Mike Dash,
Batavia's Graveyard
(Three Rivers, 2002)

It says a lot for a story when it begins with a shipwreck and builds in intensity from there.

Batavia's Graveyard, painstakingly researched and written by Mike Dash, starts shortly before the proud, richly laden Dutch merchantman Batavia, on her maiden voyage for the Dutch East India Co. in 1629, shattered its hull on a coral reef near Australia and some 1,500 miles shy of its destination in Java.

It could have been a simple story of survival if not for the presence of Jeronimus Cornelisz aboard the doomed vessel. At first glance a simple, mid-ranking official for the company, Cornelisz harbored heretical ideas and an overblown sense of his own importance in the scheme of things -- and he had the intelligence and charisma to bend others to his will. Long before the shipwreck occurred, Cornelisz had plotted mutiny and piracy on the Batavia. But once he found himself stranded with more than 250 survivors and limited resources to keep them alive, the Dutchman decided to take matters into his own hands and decide who should live and die.

It might be somewhat hard to believe if this were fiction, but Dash has drawn his story from the logs, court records and testimonials of the day. As history, Batavia's Graveyard is a gripping, deeply disturbing tale.

It's not all action and intrigue. Following the shipwreck, Dash jumps back in time and furnishes all the background needed to become conversant with the social, political, economic and religious matters of the day. He introduces us to Ariaen Jacobsz, the skipper, and Francisco Pelsaert, the upper-merchant who represented company interests and was the skipper's immediate superior, as well as the various soldiers, sailors and passengers who would play a role in the coming drama. He explains the growth of the spice trade and the reasons for the Dutch dominence of the global market. In particular, Dash describes in detail the early life of Cornelisz, a failed apothecary who was dogged by bad luck for many years. He might have lived in relative obscurity if he had not also subscribed to a radical form of Anabaptistism that he belived would absolve him from any stain of wrongdoing.

Even with a firm belief that God blessed his every action, it's hard to fathom the zeal and utter brutality with which Cornelisz ruled his island realm. Murder, at first deemed a necessity to preserve resources, became recreation, as did rape and torture. Children and pregnant women became disposable burdens. Surrounded by loyal thugs and controlling every weapon remaining, Cornelisz grew ever more insane with power. Anticipating rescue, he even schemed to overthrow and kill his would-be saviors and resume his plans for piracy.

Dash should be commended for his ability to present the story with such perfect balance between sensational drama and stark historical facts. There are enough notes and references to sate even the most passionate researcher, and the narrative never falters in its flow.

Sadistic and savage, Cornelisz is a fascinating character from history, a zealot and madman that puts many modern serial killers to shame. Hard to read at times because of the unflinching violence, it is impossible to look away.

by Tom Knapp
30 September 2006

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