Batavia’s Graveyard: The True Story Of The Mad Heretic Who Led History’s Bloodiest Mutiny, by Mike Dash
For those readers who do not know a great deal about either Australia’s history or the history of the Netherlands , this book provides a dark and fascinating account of an alarming story, the horrors that book place on some remote islands off the coast of Western Australia in the 1620’s after the sinking of the VOC ship Batavia, which was on its way to deliver a precious cargo of silver goods to the base of the VOC in Batavia. What is most striking is that the death toll in this case was not caused by the sinking so much as the bloodthirsty leader of a mutiny that ended up killing a great many largely defenseless and unarmed people in order to preserve his own power in a forgotten and neglected part of the world, only to find himself dead under the rough standards of seventeenth century Dutch justice. The book maintains a rather chilling tone throughout and rewards its readers with some genuinely fascinating historical sleuthing into a largely forgotten story.
The book itself contains about 240 pages or so of content and then a lengthy set of endnotes that discusses sources as well as the author’s occasional resort to speculation and interpretation in order to flesh out the story given the paucity of primary sources. After introductory maps to provide geographical context, the author begins by looking at the crash of the Batavia on the Australian reef, then looks back to the biographical history of the strange but compelling man who led the mutiny, one Jeronimus Cornelisz, about whom the author makes many speculations about his religious beliefs, calling him everything from a radical Anabaptist to a Libertine to a Gnostic, all of which only muddy his own identity, and on top of that the author calls him a psychopath for good measure. After this the author discusses the history of the VOC and the course of the Batavia to Australia, the horrors of death and degradation after the mutiny and the fate of the longship that returned to Java for additional help from the company and the fate of those who crashed, whether mutineers or company loyalists. For those who want a picture of early European imperialism in Southeast Asia, this book provides a great deal of insight, and it also makes for a compelling story on its own apart from any such larger concerns.
There are, however, troubling aspects to the story. The author appears to try to explain or justify the evil deeds committed by Jeronimus and his associates by a recourse to both dodgy psychology and dodgy religious beliefs. As someone whose religious beliefs spring from ground not far from the Anabaptists, I found the author’s religious theorizing to be immensely offensive. Many of the author’s own comments about religion show he is rather ignorant about the subject and content to toss around labels in the absence of firm knowledge. At the end of the book he manages to admit that not enough is known about the subject in question to know what his religious beliefs were, only that his conduct was extremely blameworthy. His armchair diagnosis of pschopathy is no more rigorous or just. Ultimately, the book is worthwhile and enjoyable because of the author’s prose and research skills, but that does not mean this book is without fault and the tendency to label and blame and find a convenient escape from ascribing moral responsibility due to religious and psychological labels to distance such evils from reflection is a troubling tendency.
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