If you happen to pass Houtman's Abrolhos, the tiny uninhabited archipelago just off Australia's west coast, you'll find out why it's known as Batavia's Graveyard . For there amid the brightly coloured coral, you can still see the sun-bleached bones of the victims of one of the worst civilian maritime massacres. It's not often that the evidence speaks so clearly and yet it's a racing certainty almost no one in Britain had ever heard of the Batavia. As ever when no Brits are involved, we just aren't that interested. But this could all change with Batavia's Graveyard. Mike Dash had a surprise bestseller in 1999 with Tulipomania, the story of the fascination with the tulip in seventeenth century Holland, and Batavia's Graveyard is another slice of Dutch history from the same period.
In 1628, the Batavia, the newest ship in the Dutch East India Company's fleet set sail on its maiden voyage to Java, with its hold crammed full with gold, silver and precious stones. Also on board was a man called Jeronimus Cornelisz, a member of the extreme Protestant sect, the Mennonites, and a dangerous psychotic with it. Cornelisz orchestrated a mutiny on board, but before his plans could be carried out the boat came to grief on Houtman's Abrolhos. And there the fun and games started. The Batavia's captain, Francisco Pelsaert, having got wind of the mutiny, headed off to get help in the only open boat, leaving the survivors to fend for themselves. Which is where Cornelisz steps in; realising that if he wants to remain undiscovered he will need to first kill all the survivors who weren't part of the mutiny before taking out the rescue party on its arrival, he splits the survivors into two groups. The strongest are sent to live on a nearby atoll where Cornelisz anticipates they will starve to death. Then the killing begins. The denouement, when it comes, is too perfectly timed even for Hollywood. It may be X-rated, but this really is the sort of story you just couldn't make up.--John Crace [via]