There’s lusty maritime history on your spice rack, reader. Unlike the lowly, mostly Mediterranean herbs that give zest and speckles of color to our breads and sauces, the jars and sachets on the pickling, mulling and fruitcaking end of the rack are the legacy of drowning and scurvy and keelhauling and every kind of vile misdeed committed under a sweltering equatorial sun.
The curative and culinary properties of tropical spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves were known in the West in classical times, long before later European powers began competing for the insane profits to be made in monopolizing them. Early Arab traders, anxious to conceal the source of the barks and powders they were able to trade for their weight or better in silver and gold, concocted fabulous stories that were duly recorded by historians like Herodotus. In A.D. 65, the Roman emperor Nero burned a year’s supply of cinnamon on the funeral pyre of his wife Poppaea to atone for her murder. But in the 1500s and 1600s, when the powerful merchant navies of Portugal and the united provinces of the Netherlands gained direct access to the spice islands of modern Indonesia, well...it’s like the guy on the cooking show says: “Let’s kick it up a notch.”
So it was that the Batavia, a merchant ship of the recently consolidated Dutch East India Company, set out from the Frisian islands north of Amsterdam in October of 1628. Batavia’s holds were full of gold bullion and silver plate to trade for cloves and nutmeg—the equivalent of more than $19 million today—as well as barrel hoops and prayer books and hand grenades destined for Dutch military garrisons in the Dutch outposts. There was a sizeable human cargo, too—not only of soldiers and sailors employed by the company, but also of women and children joining husbands and fathers in the East. Roughly 340 people in all, crammed into a 160-foot ship with all their belongings and, with any luck, enough fresh water and crudely salted meat to make the nine-month journey from the North Sea to the ship’s namesake colony on Java with only one stop on the southern tip of Africa.
And so unfolds British author Mike Dash’s impeccably researched and marvelously written account of the Batavia’s ill-starred maiden voyage from Holland to its messy end on a coral reef some 50 miles off the northwest coast of a then terra incognita Australia. Or, as the subtitle of Batavia’s Graveyard calls it, “The true story of the mad heretic who led history’s bloodiest mutiny. Call it “explornography” if you must, to use a recent coinage characterizing literature that feeds our latent fascination with amazing feats and horrific privations on the Seven Seas. But it’s high-class sea-smut, that’s for sure, and it packs way more than your average explornography U.S. RDA of social and historical backdrop between its covers. And it’s a far cry from the triumph-of-the-human-spirit affirmations of Ernest Shackleton, et al. An equally appropriate and, with respect to the vicarious shivers of feel-good Shackleton stories, grimly complementary subtitle for Batavia’s Graveyard might be “the pestilent cesspit of the human spirit.”
The heretic in question is Jeronimus Corneliszoon, a failed apothecary and, Dash maintains, psychopathic fugitive from the revolutionary Anabaptist sects whose hellfire beginnings in the 16th century still made them suspect in the rigid Dutch Calvinism a century later. Corneliszoon seems to have combined certain aspects from the Anabaptism of his upbringing with altogether more radical teachings he was exposed in early adulthood. The result, as Dash explains, was a creed that essentially rendered Corneliszoon, by his own uniquely customized logic, incapable of evil because his every action was divinely inspired.
“This was an intensely liberating philosophy,” Dash writes, “And one that would have shocked any God-fearing Calvinist to the core. Taken literally, it implied that the apothecary [Corneliszoon] was incapable of sin. If each idea, each action, was directly inspired by God, then no thought, no deed—not even murder—could truly be described as evil.”
Corneliszoon, apparently an adept persuader, wisely kept his beliefs under wraps as he put his silver tongue to use conniving Dutch East India representatives into a merchant position on the recently built Batavia. As the company’s second-in-command aboard the ship, it fell to him to help make sure the Company’s policies—some of which make today’s transnational corporations look like The Body Shop by comparison—would be upheld in the course of the dangerous sea voyage. Most of the Batavia’s passengers, Dash surmises, would have been aware that the odds of their surviving the passage to Java weren’t much better than one in 10, and those figures did not take into account the array of grisly deaths awaiting fair-skinned Europeans once they arrived at the colonial outposts. What the civilian passengers might not have known, but what the company’s merchants certainly did, was that in the event of an emergency, the rescue of human cargo was secondary to the salvage of bullion and trade goods and anything else to compensate for the loss of the ship.
After the ship ran aground and sank off Australia, Corneliszoon took control of the survivors scattered on a group of wind-scoured and mostly waterless coral islands. Recounted in astonishing detail, Dash’s account of the hellish four months that followed makes for compulsively lurid reading: part Lord of the Flies, part Jonestown and altogether horrifying in its matter-of-fact treatment of events that ultimately led to the deaths of more than 100 shipwrecked survivors. Even the endnotes are enthralling, and they account for almost a third of the book!
It’s interesting that the Netherlands, with its enlightened social policies and a queen who commutes by bicycle, was once the most rapacious of the European maritime powers. A lot of things can change when an empire unravels. In the meantime, as the saying goes, it’s Homo homini lupus: Man’s inhumanity to man.