By Mike Dash
Ways of escape follow fashion. At one time, anti-realistic, romantic or fantastic art was criticized for being escapist. We feel that same need to escape today – witness the success, even among adult audiences, of the Harry Potter books and the film version of The Lord of the Rings – but more of us seem to have different destinations in mind. We seek a more intense, physical experience of reality – desiring, in the words of Thoreau, “to live deep and suck all the marrow out of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
This new escape to reality, or sous-reality, is everywhere. We have “X-treme” sports with no other purpose than to put people in danger of injury, reality television shows that strand everyday people in a wilderness where they join tribes and eat bugs, and bestselling books providing true accounts of mountain climbing tragedies and perfect storms.
Historians know a good thing when they see it. Last year’s National Book Award winner for non-fiction was Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, the X-treme story of what happened to the crew of a nineteenth-century whaleship that sank in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Here was Thoreau with a vengeance: life reduced to its lowest terms, life driven into a corner, all of the marrow (literally) sucked out of its bones.
Mike Dash’s Batavia’s Graveyard takes us even further back, to a time when nautical life was even more nasty, brutish and short than it was for Nantucket whalers. The story concerns the wreck of the Dutch East India Company vessel Batavia on a reef just off the coast of Australia in the year 1629. Fortunately, the reef they ran aground on was part of a tiny archipelago known as Houtman’s Abrolhos, and the passengers and crew were almost all saved. Unfortunately, as the captain and chief merchant sailed a longboat to Java for help the rest of the survivors were left to be terrorized and murdered by a bloodthirsty gang led by a homicidal heretic named Jeronimus Corneliszoon.
It is a horrific story, and those looking for another extreme tale of survival and life-in-the-raw will no doubt be thrilled. But Batavia’s Graveyard is also a very good book in its own right. The story is terrific, and the material is excellently arranged – turning the screw of suspense with a professional hand while also managing to pack in a lot of history. Discursions on the spice trade and the Dutch East India Company in the seventeenth century are intimately connected to the rest of the narrative, and every bit as fascinating as the demonic game of Survivor played on Houtman’s Abrolhos.
Batavia’s Graveyard is a psycho-historical thriller, and at the center of it all is the mysterious figure of Jeronimus Corneliszoon. Dash tries to figure him out, but both the historical and modern labels he comes up with, “heretic” and “psychopath”, miss the mark. In large part this is because of gaps in the historical record. Despite all of Dash’s research into the story, much remains speculation (to be aware just how much is speculation, readers should take the time to read the extensive endnotes with care).
But it might also be that a modern mind will never understand the psychology of people living at a time when life was so cheap. Hard times make hard men, and brutal conditions will make men brutes. As terrible as the crimes of Corneliszoon and his gang were, Dash makes it clear that they didn’t have a monopoly on torture, violence, lust and greed. There are few heroes in this book.
Thoreau wanted to reduce life to its lowest terms to see if it was sublime or mean. If it proved to be mean, he wanted to “get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world.” It is a job Dash has taken about as far as it can go.
Review first published March 9, 2002.