Batavia’s Graveyard

graveyardI have just finished one of the best pieces of non-fiction that I have read in a long time. Mike Dash’s account of the wreck of the Dutch East Indiaman Batavia off the western Australian coast in 1629, followed by “the bloodiest mutiny in history” is enthralling.  (Weidenfelt & Nicolson, 2002.  398 pages)

The Batavia was on her maiden voyage from the Netherlands to the Spice Islands carrying 332 souls and fabulous wealth in silver, jewels and cash when she foundered on a reef 600 nautical miles off her intended course. Those were the days when the Dutch East India Company dominated the European spice trade and expected to lose 1 in every 50 of her ships travelling towards the East Indies, and 1 in every 20 heading back to Holland. More than 1,000,000 souls perished throughout the period of the highly lucrative trade and, over a period of 200 years the Dutch lost some 245 ships along with their crews and cargoes.

But it was the mutinous massacre of 115 of the Batavia’s shipwrecked survivors – men, women and children, at the hands of murderous shipmates under the direction of their deranged leader Jeronimus Cornelisz that elevated this tragedy into the realms of infamy.

If you are even remotely interested in the period of the tall sailing ships, European empire-building, the spice trade and Terra Australis Incognita, (as I was – remotely interested), you will be fascinated by this brilliant page-turner. Dash’s research is impeccable. His writing is clear and brisk. His detailed descriptions of 17th century Holland, his realisation of the fraught sea voyage and subsequent wreck and mutiny, his finely-drawn characters and his insights into the human condition make for what would be a sensational crime thriller if it were fiction; but rivetting human drama because it is true.

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~ by Garry on August 30, 2009.

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