Early Voyages to Terra Australis/The Voyage and Shipwreck of Captain Francis Pelsart

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Early Voyages to Terra Australis by Richard Henry Major
The Voyage and Shipwreck of Captain Francis Pelsart
This chapter is a translation of Melchisidec Thevenot's greatly abridged translation into French of Jan Jansz' 1647 Ongeluckige voyagie, van't schip Batavia, a third person transliteration of Francisco Pelsart's journal.


The Directors of the East India Company, encouraged by the successful return of the five ships of General Carpenter, richly laden, caused eleven vessels to be equipped the very same year, 1628, for the same voyage: amongst which, there was one ship called the Batavia, commanded by Captain Francis Pelsart. He sailed from the Texel on the 28th of October 1628; and, as it would be tedious to the reader to give him a long account of a passage so well known as that to the Cape of Good Hope, I shall pass over in silence that portion of his journal, and content myself with observing, that on the 4th of June in the following year, 1629, this vessel, the Batavia, being separated from the fleet in a storm, was driven on some rocks which lie in the latitude of 28° south, and which are called by the Dutch the Abrolhos of Frederick Houtman. Captain Pelsart, who was sick in bed when this accident happened, perceived at once that his ship had struck. It was night, indeed; but the moon shone very brightly, and the weather was fair. He immediately ran upon deck, and found that all the sails were set; their course was north-east by north; and the sea appeared covered with a white froth as far as the eye could reach. He summoned the master, and charged him with the loss of the ship; who excused himself by saying, he had taken all the care he could; and that, having discerned the froth at a distance, he asked his shipmate, what he thought of it; who told him, that this whiteness was occasioned by the rays of the moon. The captain then asked him, what was to be done; and in what part of the world they were. The master replied, that God only knew that, and that the ship was on an unknown reef. They sounded, and found eighteen feet of water abaft, and much less foreward. They immediately agreed to throw their cannon overboard, in hopes that, when the ship was lightened, she might be brought to float again. They dropped an anchor, however; but meanwhile there arose a storm of wind and rain, which soon convinced them of the danger they were in; for, being surrounded with rocks and shoals, the ship was perpetually striking.

They then resolved to cut away the mainmast, which they did, but this increased the shock; for though they cut the mast close by the board, they could not get it clear, because it was much entangled with the rigging. They could see no land, except an island, which, as far as they could judge, was at about the distance of three leagues, and two smaller islands, or rather rocks, which lay nearer. The master was sent to examine them. He returned about nine in the morning, and reported that the sea, at high water, did not cover them; but that the coast was so rocky and full of shoals, that it would be very difficult to land upon them. They resolved, however, to run the risk, and to send most of their company on shore, to pacify the women, children, sick people, and such as were out of their wits with fear, whose cries and noise served only to disturb them. They put these on board their shallop and skiff; and about ten o'clock in the morning, they perceived that their vessel began to break. They redoubled their exertions to get up their bread upon deck, but they did not take the same care of the water, not reflecting, in the extremity of their danger, that they might be much distressed for want of it on shore; but what embarrassed them most of all was the brutal behaviour of some of the crew, who made themselves so drunk with the wine, upon which no check was now kept, that they were able to make only three trips that day, in which they landed one hundred and eighty persons, twenty barrels of bread, and some small casks of water. The master returned on board towards evening, and told the captain, that it was of no use to send more provisions on shore, for the crew only wasted those they had already, Pelsart then went in the shallop to put things into some order, and discovered that there was no water to be found upon the island. He endeavoured to return to the ship, in order to bring off a supply, together with the most valuable part of their cargo; but a storm suddenly arising, he was forced to return.

The whole of the fifth day of the month was spent in removing the water, and some of the merchandise, on shore; and afterwards, the captain in the skiff, and the master in the shallop, endeavoured to return to the vessel, but found the sea running so high, that it was impossible to get on board. In this extremity, the carpenter threw himself out of the ship, and swam to them, in order to inform them to what hardships those left in the vessel were reduced; and he was sent back, with orders for them to make rafts, by tying the planks together, and endeavour on these to reach the shallop and skiff; but before this could be done, the weather became so rough, that the captain was obliged to return, leaving, with the utmost grief, his lieutenant and seventy men on the very point of perishing on board the vessel. Those who had reached the little island were not in much better condition; for, upon taking an account of their water, they found they had not above eighty pints for forty people; and on the larger island, where there were one hundred and eighty, the stock was still less. Those who were on the little island began to murmur, and to complain of their officers, because they did not go in search of water on the neighbouring islands; and they represented the necessity of this to Captain Pelsart, who yielded to their remonstrances, but told them that before he went, he wished to communicate this resolution to the rest of the people. It was with difficulty that he gained their consent to this, for the master was afraid that the other party would keep the captain with them. At length they consented, but not till the captain had declared, that without the consent of the company on the large island that he should go in search of water, he would, rather than leave them, perish on board his ship. When he got near to the island, he who commanded the boat told the captain, that if he had anything to say, he must call out to the people; for that they would not suffer him to go out of the boat. The captain then attempted to throw himself overboard, in order to swim to the island; but he was prevented, and the order given to pull off from the shore. Thus he was obliged to return, having first left these words written on a leaf of a tablet, that he was gone in the skiff to look for water in the nearest country or islands that he could find.

