The Batavia tapestry

Melinda Piesse with her Batavia tapestry

Textile artist Melinda Piesse with her Batavia tapestry. Photographer Kristina Kingston, reproduced courtesy Melinda Piesse

Last week we unveiled a new large-scale embroidered work by Melbourne textile artist Melinda Piesse at the museum. Known as the Batavia tapestry (2017), it illustrates the tragic story of the wreck of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) flagship Batavia in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Western Australia, on 4 June 1629 and the sorry fate of the ship’s company.

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The death of Captain Barker

Barkers Knoll, sea outlet of the Murray 1840.  ANMM Collection

Barkers Knoll, sea outlet of the Murray 1840.
ANMM Collection

In Australia’s past, there were many unsung heroes whose quiet achievements deserve to be remembered, and it is often only by chance that they are brought to light. I recently came across a simple sketch of a remote and windswept piece of coastline in South Australia, and would have continued reading if I had not noticed the handwritten note on the top, “Spot where Captain Barker was murdered”. Although the area, particularly nearby Kangaroo Island, had been sporadically used by sealers since the mid 1700s, there was no settlement there in 1831 when Captain Barker visited. It seemed an unusual place for a murder to happen. As it turned out, not only was it a most unlikely location but Captain Barker was a most unlikely victim. Continue reading

The Prosecutor and the Perpetrator: Murder in Melbourne…

'The Truth', 18 July 1942. From the State Library of Victoria’s Newspapers

‘The Truth’, 18 July 1942. From the State Library of Victoria’s Newspapers

She had a lovely voice. I wanted that voice. She was leaving to go to her house and I did not want her to go. I grabbed her by the throat. I choked her; I choked her. (Edward Leonski, quoted from trial transcript, National Archives of Australia Barcode 101035 p364)

In early 1942 two very different American soldiers arrived in Australia as part of a surge of United States troops based in Australia to fight the war in the Pacific. Hayford Octavius Enwall was a lawyer who was working as the Chief Legal Officer of the US Army Services of Supply and Edward Joseph Leonski was a problematic, troubled soldier with the US 52nd Signal Battalion. By the end of the war Enwall left Australia a married man, having fallen in love with Jean Kennett – a poster girl for Australian army recruitment. Leonski on the other hand did not leave Australia alive, and was executed at Pentridge Prison in 1943 for the murders of three Melbourne women. Continue reading

Raine Island: it never Raines, it pours…

Hey, it’s Oli here again to tell you about another one of my tasks as an intern here at the museum: research!!

Early next year (2013), the museum plans on making a trip to the tip of Northern Queensland in the hope of investigating, surveying, and possibly excavating some endangered artefacts from the reef-riddled waters surrounding the infamous Raine Island. Perhaps the word ‘infamous’ is a little strong these days, but if there is one thing this research has taught me, it’s that Raine Island was absolutely treacherous for sailors during the 19th century, with around 40 known shipwrecks in the area immediately surrounding the island (one article I found stated that there had been 51 wrecks in the area in 1854 alone).

“Disaster at Sea”, Woven by the Victorian Tapestry Workshop, concept by Murray Walker, Ausrtalia, 1989. ANMM Collection

From the late 1700s onwards, Raine Island represented an opening in the Great Barrier Reef, and the start of the passage through Torres Strait for ships attempting to voyage from the East coast of Australia to Asia, India, and Europe. Once past the island, ships could enjoy the protection of the reef, and relatively calm waters safe from the furious surf of the Pacific Ocean. However, before ships could take advantage of this calm, they had to navigate waters riddled with small and large reefs, and if a crew failed to properly identify a certain landmark, or else allowed themselves to deviate slightly from the established path, they were almost guaranteed to spend the rest of their voyage in a lifeboat (if they were lucky).

Alongside attempting to discover various facts about the ships’ destination and cargo, I am looking for accounts of the actual wrecking events in the newspapers of the period. This has exposed me to some amazing stories of death and survival, the like of which I would not otherwise have imagined were possible in the Australian context.

