On October 29, 1628, The Batavia left port from Amsterdam heading toward modern day Jakarta. The 316 people on board included men, women, and children of various classes, nationalities, and a full crew of soldiers and passengers. The conditions were poor and extremely cramped over the long journey. There was a short respite at the Cape of Good Hope. However, before leaving two officers, named Jacobsz and Cornelisz, accompanied by a female passenger, left The Batavia for another boat in the fleet without permission. For this and their drunken behavior, they were severely punished by the ship’s commander. Due to this, Jacobsz and Cornelisz decided that they would convince the crew to mutiny against him and take over the ship. However, these plans were not realized since the ship wrecked on the Morning Reef off Australia’s Western Coast.
The commander gave the order to evacuate the ship, and Cornelisz was left in charge while the commander set sail with a contingency to Jakarta for help. Cornelisz, most of the crew and passengers who were left behind on Beacon Island. He quickly took charge of the group, set up a ruling council, and systematically began murdering anyone who was against his rule. His goal was to create a band to mutiny and takeover the rescue ship. The victims were drowned, strangled or killed with weapons, and disposed in graves or unknown ways. When the rescue team arrived they found that Cornelisz and the mutineers had murdered 125 individuals.
In the 1960’s, four individuals who were murdered were excavated by archaeologists. In the 1990’s a multiple burial was found containing 6 individuals. Despite the national importance and macabre of this event, the results of this excavation have never been released. A new article by Franklin (2012) discusses the multiple burial found during the 1990’s.
All six individuals were found lying on their sides, overlapping one another. The burial itself was quite large and able to easily fit all individuals. Copper staining was found on two the individuals, although no metal artifacts were found. Demographic analysis was done in order to help determine who these individuals were.
The fist individual had significantly damaged facial bones, and major damage to the limbs. They were an adult in their late 30’s or early 40’s, and sex couldn’t be determined though the robustness of the bones appeared more masculine. The second individual was also likely male and the same age range, but the bones were sparse so no conclusions could be drawn regarding trauma. The third is a young adult male, 20-35 years old, who was likely to have had scurvy based on bone loss and formation. The fourth was the most damaged, and belonged to a middle teenage male. There were numerous fractures. The fifth was identified only by dentition and belonged to an 8-9 month old child. Finally there was a child from 5-6 years old.
Poor preservation means that analysis of the remains is restricted, however this is supplemented by our knowledge of some of the events that led to their death. The bias towards adult males is expected given that the population on the boat would be primarily this. There were no peri-mortem injuries found that would suggest immediate cause of death. The records however state that most were strangled or had their throats cut. The former wouldn’t leave marks on the bone, and the latter rarely does. A number of ante-mortem healed traumas were found, but these were common among working naval men. Comparison against the Spitalfields collection from London, which dates to the 17th century as well, shows that they were in general healthier and taller.
What I like about this article by Franklin (2012) is that it concludes with a summary of results rather than speculation on meaning. It would be easy to talk about potential narratives of the deaths of the individuals, or why there was such a sharp age range. Instead, he does exactly what he proposes- he reveals the biological identities of people who had been long since lost. Sometimes, less is more.
Franklin, D. (2011). Human skeletal remains from a multiple burial associated with the mutiny of the VOC Retourschip Batavia, 1629 International Journal of Osteoarchaeology DOI: 10.1002/oa.1235