The Mysteries of the Batavia

Video | Updated 2 years ago

The Batavia is housed at the Western Australian Museum’s Shipwreck Galleries, and can tell us a lot about seafaring and shipbuilding in the 17th Century.

The Batavia is unique. It sank in 1629, right off the Western Australian coast in the Houtman-Abrolhos archipelago. It was the first Dutch East India ship to be lost along this rugged coastline.

The Batavia is the only remaining example of an early 17th Century Dutch East India Company ship. The ship was lifted off the seabed and went through extensive conservation so that it could be researched and displayed to the public.

The hull gives us an insight into 17th Century shipbuilding technology and wood procurement and selection processes. The Dutch East India Company would build about 3 to 4 ships per year, and such an undertaking required massive amounts of timber.

The Batavia was a ‘good 44m in length, 12m in beam and weighed 500-600 tonnes.’ These measurements meant that shipbuilders would have required at least 700 trees to be felled for the construction of a single ship. This type of shipbuilding was very wasteful and would have led to forest depletion.

The hull’s planking is double layered, which is very unusual and unique to the Dutch shipbuilders. The planks are 35cm in width, 10cm thick and 10-11m in length. One plank could weigh 350kg. The quality of the wood used by the shipbuilders was high, shown by the fine grains and minimal growth aberration. These qualities were preferred as it meant the planks were much less likely to crack, and fewer imperfections meant that the wood was easy to work with.

For many years the origin of the wood used to construct the Batavia and her sister ships remained a mystery. Surprisingly, we now know thanks to Europe’s flourishing 17th Century art scene.

Artists such as Ruben and Rembrandt have been researched extensively over time, and one of the burning questions for researchers was ‘where did they get their wood from?’

Painters would only use very fine oak panels for their artworks, and this desire for the best eventually led to a link between these artists and the Dutch East India Company. The oak in question was of a high quality due to its slow growth patterns, was easy to carve and bend and was very water resistant. Researchers speculated that the forests must have been somewhere in the Netherlands or England, but had disappeared due to overuse.

In the 1980s, however, a wood scientist using dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) to examine the wood from Polish buildings and other archeological samples known to be from Polish forests found that these examples came from a forest near Danzig. This was the same type of wood used by the painters, and thus the wood of the Batavia.

By 1643 there was nothing left of the forest, and art historians have, for the past 30 years, tied the blame to the shipbuilding industry. Many European nations would have used this fine-quality oak for shipbuilding.  Dutch East India Company archives are incomplete, which means we don’t have access to more information on the wood trade, but we can surmise that the company would have played a major role in the depletion of this forest.

Researchers and historians have always played with the idea that artists like Rembrandt would have gone to the shipyards in Amsterdam to source wooden panels. Fortunately, like these priceless paintings, the high quality of the Polish oak means that the Batavia has survived almost four hundred years to be studied and enjoyed today.

Presented by Dr Wendy Van Duivenvoorde


We're standing here in front of the Batavia, a ship's hull, in the Shipwreck Galleries in the Western Australian Museum. This particular ship in itself is unique. It sank in 1629 right off the Western Australian coast in the Houtman Abrolhos archipelago and was the first Dutch East Indiaman to be lost amongst this coastline. What is interesting on Batavia or what's the significance of this particular hull, is it's that, it's the only example worldwide of an early 17th Dutch East India company ship, that was actually the ship itself was lifted off the seabed and conserved in a way that it's possible to display to the public, but it also allow for research that otherwise is not possible ting very specific questions answered on this hull has given a lot of insight into ship-building technology but also on other things, like wood procurement where did this wood come from? How did the the Dutch East India company select their wood for shipbuilding? and given the fact that would build about three to four ships a year, they would need to a lot, a ship like this, like Batavia was a good 44 meters in length, it was a good 12 meters in beam and it would have been about a 5 or 600 tonne ship. And would have required a good number of trees to be cut, or to be felled, or its construction alone. And this particular building, that the Dutch would do in the early 17th century was incredibly wasteful. It was not sustainable at all, and it definitely led to the depletion of forests from where-ever this wood came from.

Now when you look when you look at the whole planking here and you look at it head on, you'll see that it's a double layer which is very unusual, it's something that only the Dutch did, and it had to do with the way they constructed. But when you look at it, you can see that planks are very wide. they're a good 35cm in width, each layer is a good 10cm thick, and it easily be a good 10-11 meters in length And you can imagine that one plank of one of those layers would have weighed a good 350kg they are very heavy, but when you look closer at this particular wood you see that it's at a very fine quality. it's very fine grained wood, And there's very little growth aberration that can be seen in it, which is definitely something the Dutch ship-builders would have preferred. Because that's wood that's very workable: it won't crack, you won't have to deal with a lot of knots while you're building it or while you are working it, and doing research on the Batavia, we have looked at a number of smaples of this particular wood and have found that the wood came from a forest in Poland. Very close of Gdansk, south of Gdansk south along the Wisla River and that was actually the area, in Europe where the best quality Oak came from Because it was a very slow growing Oak and because it was slow growing the tree rings are very fine, it makes a really fine Oak that is very easy to carve and is very willing to bend, and is very water resistant.

We know all this, we all this about this forest in Poland, because there has been a lot of research done about paintings and because Dutch painters, or Flemish painters of the 16th, 15th and 17th century, like Rubens Frans Hals, Rembrandt, they would paint on oak panels. And of course they liked to have a good quality oak that was fine grained, because it was easy to paint on, and of course a lot of research has been done on that wood. And when that started in the 1960s and they looked at about 200 of those paintings, they couldn't tie it to the forests in Poland yet. It became a floating chronology of tree rings that spanned over a 200 - 350 years But they couldn't tie to forests and they found the same thing with paintings in England they were from the same quality, they were from the same wood but again they couldn't tie it to a forest. And so then they started to speculate, researchers said it must have been a forest somewhere in England, or the Netherlands that was completely gone now. And then, about 20 years later in the 1980s a Polish researcher, a wood scientist started looking at tree rings in buildings there And tree rings in other wood that came from archaeological contexts started looking for wood that had fallen down in the forests of Poland and then all of a sudden all these paintings, they snapped into this Polish forest that he found. And then they could establish that it came from this Polish forest what is interesting is that of this particular forest, not a single piece of wood has been found after 1643. Nothing. Not a single piece. And whereas before that, it was very common And art historians have been saying for last 30 years that it must have been tied to ship building and that the Dutch, but also other European nations would have used so much of this really fine quality nice oak for ship building that by the time of 1643 there was nothing left, and it was all gone. We have no archives that could have confirmed that from the Dutch libraries, or from the Dutch East India Company libraries because the Dutch East India Company archives of the early 17th century are incomplete. And those things that would have given us a lot of information on wood trade are simply missing.

So looking at the Batavia wood and all of the sudden realising that this wood also came from the same forest that of which the timber was used by those painters all of the sudden made us realise that the Dutch East India Company probably had a huge influence on depleting those forests. Given the fact that they would build several ships a year for many years in a row and this particular way of constructing ships with having a really thick skin with two layers, would have used immense amount of that type of trees. and would have easily depleted a forest And you can imagine if you're Rembrandt you're living in Amsterdam there are no places you can go to get your timber, there are no timber markets or stores as we know today, like you can't just go to Bunnings and pick up a panel, because you want to make a painting. And where would you go? We've always thought or played with the idea that he would go to the Shipyard where Batavia would have been built and just gotten his wood from there.