Batvia By Peter FitzSimons
"Unpublished Review by Dave White"
This book is a powerful historical novel based on actual events. Set in the 17th Century, the novel recounts the rise of the Dutch East India Company and gives a vivid account of the voyage and subsequent shipwreck of the Batavia.
Many authentic accounts of shipwrecks are famous around the world through books, films, and television. The Mary Rose, the Titanic, and the Lusitania are well-known examples. The events surrounding the shipwreck of the Batavia are not as widely known but are well documented in records kept in the Hague in Amsterdam. In his novel “Batavia”, Peter FitzSimons draws upon years of research and in particular, a journal written by Francisco Pelsaert who was on-board the Batavia. A letter by the ship’s priest written after the events in 1629 confirms some of the details. FitzSimons uses meticulous research to recreate the characters involved and novelise this historic tale of human greed, tragedy, and brutality.
March 20, 1602, a Dutch consortium of traders from the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC). By 1620, fully supported by the Dutch Government, the VOC dominate trade in exotic spices between the Spice Islands and Amsterdam. October 27, 1628, the Batavia sails with eight escort ships on its nine-month journey to the Spice Islands. Newly constructed and specifically designed for the journey, the Batavia carried a crew of 200 and a cargo of valuables, including 12 chests of Jewellery for trade in the East Indies. A company of 100 mercenary soldiers protected the ship, which carried one of the most valuable cargoes the VOC had ever sent to the East Indies.
On board the Batavia, the VOC official in charge of the mission, Francisco Pelsaert, develops an uneasy relationship with the captain of the ship Ariaen Jacobsz. During the journey, Jacobsz leads a mutinous plot to steer the Batavia away from its escort vessels and make a new life with the ship's valuable cargo. Caught in a fierce storm near the Abrolhos Islands, the ship becomes grounded on a shallow reef and slowly breaks apart. As the crew disembark to the group of tiny surrounding islands, a series of horrific and brutal acts of injustice unfold.
Francisco Pelsaert and Ariaen Jacobsz form the nucleus of the narrative and their backgrounds are fully developed by the author giving the reader an intimate knowledge of their motivations. The intense rivalry between the two becomes the key reason for the mission's eventual failure. The narrative shows that without an organized authoritative structure, a breakdown in civilized behaviour quickly occurs and arbitrary hierarchies quickly establish themselves.
FitzSimons has written many other books based on historical subjects, but the narrative in this book is the most captivating. Fully developing the history, circumstances and characters involved, he uses the natural drama and suspense of the subject to give a genuine feeling of living in the 17th Century. As much as anything, this is a story of human nature at its worst and at times it’s difficult to believe it’s based on actual events. The author’s passion for the subject makes “Batavia” an interesting read and a thoroughly engaging way to learn about history. FitzSimons has taken a few liberties in recreating the characters in the book but it is, nonetheless, a book that will add lasting value to the historical fiction genre.
"The pace, style, and tone of this form of historical fiction keeps history alive and readable to future generations"
The Replica of The Batavia at Bataviawerf, Netherlands. Photo Credit:Malis/Wikipedia