Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Batavia's Graveyard by Mike Dash

I picked up Batavia's Graveyard on a whim.  I was thinking to myself, "I sure would like to read a book that's just like Nathaniel Philbrick's Heart of the Sea, only different," and, luckily enough, the publishing industry is geared to meet exactly such copycat demands.

Batavia's Graveyard is a narrative, non-fiction account of a mutiny/shipwreck/mass murder (in that order) that took place off the coast of Australia in 1629.  That's a pretty wild cocktail of disaster and crime, and the book started out exactly as colorful and bizarre as I had hoped.  The author sets the scene in the Netherlands before taking us out to sea, and follows the early career of the man who would later mastermind the mass murder, Jeronimus Cornelisz.  Cornelisz came from a prosperous family and started out his career as an apothecary, a respectable and lucrative profession, but a series of disasters reduced him to a state of utter desperation - the usual reason to risk a life at sea.  The series of disasters included the gruesome syphalitic death of his newborn child, and during the lead-up to this tragedy Dash explains that while Cornelisz's wife was pregnant, "for a month or more before the birth, as was common at the time...[he] paid an old woman named Maijcke van den Broecke to suckle his wife's breasts in order to stimulate the flow of milk."  That image alone convinced me I'd picked the right book.  How wonderfully bizarre!

So Dash shifts us from a colorful account of life in the Netherlands during the early 17th century to an equally colorful account of life at sea in the early 17th century, especially the workings of the Dutch East India Company (it was a lot like the British East India Company, only Dutch).  He introduces us to all the key players in the upcoming drama, and the friction that ultimately festered into near-mutiny.  The mutiny never quite happened, however, because the ship - the Batavia - wrecked on a coral reef before the ringleaders pulled the trigger.

Most of the 300 people aboard the Batavia ended up on a barren little archipelago off the coast of Australia, with no water and limited supplies.  A single seaworthy longboat embarked on the 900 mile journey to Java, the nearest Dutch port; if all went well, and the little longboat didn't sink on the way, the castaways could expect help in two or three months, give or take.

Those are pretty dim prospects.  While the initial plan was to ration supplies, pray for rain, and wait it out, Jeronimus Cornelisz preferred a different strategy.  He calculated that with the supplies they'd salvaged from the Batavia and the resources available on their little island, they'd be lucky to last a month.  There were too many mouths to feed, and by trying to keep everyone alive they'd only doom themselves to a slow death by starvation.  Far better, he reckoned, to thin the ranks.  Killing some people at the outset would allow the remainder to survive.  Cornelisz wanted to reduce the number of castaways from 200+ to about 40% of that number, and he set about making it happen.

The problem - the tragedy, I guess - is that Cornelisz decided on his plan, and set about executing it, before he thoroughly investigated the available resources.  They'd shipwrecked on a coral reef that surrounded a small archipelago.  None of the islands on the archipelago were resource rich, and none seemed to have water...but careful exploration did ultimately reveal that one of the nearby islands contained both shallow wells and wildlife.  Because Cornelisz's method was a variation on "divide and conquer," the people who scouted that resource-rich island had already been the victim of the "divide" portion of Cornelisz's plan, and couldn't communicate their discovery to the rest of the castaways.

On the one hand, those wells and wallabys might have made the difference for everyone - on the other hand, the thirty or so people caught on that island nearly exhausted both, so there's no knowing if portioning out the water and meat to a group of 200 people would have been sufficient.

Meanwhile, Cornelisz was elbow-deep in blood.  Once he'd committed to his plan, it took on a life of its own - the willing participants developed a taste for murder and tyranny.  At first, they killed out of a perceived necessity; before long, they murdered out of boredom and spite.  All in all, more than 120 people were killed, including women, children, and even babies - especially babies, and the sick, as they were considered a waste of resources.

The problem is that Dash over-dramatizes.  The sub-title for Batavia's Graveyard kind of hints at what I mean; the full title is Batavia's Graveyard: The True Story of the Mad Heretic Who Led History's Bloodiest Mutiny.  Frankly, I don't think it's entirely mad to opt to save some rather than lose everyone; and I understand fully how once such a plan is set in motion it's hard to stop.  Especially when the buy-in was murder, because once they stop they've admitted that they were wrong and can't justify the horrible things they did.  Who would choose that kind of anguish?  And even more especially when the stakes were so high.  These people had to choose between slow starvation with a slim hope of rescue, or murder and exile - because they understood, correctly, that if they survived to be rescued their rescuers would become the next threat.  There was no middle route.

I guess what I'm really saying here is - Dash has a point of view, and he wants to describe this mass-murder as an example of an evil genius at work, a true psychopath revealing his true colors when given the opportunity.  He's got a pretty limited amount of material to work with - just the records of the episode that survivors later provided to the Dutch East India Company - which means that there are a lot of blank spots, a lot of "perhaps this happened" or "maybe this is why" or "here's my best guess."  Considering those blank spots, I would have liked to see a more nuanced story - Dash claims, for example, that Cornelisz heartlessly abandoned his wife after his baby died.  But he has no evidence that Cornelisz planned to cut her off or stop supporting her; he didn't survive to develop a track record.  But saying he was heartless supports the story that Cornelisz started, and remained, a psychopath.  I think a proper character study requires a bit more evidence, and I think that Dash decided to amp up the drama specifically because the dearth of evidence wasn't exciting enough.

The castaways were ultimately rescued, three or four months after they were stranded.  The rescuers made it to Java after about a month, crammed together in their longboat, and returned on a more seaworthy vessel to search for survivors of the wreck.  They were back in the general vicinity of the Batavia about three months after the wreck, but it took another month of zigzagging around to find the precise location.  When they arrived, they found the splinter group first - 30 or so soldiers that Cornelisz separated from the herd first thing, who were on the island with the water and resources.  Those were the lucky ones.  Of the remainder, 120-some were dead.  Only six people who hadn't joined Cornelisz survived to see the rescue ship.  A half dozen of the ringleaders were hung on the spot, and several more suffered a similar fate either in transit or upon their return to Java.  The horror of the Batavia story, I think, is the damned if you do, damned if you don't aspect of it.

In short - Batavia's Graveyard was pretty good, but because it opted for easy condemnation over nuance, it didn't quite soar for me.

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