They first sought along the coasts of the islands, and certainly found water in the holes of the rocks, but the sea had dashed into it, and rendered it unfit for use; they therefore determined to seek farther on. They made a deck to their boat, as it would have been impracticable to navigate those seas in an open vessel. A few more of the crew joined themselves to the company for the same purpose; and after the captain had obtained the signature of his people to that resolution, they immediately put to sea, having first taken an observation, by which they found themselves in latitude 28° 13' south. A short time afterwards, they had sight of the continent, which appeared, according to their estimation, to lie about sixteen miles north by west from the place where they had suffered shipwreck. They found the water about twenty-five or thirty fathoms deep; and, as night drew on, kept out to sea, standing in for the land again after midnight. On the morning of the 9th (of June) they found themselves, according to their reckoning, about three miles from the shore; this day they made four or five miles by many tacks, sailing sometimes north, sometimes west, the coast lying north-quarter-west, the coast appearing low, naked, and excessively rocky, being nearly of the same height as that near Dover. At last they saw a little creek, with sandy bottom, into which they were anxious to enter, but upon approaching it, they found that the sea ran high, and the weather becoming more threatening, they were obliged to haul off the coast.

On the 10th, they remained in the same parts, tacking first on one side and then on the other, but the sea being still rough, they determined to abandon their shallop, and even to throw a part of the bread which remained in the vessel overboard, since it hindered them from clearing themselves of the water, which the vessel made upon every side. It rained much that night, and afforded them hopes that their people who remained upon the islands would derive great relief therefrom. On the eleventh day, the wind, which was west-south-west, began to sink, and they steered their course towards the north, for the sea, which still ran high, obliged them to keep at a distance from the land. On the 12th, they made an observation, by which they found themselves in the latitude of 27°. The wind being south-east, they bordered the coast, but were unable to land on account of its steepness, there being no creek, or low land, in advance of the rocks, as is usually found on sea coasts. From a distance, the country appeared fertile and full of vegetation. On the 13th, they found themselves by observation in the latitude of 25° 40'; by which they discovered that the current had carried them towards the north, and over against an opening, the coast lying to the north-east.

This day their course lay towards the north, but the coast presented one continuous rock of a red colour, and of an equal height, without any land in advance, and the waves broke against it with such force that it was impossible for them to land.

The wind blew very fresh on the morning of the 14th, but towards noon it became calm, the latitude being 24°, and the wind at east, but the tide still carried them farther north than they desired, for their design was to make a descent as soon as possible; with which view they sailed slowly along the coast, till, perceiving smoke at a distance, they rowed towards the spot from whence it proceeded, hoping to find inhabitants and consequently water. They found the coast steep, full of rocks, and the sea very high, which caused them to lose all hope of effecting a landing. At length, six of the men, trusting to their skill in swimming, threw themselves into the sea, and at last with much trouble and danger reached the shore, the boat remaining at anchor in twenty-five fathoms water. These men passed the entire day in seeking for water; and, whilst thus employed, they perceived four men, who approached them upon all-fours; but one of our people advancing towards them upon a rising ground, they immediately raised themselves and took to flight, so that they were distinctly seen by those who were in the skiff. These people were savages, black and quite naked, not having so much even as the covering worn by nearly all other savage people. The sailors, having no longer any hope of finding water there, swam on board again, wounded and bruised by the blows which they received from the waves and rocks. The anchor being weighed, they continued their course along the shore, in the hopes of finding some spot more adapted for landing.

