The Unfortunate Voyage of the Batavia – Episode 1: A “Scents” of the Past

Listen to Episode Duration 28.00

Dutch ship killing spanish galleys
Dutch Ships Ramming Spanish Galleys off the Flemish Coast in October 1602, Hendrick Cornelisz. Vroom, (1617)

In October, 1628, a merchant ship called Batavia set sail from the Dutch republic bound for an island on the other side of the world called Java.  She was the flagship of a fleet of vessels being sent by the richest corporation to ever exist and, along with extremely precious cargo, carried 341 men and women, including captain, sailors, soldiers, passengers, merchants, a minister and his family.  Her voyage would end, however, on a jagged reef near a tiny set of islands off the Western Australian coast, and in the weeks that followed 110 men, women and children would be brutally murdered by a gang of bloodthirsty mutineers led by a psychopath who believed he could do no wrong since God himself inspired all his actions.

How did this extraordinary series of events come to pass? What can those events tell us about the wielding of – and subjugation to – power and authority?

We tackle this and more in what was, truly, the unfortunate voyage.

In this first episode we take a look at the situation in the Netherlands and Amsterdam in the 1500s and early 1600s. With a focus on the sensory elements that are so often forgotten in the telling of history, we explore the world in which the rebellion on the Batavia took place; and discover what conditions existed that would foster such an unfathomable story as this one.

Here’s a bunch of background stuff to sink your teeth into:

The Happening Times of the mid 1500s

Charles V was born in Gent and he had a massive chin. It was absolutely huge. It betrayed his ancestry as a Habsburg, many of whom are known to have had similarly strong chins. Here’s a painting of Charles V. We’re sure you’ll agree, he was a very dashing young man.

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Portrait from 1514-16 by an unknown Flemish artist

Charles was the heir to three of the most powerful dynasties in Europe (Habsburg, Trastámara and Valois-Burgundy). His inheritance therefore included:

  • Rule over Austria and large parts of central Europe, and being elected as Holy Roman Emperor (Habsburg)
  • The thrones of Castile & Aragon, giving him all of Spain and other parts of the Mediterranean region (Trastámara)
  • The Burgundian Netherlands and Franche-Comté (Valois-Burgundy)

The map below shows that, by being the sole ruler of separate states and entities, his domain was to Europe what his chin was to his face. Unmissable.

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Map of Europe c. 1530s Source

And, just to get our bearings, here is a map showing the breadth of Burgundian power in the region that matters most to our story – The Lowlands

Figure 1. The Burgundian Low Countries (map from Marco Zanoli). 
Map of the territories ruled by the Duchy of Burgundy c 1490s by Marc Zanoli


When Charles V abdicated in 1555 he split his empire up in a, sort of, East-West division. His brother Ferdinand took over the Habsburg duties (Austria and central Europe), whilst his son Philip II inherited the houses of Trastámara and Valois-Burgundy (Spain and all worldwide possessions and the Spanish Netherlands). Here’s Philip II:

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Philip II of Spain, Antonis Mor, (c. 1555-8)

Not a great painting. So here he is with a nice hat:

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Portrait of Philip II of Spain, Sofonisba Anguissola

Philip once said:

“I would rather lose all my lands and a hundred lives than be king over heretics.”

What a wanker. It’s our belief that with that attitude, he was basically just asking for what was coming to him.

The figurehead for the Dutch revolt was a Skywalkeresque prince named William of Orange. He would come to be known as William the Silent.

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Willy winning the hat competition Source

William was born and raised a Lutheran, but at a young age he received a large inheritance of predominantly Catholic territory. The condition of this inheritance was that he receive a Catholic education, to which his father grudgingly assented. Among a bunch of new titles was a big one: Prince of Orange.

The Principality of Orange was actually in the south of France, in the region of Provence.  From its creation in 1163, it had been tossed around various of the many inbreds that constituted European medieval aristocracy until it ended in the pocket of the Princes of Orange-Nassau.  It would be ceded to France in 1713 via the Treaty of Utrecht.