One of the most morbidly interesting is the story of the Charles Eaton, which was a barque out of Sydney bound for Singapore with around 40 people on board. On 15 August 1834, the barque mounted a reef and stuck fast under the heavy surf of the Pacific Ocean. Five members of the crew, including the ship’s carpenter and boatswain, immediately abandoned ship on the only boat that was still usable, but the others refused to join them because it seemed utterly hopeless for the little boat to get away. The five managed to survive and navigated their way right across the top of Australia to Timor where they were immediately robbed, and were almost murdered, but for the kindness of an elderly man, who nevertheless held them captive for over a year.

The rest of the crew on board the Charles Eaton set about making a raft from the components of the ship (after the storm had subsided) and finally succeeded in making a vessel large enough to carry around 10 people including three young boys: George and Willy D’Oyley, and William Sexton. The raft was set adrift, and the crew paddled for some days before meeting a man in a canoe, who invited them onto a nearby island, where he promised them turtle meat. Upon landing, the group were attacked by a large number of men, who decapitated all of them, except for the three boys, who were to be assimilated into the community (George D’Oyley and William Sexton were, however, beaten to death around two months later). Meanwhile, the rest of the crew still aboard the Charles Eaton had constructed another raft which would be capable of holding them all. This final vessel was cast off, and paddled around for a full week before also landing on an island at the direction of a man in a canoe. As the crew collapsed, exhausted upon the sand, they were attacked and butchered, and all were decapitated save another young boy who was also subsequently adopted into the community (the very same people who dealt likewise with the other raft).

The cover of a book in the museum’s collection, which is a narritive written by William Sexton some time after the shipwreck ordeal. It tells of his adventure, and some fond memories of his time on the island.

The fate of the Charles Eaton was an utter mystery for many months, before the five remaining crew managed to escape from their captivity in Timor, and sail to Batavia to alert authorities to the wreck. At this point, a rescue ship was sent out, but failed to discover the whereabouts of the survivors until the captain of another vessel reported sighting a white child in an indigenous family. The rescue vessel located them, along with a number of skulls identified as belonging to the crew of the Charles Eaton. The two boys were taken back to Europe, and provided witness to the whole event some two years after it had occurred (despite now having a slightly limited grasp on the English language).

Another interesting (and somewhat shorter) story was that of the Norna, which left for Hong Kong from Newcastle in 1861 under a cloud of controversy surrounding the murderous behaviour of the previous captain. The Norna was wrecked on a reef described merely as being 14 miles away from the wreck of the Constant. The ship and crew had been missing for some time before a search was sent out in the form of the Sphinx, which started searching islands around the Coral Sea, and managed to find a note in a glass bottle buried on a tropical island under a tree with a plaque reading “NORNA”. The note was written by the Second Officer of the Norna, and described the wreck event, and the subsequent months of being marooned on the island. The captain and his family had left after a week on the island, never to be heard of again. The rest of the crew intended to make for the ‘Pellew Islands’ in the remaining boat, but were not found there by the rescue vessel.

After further searches were made of the surrounding islands, the crew of the Norna were located on an island, but in the captivity of the indigenous people who refused to release their captives or negotiate with the would-be rescuers. As a result, the crew of the Sphinx burned down all the villages on the island, and held the the local chiefs hostage until eventually the surviving crew of the Norna were handed over.

These accounts, and others like them, provide an amazing insight into the extraordinary stories emanating from Australia’s maritime history, and the fact that many of these vessels are yet to be properly investigated (let alone discovered) convince me that the maritime archaeologists here at the museum have some of the most remarkable jobs in Australia!