On the 15th, in the morning, they discovered a cape, from the point of which there ran a reef or chain of rocks a mile into the sea, whilst another reef extended itself along the coast. As the sea there appeared but little agitated, they ventured between the rocks, but found that they formed only a cul-de-sac, and that there was no place for exit. About noon, they saw another opening, where the sea was smooth, but it appeared dangerous to attempt it, there being no more than two feet of water, and many stones. In front of the whole length of this coast is a table of sand one mile in breadth. As soon as they landed, they fell to digging wells in this advanced coast, but the water which they found there was brackish. At length, they discovered some soft rain-water in the clefts of the rocks, which was a great relief to them, for they were dying of thirst, having had for some days previously little more than half a pint of water apiece. Of this, they collected during the night that they remained there about twenty gallons. It was evident that some savages had been there a short time before, as they found the remains of crayfish and some ashes.

On the morning of the 16th, they resolved to return again to the shore, in the hopes of being able to collect a greater quantity of water from the rocks, since there remained no chance of their finding it elsewhere. But no rain had fallen for some time, for they discovered no more, and the land which they found beyond the rocks which skirted the coast held out no promise to them. The country was flat, without vegetation or trees, with nothing in view but ant-hills, and these so large that, from a distance, they were taken to be the habitations of the Indians. They found there such a wonderful quantity of flies, that they were compelled to defend themselves from them. At some distance they perceived eight savages, each of whom carried a club in his hand; these came up within musket shot, but when they saw our people advancing to meet them, they took to flight. At length, finding that there was no longer hope of obtaining water, our people determined, about mid-day, to leave the coast, and accordingly departed by another opening in this reef, more to the northward. Finding by observation that they were in 22° 17', they formed the idea of seeking the river of Jacob Remmessens, but the wind blowing from the north-east, they found they could no longer follow the coast; when, taking into consideration that they were distant more than one hundred miles from the place of shipwreck, and that they had with difficulty found sufficient water for their subsistance, they resolved to make the best of their way to Batavia, to inform the governor of their misfortune, and to solicit assistance for the people they had left in the islands.

On the 17th, they were prevented by fog from taking an observation at mid-day. This day they made about fifteen miles, the wind being north-west by north, fresh, and dry, and their route north-east.

On the 18th, they were still unable to take an observation at mid-day, but, by their reckoning, they made ten miles upon a wind, west north-west; the weather rough with much rain and wind, which, towards mid-day, veered from north-east slightly towards the north, their course lying to the west. The same weather continued the whole of the 19th, so that they were again unable to take an observation; but by their reckoning they made about seven leagues, their course lying north north-east, and the wind being due west.

On the 20th, they found themselves by an observation in 19° 22' of latitude, having made, by reckoning, twenty-two miles, their course lying northerly, and the wind west south-west, fresh, with a slight rain.

The 21st, they reckoned to have made twenty-three miles in a northerly direction, the wind varying from south-west to south-east, sometimes fresh, followed by a calm.

An observation on the 22nd showed them to be in latitude 16° 10', which greatly surprised them, as they could not imagine how, in so short a time, they had been enabled to pass so many degrees; the current apparently carried them strongly towards the north. By their reckoning they were found to have made twenty-four miles, the course northerly, with a fresh breeze at times from the south-east.

They found it impossible to take an observation upon the 23rd, but, by their reckoning, they had made sixteen miles, their course lying north by west, the wind this day sometimes veering from east to west, weather variable, rainy and occasionally calm. In the evening the wind stood at south south-east.

On the 24th, the weather was dry, fresh, with the wind south-east by south. About mid-day they found themselves in latitude 13° 10', the course twenty-five miles north by west.

On the 25th, the wind blew from the south-east, the weather dry, and fresh, and the latitude 13° 30'. This day they had advanced by their reckoning thirty-one miles, north by west, and saw much sea-weed.

The 26th day they were in latitude 9° 56', the wind south-east, and the weather dry. This day they advanced twenty-four miles in the same direction.

On the 27th day the wind blew from the south-east, and the weather being rainy they were unable to take an observation. After mid-day they saw the land of Java, in latitude 8° according to their calculations, and distant about four or five miles. They changed their course to west north-west, hugging the coast until evening, when they discovered a point beyond which lay an island abounding with trees. Having made for this point they found, towards dusk, a bay, into which they entered, following a course towards the north north-west, and casting anchor in eight fathoms water, with a hard bottom, they passed the night there.

On the morning of the 28th, they weighed anchor, and rowed towards shore to look for water, for they were reduced to extremity by thirst. Happily they discovered a spring, at which they quenched their thirst and refilled their casks, and towards mid-day resumed their course for Batavia.

