Stop 4.3 - Batavia Archaeology: Musket Balls

These lead musket balls from the Company vessel Batavia bring to mind the undercurrent of violence that was present in the Company's encounters around the globe. But managing the emotions of those who shared shipboard life on the Company's vessels over weeks and months at a time was another challenge that Directors and superior officers took steps to actively contain. The Batavia massacre on the Houtman Abrolhos islands in 1629, — in which leader Jeronimus Cornelisz and his band of mutineers murdered almost half the men, women and children who had survived the shipwreck — emerged after the captain, Commander Francisco Pelsaert, had struggled to control emerging tensions among the senior officers and crew as the vessel crossed the Indian Ocean. Although some of those murdered were drowned, a number of such musket balls have been found alongside mutilated human remains in the recent archaeological investigations of these islands.

We find challenging emotions all throughout Company texts. After all, the Company was comprised of many individuals, German, French, and English as well as Dutch, who were mainly but not always united by their Protestant faith. Company documentation was an important tool in presenting the Company's commercial, religious and cultural ideologies and framing appropriate and expected emotional behaviours of its members. It play a key role in an organisational strategy to control the unfamiliar and manage unexpected challenges.

With an eye to the justification of his actions to the Governor-General and Councillors at Batavia, Commander Pelsaert composed ‘Sad daily notes on the loss of our ship'. ‘How great a grief it was to me all reasonable people can imagine', he wrote in a dramatic turn of phrase, ever mindful of how his decision to leave behind the survivors would be interpreted by his superiors.

Emotions certainly ran high at the news of the loss. Pelsaert was ordered back immediately in the Sardam to recover the ‘250 souls … left in utmost misery to perish of thirst and hunger'. Senior Councillor in Batavia Antonie van Diemen describing the ship and its people as ‘shamefully left' by Pelsaert in his regional report to the Directors in 1631. Senior officials at Batavia openly articulated to Pelsaert a sense of disbelief, and perhaps anger, at his actions. They imagined with horror the prospects to which he had left the survivors – unfortunately, it was an imagined fate that was far exceeded by the grim reality of widespread rape and massacre that Pelsaert was to discover on his return.

ARC Centre of Excellence
for the History of Emotions