Born in 1901, author Henrietta Drake-Brockman was not a trowelblazer in the traditional sense; her contribution to the TrowelBlazing arts was to make one spectacular discovery: the location of the shipwreck behind one of the bloodiest mutinies in history. The Batavia was a Dutch trading ship that ran aground off the coast of Western Australia in 1629, long before the European colonisation of Australia.
Before the ship had gone down, some on board had been planning mutiny, and wouldn’t let the ship sinking stop them. While Francisco Pelsaert sailed in a longboat (at 9.1m long, the name ’longboat’ is a little deceiving) with 44 men to Jakarta, Indonesia for help, the mutineers took their opportunity. They salvaged as much gold, silver, and other precious items from the wreck (don’t worry about the casks of food and water), and named themselves kings. As time went on and water on the island began running out, they started murdering the other survivors for made up crimes. By the time Pelsaert found them again, they had murdered 125 men, women, and children. This horrible story caught the imagination of 17th century Europe, and Pelsaert’s journal became the ‘Ongeluckige voyagie, van’t schip Batavia’ (The Unlucky Voyage of the Ship Batavia).
Cut to a young Henrietta Drake-Brockman, living in Western Australia during WWI. She read a copy of Ongeluckige Voyagie and never forgot it. As a young woman in the 1920s, she became a journalist and novelist, also publishing under the male pseudonym Henry Drake for the newspaper The West Australian. She had always thought that the events of the Batavia wreck and mutiny would make for a good historical novel. It had long been assumed that the reef and islands mentioned in the story were those on Morning Reef, but nobody had ever found any evidence of the wreck there. To put things into perspective, even Francisco Pelsaert took over a month of criss-crossing along the coast to find his wreck and the survivors.
Henrietta decided to begin work on her Batavia novel. She had Pelsaert’s original journal translated into English and went to Pelsaert Island on Morning Reef for a week. A week was all it took for her to realize that this was not the island mentioned in the journal. She kept researching, having records and journals sent from the Netherlands and Indonesia. Henrietta realised that the Batavia must have been wrecked more than 50 miles north of Pelsaert Island, on the Wallabi group of islands. In 1955 Henrietta published her theory in Walkabout magazine. In 1957 she finished her historical novel, The Wicked and the Fair, which she set on the Wallabi islands. People started to come around to her idea. In 1960, a skeleton was discovered on Beacon Island, one of the Wallaby group islands. Henrietta knew immediately that it was one of the mutiny victims, and that she had been right.
It wasn’t until 1963 that divers finally discovered the wreck of the Batavia, exactly where Henrietta had said it would be. She was present for the initial excavations and discovery of the graves of the mutiny victims. It was the same year that Henrietta published Voyage to Disaster, a biography of Francisco Pelsaert and a translation of his journals.
Excavations of the mutiny victims are ongoing. The discovery of the Batavia heralded the birth of maritime archaeology in Australia, as well as maritime museums, and state and federal legislation for the protection of underwater cultural heritage. The majority of this information is available from the Western Australian Maritime Museum and the State Library of Western Australia. You can read more about the expedition to the Batavia in Hugh Edwards’ Island of Angry Ghosts.
Written by Liesel Gentelli
Edited by Suzie
Image of Henrietta Drake-Brockman: courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia under a Creative Commons Australia Attribution Non Commercial Share Alike 3.0 Licence.
Image of the site of the Batavia mutiny: courtesy of Wikipedia under a the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.