After midnight in the second watch of the 29th, they perceived an island before them, which they left on their starboard or right side, and at day-break found themselves near the cove which lies upon the west side thereof, from whence they continued their course towards the west north-west. By pursuing this route one gives a wide berth to the shore at the bottom of this cove, but nears it again before the Trowuen Islands are reached. About mid-day they found themselves in latitude 6° 48', and that by reckoning they had made thirty miles, the course lying west north-west, about three o'clock in the afternoon. They passed between these two islands, and saw upon the more westerly one a great quantity of cocoa-nut trees. About evening they were still distant one mile from the south point of Java, and at the third bell of the second watch found themselves exactly between Java and Prince's Island. On the morning of the thirtieth day they were near the coast of Prince's Island, and made only two miles that day. Towards evening a slight breeze sprung up from the land.

The weather moderated on the 1st of July, and at mid-day they were still full three leagues distant from the island called Dwaers-inden-wegh,[1] the wind being inconstant. About evening the wind blew from the north-west, so that they gained the island of which I speak. The night was calm, and they were constrained to row.

On the morning of the second, being opposite to the island called Toppers-hoëtien, they were forced to remain at anchor till nigh eleven o'clock, expecting the sea breeze; but it rose so slightly that they were compelled to continue rowing, and found by the evening that they had only advanced two miles. At sunset they perceived a sail astern opposite to the island Dwaers-inden-wegh, whereupon they reached the coast and cast anchor there, resolved to await its coming. When the morning came they boarded this vessel, hoping to obtain assistance and arms for their defence against the Javanese in case they were at war with the Dutch. They found the vessel accompanied by two others of the Company, in one of which was Ramburgh, counsellor to the Company. Pelsart went on board his vessel, and having recounted to him with grief the accident that had befallen him, sailed with him to Batavia.

Whilst he is soliciting assistance, I will return to those of the crew who remained upon the island; but I should first inform you that the supercargo, named Jerome Cornelis, formerly an apothecary at Harlem, had conspired with the pilot and some others, when off the coast of Africa, to obtain possession of the ship and to take her to Dunkirk, or to avail themselves of her for the purposes of piracy. This supercargo remained upon the wreck ten days after the vessel had struck, having discovered no means of reaching the shore. He even passed two days upon the mainmast, which floated, and having from thence got upon a yard, at length gained the land. In the absence of Pelsart he became commander, and deemed this a suitable occasion for putting his original design into execution, concluding that it would not be difficult to become master of that which remained of the wreck, and to surprise the commander when he should arrive with the assistance which he had gone to Batavia to seek, and afterwards to cruise in these seas with his vessel. To accomplish this it was necessary to get rid of those of the crew who were not of his party; but before embruing his hands with blood, he caused his accomplices to sign a species of compact, by which they promised fidelity one to another. The entire crew was divided between three islands; upon that of Cornelis, which they had named the graveyard of Batavia, was the greatest number of men. One of them, by name Weybehays, had been dispatched to another island to seek for water, and having discovered some after a search of twenty days, he made the preconcerted signal by lighting three fires, but in vain, for they were not seen by the people of Cornelis's company, the conspirators having, during that time, murdered those who were not of their party. Of these they killed thirty or forty; some few saved themselves upon pieces of wood, which they joined together, and going in search of Weybehays informed him of the horrible massacre that had taken place. Having with him forty-five men he resolved to keep upon his guard, and to defend himself from these assassins if they should make an attack upon his company, which, in effect, they designed to do, and to treat the other party in the same manner; for they feared lest their company, or that which remained upon the third island, should inform the commander upon his arrival, and thus prevent the execution of their design. They succeeded easily with the party last mentioned, which was the weakest, killing the whole of them, excepting seven children and some women. They hoped to succeed as easily with Weybehays' company, and in the meanwhile broke open the chests of merchandise which had been saved from the vessel. Jerome Cornelis caused clothing to be made for his company out of the rich stuffs which he found therein, choosing to himself a body guard, each of whom he clothed in scarlet, embroidered with gold and silver. Regarding the women as part of the spoil, he took one for himself, and gave one of the daughters of the minister to a principal member of his party, abandoning the other three for public use; he drew up also certain rules for the future conduct of his men.

After these horrible proceedings, he caused himself to be elected captain-general by a document, which he compelled all his companions to sign. He afterwards sent twenty-two men in two shallops to destroy the company of Weybehays, but they met with a repulse. Taking with him thirty-seven men he went himself against Weybehays, who received him at the water's edge as he disembarked, and forced him to retire, although he had no other weapons but clubs, the ends of which he had armed with spikes. Finding force unavailing he had recourse to other means. He proposed a treaty of peace, the chaplain who remained with Weybehays drawing up the conditions; it was agreed to with this proviso, that Weybehays' company should remain unmolested, who, upon their part, agreed to deliver up a little boat in which one of the sailors had escaped from the island where Cornelis was located to that of Weybehays, receiving in return some stuffs for clothing his people. During the negotiations, Cornelis wrote to certain French soldiers who belonged to the company, offering to each six thousand pounds to corrupt them, with the hope that with this assistance he might easily compass his design. His letters, which were without effect, were shown to Weybehays, and Cornelis, who was ignorant of their disclosure, having arrived the next day with three or four others to find Weybehays and bring him the apparel, the latter caused him to be attacked, killed two or three of his company, and took Cornelis himself prisoner. One of them, by name Wouterlos, who escaped from this rout, returned the following day to renew the attack, but with little success.

Pelsart arrived during these occurrences in the frigate Sardam; as he approached the wreck he observed smoke from a distance, rising from one of the islands, a circumstance that afforded him great consolation, since he perceived by it that his people were not all dead. He cast anchor, and threw himself immediately into a skiff with bread and wine, and proceeded to land in one of the islands. Nearly at the same time a boat came alongside armed with four men. Weybehays, who was one of the four, ran to him, informed him of the massacre, and advised him to return as speedily as possible to his vessel, for that the conspirators designed to surprise him—having already murdered twenty-five persons—and to attack him with two shallops; adding, that he himself had that morning been at close quarters with them. Pelsart perceived at the same time the two shallops coming towards him, and had scarcely got on board his own vessel before they came alongside. He was surprised to see the people covered with embroidery of gold and silver, and weapons in their hands, and demanded of them why they approached the vessel armed. They replied that they would inform him when they came on board. He commanded them to cast their arms into the sea, or otherwise he would sink them. Finding themselves compelled to submit, they threw away their weapons, and, being ordered on board, were immediately placed in irons. One of them, named Jan de Bremen, who was the first examined, confessed that he had put to death, or assisted in the assassination of twenty-seven persons. The same evening Weybehays brought his prisoner on board.

On the 18th day of September, the captain and the master-pilot, taking with them ten men of Weybehays' company, passed over in boats to the island of Cornelis. Those who still remained thereon lost all courage as soon as they saw them alongside, and allowed themselves to be placed in irons. The captain's first care was to make search for the jewels, which had been distributed here and there. The whole of these were discovered at the first search, with the exception of a chain of gold and a ring, the latter of which was afterwards recovered. The wreck was afterwards visited. The vessel was broken into a hundred pieces; the keel upon one side aground upon a sandbank, the forepart of the vessel resting upon a rock, and other pieces scattered here and there, holding out little hope to Pelsart of saving any part of the Company's merchandise. The steward informed him, that about one month previous, upon the only fine day they had had during their residence there, having gone out fishing near the wreck, he had struck against one of the chests filled with silver with the end of a pike.

On the 19th, they conveyed the other accomplices to the island for the purpose of examining them.

On the 20th, they sent various necessaries to Weybehays' company, and brought away water from them; for, after being ten days upon the island without discovering any, they thought of tasting some which was in two wells, but which they had believed to be salt, because it rose and fell with the tide, but they afterwards found it to be good to drink.

On the 21st, they found the tide very low, and the wind so strong from the east south-east, that the boat could not go out this day.

On the 22nd, they again wished to examine the wreck, but the sea broke upon it so roughly that the swimmers themselves did not venture to approach it.

On the 25th, the master and pilot approached it at a favourable moment, and those who remained on shore perceiving that there was something that they were unable to remove therefrom, sent assistance to them, the captain going in person, and they found that they had discovered a chest full of silver. A second chest was afterwards found, and the two were placed on dry land; but they were unable to obtain more that day on account of the bad weather, although the divers of Guzarat assured them they had found six other chests which they could easily remove.

On the 26th, after they had dined, the weather being fine and the tide very low, the master set out for the spot where the chests had been seen and recovered three, placing an anchor and a piece of artillery to mark the spot where a fourth remained, which, after great endeavours, they found themselves unable to move.

On the 27th, the wind blew very cold from the south.

On the 28th, the wind continued from the same quarter. and as it did not suffer them to work near the wreck, the captain assembled a council to advise whether he should bring the prisoners to trial there, or carry them to Batavia, to be there tried by the officers of the Company. The great number of them, and the temptation offered by the great treasures which they had recovered from the wreck, and with which the frigate was loaded, caused the majority to vote for their immediate trial and execution, which was there and then carried into effect.

  1. "Dwaers-inden-wegh," signifies the island which lies across the path, i.e., Thwart-the-way Island.