Friday, May 24, 2013

Batavia by Peter Fitzsimons

Friends who are interested in maritime history may want to read this book: Batavia by Sydney journalist Peter Fitzsimons. Its account of the fate of the people in the Titanic of the day is so gripping that one can easily breeze through it in a couple of days, even though it is quite a thick book.

The Dutch were the foremost maritime power of the world in the 17th century; it had already 'colonised' Jacarta (Jakarta). Batavia was the newest, most modern addition to the Dutch East India Company (VOC)'s merchant fleet. The route from the Cape to Batavia latitudinally across the Indian Ocean was already known, yet a skilled captain could overshoot the longitude it was supposed to turn north and sail straight into the reefs at Houtman Albrolhos Islands off the west coast of Australia. No sooner had the VOC commander and the captain left to look for help than those who were left behind were condemned to hell by the mutineers headed by a charlatan. Massacres and atrocities were blatantly carried out. Greed and betrayal was the order of the day. Fortunately, all was not lost, thanks to a great soldier on board and the commander's return in the nick of time. Two mutineers were left to rot in Continental Australia. Although there appeared to be no trace of them after that, some aborigines there are said to carry European features.

I did not know that Batavia is actually the name of the Germanic tribe that became the forebears of the Dutch people and samurai mercenaries were already being employed by the VOC to inflict fear and terror into the Javanese under the Sultan of Mataram. Surprisingly, the Dutch also did not seem to have family names during that time. And Netherlands was a republic at that time!

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