Over the course of just three months, one man led a campaign that saw 125 men, women, children and babies brutally murdered in what historians call Australia’s first mass murder.
True crime is having a moment right now, but the reality is people have always been fascinating by horrifying stories of mystery and murder. From Penny Dreadfuls to Sherlock Holmes, the modern equivalent might be through the medium of podcasts (My Favourite Murder, Teacher’s Pet, Serial) or television (Mindhunter, The Jinx, The Staircase), but the core fascination is the same.
And few tales are more fascinating than that of the Batavia shipwreck and the horrors that followed, as documented in documentary Batavia Revealed: Shipwreck Psycho. It’s a story that has slid under the radar compared to other Aussie true crime cases like Snowtown, Azaria Chamberlain, Ivan Milat or Port Arthur. Channel Ten were planning on doing a mini-series, Russell Crowe bought the movie rights, yet still most Australians are entirely unaware of what went down on the Abrolhos Islands sixty kilometres off the coast of Western Australia.
If you were watching a dramatised version of the events surrounding the Batavia, you’d think there were too many story elements. About sixty per cent less madness would suffice, otherwise audiences wouldn’t believe what they were seeing on screen … except it all happened. In 1628, nearly 350 people were on-board the Batavia as it set out from Holland and headed for the then Dutch colony of Jakarta, Indonesia.
Somewhere along the way, it sailed majorly off course and was wrecked on the coral reef of the Abrolhos Islands on June 4, 1629. Around 40 people died trying to swim from the ship to safety at Beacon Island nearly, with 300 making it to shore. Among them were women, children, men and babies. Captain Francisco Pelsaert realised pretty quickly a rescue wasn’t coming, so embarked on his own epic journey by attempting to sail from Beacon Island to Jakarta via long boat across the open seas.
He not only survived that 33-day trip, but returned three months later to rescue the survivors. But what he found upon his arrival was nothing short of horrific: over 100 people had been brutally and savagely murdered, with women also imprisoned in ‘rape camps’ across the island. “They just picked them off and picked them off,” says Peter FitzSimons, who wrote a best-selling book called Batavia based on the cold case. “They said they didn’t need 25 women. They had five who were kept as ‘women of common service’: sexual slaves, basically.” A small contingent of soldiers had attempted to fight back and it was their testimony – and the abundance of physical evidence and careful documentation – that identified Jeronimus Cornelisz, the man who had been left in charge, and his lackeys as the people responsible.
It has been nearly 400 years since the Batavia was wrecked, and archaeologists are still discovering remains. From child bones to those of fully-grown, strong adults, there was no specificity to the victims once the murderous rampage began. “What was happening in many ways was an end game for many of the mutineers,” Doctor Al Paterson told 60 Minutes in 2017. “They probably saw this as the last place they were going to be and just turned the world upside down … Totally Lord Of The Flies.”
Dr Paterson is part of a team of Dutch and Australia archaeologists still trying to unravel all the mysteries of the Batavia wreck and consequent massacre. Of the bodies that have been found, many have signs of severe trauma such as marks on the bones that indicate deep and fatal stab wounds. Thanks to the nature of the soil on the island, full skeletons have been preserved in impressive condition despite 54 years since the first full skull was discovered in 1964.
Mutineer and murderer Jeronimus Cornelisz is considered one of history’s first documented psychopaths. Interestingly, he was said to have committed only one murder himself on Beacon Island: that of a baby, which he strangled to death. More than 120 other horrific crimes were committed by men following his orders, with Cornelisz clearly able to utilise charisma like other psychopaths such as Ted Bundy and Charles Manson (who were able to manipulate others to do their bidding or enter into compromising situations). He had been planning a mutiny when the ship went down, so once on the island it didn’t take long for him to convince his fellow mutineers to murder anyone who opposed his actions (strong males and leaders) and those could be considered a burden on supplies (the young, the sick and the old).
Cornelisz also demonstrated other psychopathic traits, like showing no remorse whatsoever when he was tried and convicted of the Batavia shipwreck murders. He was sentenced to death by hanging – along with seven of his comrades – but first had his hands chiseled off. Around 80 people eventually make it to Jakarta with Captain Francisco Pelsaert out of the original 341 who first left Holland aboard the Batavia.
Batavia Revealed: Shipwreck Psycho airs Thursday 9 August on SBS at 8:30pm, available to stream anytime afterwards at SBS On Demand: