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February 2011

I’ve found an opportunity to explore my interest in Southeast Asia’s maritime history, by taking up the invitation to be a guest lecturer on a luxury cruise ship. We joined the ship in Fremantle, which gave me the chance to revisit the wreck of the Batavia in the Shipwreck Museum, as well as to see the W.A. Maritime Museum. The latter has a nice display on pearling in Broome, including a photograph of the Hilliard family, showing what I assume to be a young Robin with his parents.

For those unfamiliar with the story of the Batavia, it is vividly captured in Mike Dash’s book on the subject. In 1629 the Dutch vessel, captained by the ailing and unloved Franscisco Pelsaert, came to grief on the rocky islands known as Houtman’s Abrolhos off the West Australian coast. While Pelsaert took a small group of crew to the city of Batavia (Jakarta) for help when food and water were running low, an apothecary, Jeronimus Corneliz., led one of the most gruesome mass murders in history, killing some 125 of the passengers. Pelsaert eventually returned with reinforcements, and captured the mutineers, executing most of them on the islands after a short trial. Finding the wreck was an involved story, in which the author, Henrietta Drake-Brockman, played a significant role, and the Museum displays a large and impressive part of the stern, as well as much of the money on board, a part of one of the city gates of the city of Batavia (one of the few remnants of the old Jakarta fort), and even a skeleton of one of the victims. Given than no museum dares to display indigenous body parts, it is remarkable that this latter reminder of the horror of the massacre remains. The story of the Batavia has inspired many theories and novels, including English Science Fiction writer, Michael Moorcock’s, best known series which was where I first read of the Batavia.

We sailed past the islands where the wreck and mutiny took place during the early hours of the first full day at sea, and I timed my lecture on the VOC (the Dutch East India Company) and Australia to coincide with our passage along the part of the coast where Dirk Hartog landed in 1616. His plate memorialising this event and giving the Dutch legal claim to Australia is also in the Shipwreck Museum. As I’m writing, we’re passing through a storm, but our ship remains remarkably stable, very much a contrast with what conditions must have been like for the seventeenth-century Dutch ships. It’s great to see the views of the W.A. coast, which were beautifully drawn in the mid-seventeenth century as part of Abel Tasman’s expedition which mapped most of Australia and a significant part of New Zealand (sorry James Cook fans, he just cleaned up the left-overs).