Object of the week: Batavia – Mutiny, madness and murder

Jan Hendrycks confesses that one day he had been called by Jeronimus into his tent and that he gave him to know that at night time he must help him with the murder of the Predikant’s family. At night, Zeevonk has called outside Wiebrecht Clausen, a young girl, whom Jan Hendrycks stabbed with a dagger, and inside, all people – the mother with her six children – had their heads battered in with axes…He said, certainly, I have a knife. So without any objection, Andreas has gone to Myken Soers who was heavily pregnant and threw her underfoot and cut her throat….
~Henrietta DrakeBrockman, Voyage to Disaster, 2006

These words, which appeared in The Disastrous Voyage of the Ship Batavia (1647), are believed to have been written by Commander Francis Pelsaert. The text details the tragic fate that befell the survivors of the wreck of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) cargo vessel, Batavia.

In 1628, Batavia departed Texel in Holland for Batavia, carrying a cargo of trade goods, chests of coins and around 332 crew, soldiers and passengers. Francis Pelsaert was in overall command. The captain was the embittered Ariaen Jacobsz who, during the voyage, plotted with a merchant, Jeronimus Cornelisz, to usurp Pelsaert’s command. Before this plan was realised, however, Batavia hit Morning Reef at the Houtman Abrolhos islands, off the Western Australian coast on 4 June 1629.

Approaching the Islands, 1647
ANMM Collection

The crew, passengers and a few supplies were ferried to nearby islands. Despite some loss of life, all the women and children reached land safely. Realising the dire situation, Pelsaert launched a reconnaissance voyage to the mainland in search of fresh water. After this failed, Pelsaert, Jacobsz and 46 crew and passengers sailed for Batavia in a long boat.

Cornelisz seized the moment and took command of the supplies, weapons and survivors on the island later christened Batavia’s Graveyard. It is estimated that over 200 people remained on the island; at least 100 were soldiers and sailors of the VOC and some 25 were youths and children. Cornelisz set his plan in motion. First he dispersed the survivors, ordering about 40 men, women and children to Seal’s Island and about 15 men to Traitor’s Island. Promising he would be back with more supplies, he sent a further 20 men to another island, West Wallabi.

The killings on Batavia’s Graveyard began in the early days of July. In the weeks that followed, Cornelisz and his men brutally raped and murdered around 125 men, women and children. Ghastly accounts have survived, of sick people having their throats cut while they slept and a little girl strangled while her parents dined with Cornelisz.

Wreck of the Batavia – Massacre, 1647
ANMM Collection

Meanwhile, on West Wallabi a leader, Wiebbe Hayes, emerged. Though they were unaware of the killings on Batavia’s Graveyard, a few survivors managed to escape Cornelisz and his gang to seek refuge on West Wallabi. Hayes prepared for a confrontation with Cornelisz by building a fort and making weapons out of the ship’s debris. Several battles ensued in which Hayes and his men emerged the victors and captured Cornelisz as a prisoner. In the meantime, Pelsaert arrived to learn of the events that had occurred on Batavia’s Graveyard and declared, ‘the pack of all disasters has moulded together and fallen on my neck.’

So began the trials and confessions of the murderers. Though Cornelisz adamantly denied all responsibility, he was tortured and confessed to his crimes. Cornelisz and the perpetrators had their hands cut off and were ‘punished with the cord at the gallows’ on Seal’s Island.

Beardman jug, excavated from the wrecksite of the Batavia, c 1629
ANMM Collection

The object of the week is a beardman jugon display in the museum, which was one of several thousand objects salvaged from the wreck of Batavia. The jug features a rose medallion on the body with a bearded man on the neck. This style stoneware, also known as a Bellarmine jug, emerged in Germany in the 16th and 17th centuries. This jug probably contained alcohol and is one of several items in the museum’s collection of coins, armour and musket balls retrieved from the wreck. Though an ornate drinking pitcher, it’s the stories behind this jug that convey the historical significance of the Batavia. The artefacts recovered are more than just remnants from past; they contain whispers of what transpired on that island of horrors – Batavia’s Graveyard.

Nicole Cama, curatorial assistant