In 1628 the Dutch Merchant Ship, Batavia, set off from the Netherlands loaded with gold, silver and jewels. Also on board were several hundred passengers bound for a new life in the East Indies. Her destination on this, her maiden voyage, was Java. However, blown severely off course, and with a Commander reluctant to admit he was lost, the ship ran aground off the Western coast of Australia. The unfortunate survivors were stranded on a small group of coral islands with a band of wild and dangerous crewmen who had been planning a bloody mutiny just prior to the shipwreck. To make matters worse, they had no food, water, or shelter.
The Commander (or upper-merchant) of the Batavia, was Captain Francisco Pelsaert. An indecisive man he was somewhat naïve regarding the unrest and grave characters of the crewmen around him. He left the survivors and crew to their fate on the islands, and with a small band of trusted employees took the ship’s only longboat and headed for Java to summon help, little knowing he had a journey of 1800 miles ahead of him. What happened in the weeks that followed became Western Australia’s most gruesome historical event, and an unwanted claim to fame. A group of desperate and bloodthirsty men systematically slaughtered over 100 men, women and children. Victims were chosen at random and suffered horrific injuries prior to death. Most were hacked with knives, strangled, battered over the heads, or mutilated and then drowned. Women were repeatedly raped and if they would not submit willingly they, too, were slaughtered. A small group of survivors managed to reach a neighbouring island and there they listened in horror to the screams and blood-curdling cries from across the water. When eventually Pelsaert returned on the ship Sardam he was just in time to avert a final massacre as the remaining group of mutineers were planning a fatal attack on the survivors on the small island. Pelsaert wasted no time in trying and convicting most of the murderers. The ring leaders, as was custom, had their hands chopped off, and were then hung from hastily erected gallows. Others were to return on the Sardam to face trial back in the Netherlands. Two men, Wouter Looes, a former soldier, and a cabin boy named Jan Pelgrom, managed to persuade Pelsaert to show them mercy. They were to be abandoned on the mainland and left to fulfil their own destiny. They were marooned on a desolate beach known today to be near Wittecarra Gully, just south of the mouth of the Murchison River near what is now Kalbarri. For some reason Pelsaert showed them considerable compassion, even though Jan Pelgrom had been seen actively taking part in mutilations and murders. He was known to have become somewhat deranged in his behaviour and it is probable Pelsaert took pity on him, perhaps because of his age. He was 18 years old. Wouter Looes had shown kindness towards some of the female passengers and it was thought this was the probable reason he, too, was spared. They were supplied with a small boatload of equipment together with beads and trinkets with which to barter with the natives. At the same time as this was taking place, other members of the Sardam crew were salvaging what they could from the broken Batavia. Pelsaert had sent a group of men in a small boat on a quest to find any floating debris such as barrels of wine or vinegar. Among them were Jacob Jacobsz, the Sardam’s skipper, Pieter Pietersz, Ariaan Theuwissen and Cornelis Pieterszoon. Unfortunately, it was October, the time of the spring monsoons. A fierce storm arose that lasted for two days. The small boat was carried out to sea, and although Pelsaert sent out a search party, they were unable to find any sign of the boat or crew. When the monsoon had abated Pelsaert headed back to Netherlands aboard the Sardam. Jan Pelgrom, Wouter Looes, and the crew of the small boat, were never heard of again. This is the story of what might have happened to them.