Thursday, August 13, 2009

Cannonball Read #47: Batavia's Graveyard: The True Story of the Mad Heretic Who Led History's Bloodiest Mutiny by Mike Dash

Batavia's Graveyard is another entry into my "maritime disasters" series. It is exactly the kind of book I love--one that is full of heroics, nefarious deeds, and an overabundance of historical context.

The story is that of a wreck and mutiny aboard a Dutch transport ship in 1629. The Batavia, hauling a load of treasure to the Dutch interests in southeast Asia, ran aground on a series of atolls just off of Australia. While the head Dutch merchant and the ship's skipper left in a longboat to try and reach help in Java, the other 200+ survivors were left to fend for themselves on a desolate atoll without food or water--and as they were soon to discover, governed by a mad man.

The book mostly focuses on the escapades of Jeronimus Corneliesz, a lower-level merchant who takes the opportunity to use his charming (and psychopathic) nature to dominate and ultimately destroy the majority of the survivors left under his care. With a group of soldiers and sailors who had originally plotted to mutiny and steal the ship's treasure, Corneliesz begins to systematically murder the remaining survivors not allied with him, ostensibly to remove threats to his leadership and strain on the few available supplies. Soon, however, he and his men lose control, murdering and torturing in cold blood as a way to pass the time. Aside from a small group of men who end up stranded on a neighboring atoll, Corneliesz and his men are in complete dominance over everyone. In all, they manage to kill more than one hundred people, including women, children, and even infants. Eventually, however, the head merchant returns with help, and the mutineers are left to face the consequences of their actions.

Mike Dash's book is impeccably researched (and includes more than 100 pages of notes at the back with references and added information) and weaves into the narrative information about the political climate at the time, the ways of Dutch merchants, life aboard a merchant ship, the religious movements that had an effect on Corneliesz, medical science on board ships in the 17th century, and a general overview of life in the time period.

It is a gripping story filled with useful and fascinating information. I would definitely recommend it to any history buff.

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