Listen to Episode Duration 46:13
What was that crazy story that we just told? How much of it really happened? What does it all mean for our understanding of rebellion and resistance, and for how we perceive the role of defiance in events that have come before us? We explore all of this in the final episode of our series: The Unfortunate Voyage of the Batavia.
Do you want to read Pelsaert’s journal for yourself? Check it out here!
The Unlikely Voyage of the Gemma Constantiniana
The most precious piece of cargo on the Batavia was an amazing Roman artifact called the “Gemma Constantiniana”. This is a carved agate cameo, made in 315 CE in honour of Constantine’s victory over Maxinius 3 years earlier.
It shows the emperor, Constantine, his wife Fausta and his mum, even ancient Romans loved their mums, on a triumphal chariot, being pulled by centaurs, who are trampling over enemies whilst Victoria flies towards the emperor with a victory wreath. It sounds awesome, and must have been ridiculously difficult to make from such precious material, but as you can see, it’s pretty damn ugly. When the Roman capital was moved to Constantinople in 330CE, it went there, where it remained for about 900 years before it was stolen and taken to France during the 4th crusade, where it was stashed in a monastery.
In France, in 1622, the great painter Peter-Paul Rubens, of Massacre of the Innocents fame, acquired it. Apparently he was a collector of ancient cameos. And we thought our footy stickers collection was cool. Anyway, Rubens got a hugely ornate frame with gems added to the cameo, then gave it to a guy called Gaspar Boudaen in Amsterdam, who was to sell it to the Great Mogul of India. And so it was, that the cameo came into the possession of Francisco Pelsaert on the Batavia and became the ship’s most valuable individual item. After the wreck of the ship, Jeronimus had all of Pelsaert’s jewels stashed in his great tent, so he would have slept next to the cameo every night, no doubt using it to try and woo his way into Lucretia’s skirts. Nothing screams sexy to a woman like a carving of a Roman emperor and his mum crushing their enemies.
After Pelsaert returned, he took the cameo to Fort Batavia. From here, it was taken to Atjeh, Persia and India, but none of the rulers there had any interest in buying it, so 20 years later it returned to the Netherlands, where it was sold at an auction in Amsterdam. In 1808 it went to Paris and was almost sold to Napoleon, but events in 1813 got in the way, so instead it was bought by Dutch King Willem I in 1828, and has been displayed in various Dutch museums ever since. Until 2016, that is, when it was loaned to the Museum of Western Australia for their exhibition “Travellers and Traders in the Indian Ocean World” until April 2017. This thing has been seen by Roman emperors, French monks, world famous artists, greedy merchants, bloodthirsty mutineers, sultans, kings, generals and Australian bogans. Strewth.