Sunday, December 11, 2011

Book review: "Batavia's Graveyard" by Mike Dash

When the Dutch trading ship Batavia wrecked on the rocky shores of an uninhabited Indian Ocean atoll in 1629, the 322 people aboard probably thought things couldn’t get any worse.  Little did they know that a madman would soon make their lives a living hell.

“Batavia’s Graveyard” is the true story of the shockingly barbaric events that followed the wreck of the Batavia off the coast of Western Australia.  It is a book that is often fascinating, yet readers should be warned that the brutality of the story can be stomach-turning.

At the heart of the story is a psychopath named Jeronimus Corneliez who leads a band of shipwreck survivors in savagely killing about 120 people in cold blood. Among the victims were children, pregnant women, even a baby.

Author Mike Dash gets the book off to a fast start as the Batavia, on its maiden voyage, violently runs aground in the rocky archipelago known as Houtman’s Abrolhos. After this invigorating start, the story slows WAY down as Dash goes back years in time to the Netherlands to set the stage for the story.

Dash has clearly done an extraordinary job of research for this book, delving into documents nearly 400 years old. But he sometimes goes into so much detail on arcane elements that it bogs the story down. In the first third of the book, Dash offers up descriptions of religious zealotry in 17th-century Europe, the history of the Dutch East India Company, the importance of the spice trade and the subtleties of Dutch social strata at the time. Some of this is interesting, but it just goes on too long and can be skimmed.

Once the voyage is underway, we see the seeds of a mutiny germinate on board, as antipathy among the top officers on board simmers alongside an unhappy crew. The mutiny never happens at sea, but after the shipwreck, with the top officers gone off in search of help, trouble explodes.

From a historian’s perspective, this is a terrific book, full of facts and details from long ago. I like Dash’s descriptions of shipboard life, and the problems of disease and malnutrition. Even his descriptions of brutal punishment methods, such as keelhauling, are interesting (if disturbing).

But for the more casual reader, the book has some weaknesses, one of the biggest being that there are no likeable individuals among the main characters. You just don't have anyone to root for. The most prominent “good guy,” Wiebbe Hayes, emerges late in the story, but Dash is unable to offer much detail about him.

There are some helpful maps in the book, but one small annoying element is that Dash continually refers to Hayes Island and High Island as being to the “north” of the islands where Corneliez and the other mutineers did the killing – yet the map shows those islands clearly to the west.

If you like this sort of book, you might consider Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Sea,” the story of a 19th-century whaling expedition that goes very  wrong.  


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