The Mysteries of the Batavia

Video | Updated 1 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