The young Prince of Orange’s teenage years were spent at the court of Margaret of Parma, in Brussels. She was the sister of Charles V and the effective governor, on Charles’ behalf, of the Netherlands.

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Mary (1505-1558), Queen of Hungary, Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen.
(Forgot to bring a hat)

Charles himself, in fact, took great affection to the young William. When the old Emperor abdicated, it was William’s shoulder upon which he leaned, as his son was coronated.  William and Philip knew each other well, having spent very important years in each others’ company. Their lives would remain entwined.

As Philip began to enact a more autocratic and fervently Catholic rule over his Burgundian territories, the centralisation of power began to pull at the purse and liberty strings of the Dutch middle and upper classes. At the same time, Calvinism was spreading, carrying with it the sense of individual-rights that was so effective within all Protestant beliefs.

Philip and William were still close, and in 1559 Philip appointed William to the role of Stadhouder – the King of Spain’s representative in the Netherlands; the highest noble in the land.

But momentum kept growing and growing for an up-rising against Spanish domination within the Dutch political realm. William, who had received both a Lutheran and Catholic up-bringing, began to simmer in opposition to the escalation of Spanish persecution of Protestants in the Netherlands.

Throughout the late 1560s, there was a fair bit of back and forth political wrangling between the ruling court in Brussels and various factions of Dutch noblemen who were seeking greater political freedoms.

In 1566, an iconoclastic fury erupted in Antwerp, and began to sweep north, through the low countries. This iconoclasm involved various but many Protestants expressing their feelings of political and social oppression by smashing the statues and pictures of saints in any and all churches. This made political tensions even tighter, but it also focused Philip’s mind towards the purpose of eradicating heresy.

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The Calvinist Iconoclastic Riot of August 20Frans Hogenberg, 1566 (etching based in Antwerp)

The full might of the Spanish inquisition arrived, perhaps not so unexpectedly, in 1567, in the form of a man called Fernando Álvarez de Toledo.

He liked to burn Protestants, so he became the creepy and violent dude in the story.

One of the people he wanted to burn was William, our prince hero.

William, however, had other plans, and ran off to take his rightful position as leader of the Dutch revolt, raising armies and going super-saiyan against old Fernando and the Spanish.

Scientists believe this is how the Dutch got their famous blonde hair.

in 1580 he wrote in a public letter that he had decided to lead the rebellion when, on a hunting trip with King Henry II of France, he was told of Philip and Henry’s plan to exterminate all the Protestants in “the entire Christian World”. Henry mistakenly thought that William was in on the deal, and William remained silent whilst he listened and did not betray that it was all new to him. Therefore… William the Silent.

Amsterdam – Growth of a City


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Bird’s-eye view of Amsterdam, Cornelis Anthonisz.


Amstelodami Celeberrimi Hollandiae Emporii Delineatio Nova, J. Blau

From this view, you can note the extension of the city to the right side of the image; the construction of two new neighbourhoods and 4 canals.


Map of Amsterdam, published by Nicolaus Visscher, by Daniel Stalpaert.

The canals have been extended to swing around the entire city.


Map of Amsterdam, Daniel Stalpaert.


The forest of pylons upon which Amsterdam was built is still holding the city up. Photo by David Cenzer.

An amazing animation of the growth of Amsterdam, Stadsarchief Amsterdam.

4 thoughts on “The Unfortunate Voyage of the Batavia – Episode 1: A “Scents” of the Past

  1. That was fabulous, I just lay down close my eyes, listen and imagine what that must have been like. Joe you and your colleague really paint a picture with your words.


  2. Really great stuff. A story, written with style, told with brio, that plunges you back four centuries into bustling, noisy, smelly Amsterdam; and this, while communicating a vivid sense of the importance of that place and time. Philip Pettit


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