distant from any known land. There seemed no need for particular vigilance from the men on watch, and since there was little or no real work to be done, some at least were able to talk and rest. Jacobsz himself stood gazing out to sea from a vantage point on the upper deck. A lookout watched beside him, and the steersman was stationed just below the skipper’s post.
It was at some time after 3 a.m., when the alertness of the crew was at its lowest ebb, that the lookout, Hans Bosschieter, first suspected that all was not well. From his position high in the stern, the sailor noticed what appeared to be white water dead ahead. Peering into the night, Bosschieter thought he could make out a mass of spray, as though surf was breaking on an unseen reef. He turned to the skipper for confirmation, but Jacobsz disagreed. He insisted that the thin white line on the horizon was nothing more than moonbeams dancing on the waves. The skipper trusted to his own judgment, and he held the Batavia’s course, sailing on with all her canvas set.
When the ship struck, she therefore did so at full speed.
From the Hardcover edition.