Archaeologists Unearth the Victims of a Mysterious Massacre 400 Years Ago on an Australian Island

Beacon Island
Beacon Island
Guy de la Bedoyere, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The cargo ship Batavia set out from the Netherlands in October 1628, bound for the Dutch colony at present-day Jakarta, Indonesia, with more than 300 crew and passengers. For some still-unknown reason, the ship veered off course to the south and smashed into a coral atoll about 50 miles west of the Australian coast.

What happened over the next few months—culminating in a mysterious and brutal massacre that left at least 125 people dead—is Australia's oldest cold case.

In a story that aired on 60 Minutes Australia, correspondent Liam Bartlett traveled to this "island of horror" where a team of Australian and Dutch scientists is uncovering the nearly 400-year-old skeletons, well preserved in the sand of what is now Beacon Island. They hope to discover what led to the sudden mass slaughter of adults and children.

"We're dealing with a psychopath and some pretty horrible events," Alistair Paterson, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia and the leader of the research team, tells Bartlett. "There's nothing like it in Dutch history or Australian history."

A scene from the 60 Minutes Australia reportKat Long

The Batavia, the flagship of the Dutch East India Company, was on its maiden voyage. The commander, Francisco Pelsaert, and the captain, Ariaen Jacobsz, detested each other. Jacobsz conspired with Pelsaert's deputy, Jeronimus Cornelisz, to take control of the ship and its load of silver and valuable paintings. But before the mutiny could unfold, the ship crashed into the reef in the early morning of June 4, 1629.

About 100 people died in the wreck, while almost 200 made it to a cluster of islands in the Abrolhos chain—treeless, desert-like stretches of sand without water or food. Pelsaert and Jacobsz sailed for help, hoping to reach their original destination nearly 2000 miles away by boat.

The events of the next three months continue to puzzle and horrify modern researchers. Initially, Jeronimus Cornelisz organized food rations and shelter for the survivors on Beacon Island as a way to cement his leadership. But then, he hoarded the weapons and boats for his own use. He ordered his followers to execute the strong, able-bodied men who could pose a threat to his control over the group. Most of the women and children who would be a drain on supplies were also killed, though some women were kept alive as sexual slaves, Bartlett reports.

"Totally Lord of the Flies," Paterson says.

An image from Pelsaert's journal of the voyageWikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Cornelisz marooned several men on a nearby island to get them out of the way as the killing rampage continued. But those men, led by a sailor named Wiebbe Hayes, managed to find water and food, and made a primitive protective fort of stone slabs—which still exists as the first European-made structure on Australian soil. In early August, two months after the wreck, Cornelisz and his men attempted to storm Hayes' stronghold and eliminate his band of survivors.

At the last moment, a rescue ship helmed by Pelsaert and Jacobsz appeared on the horizon. Both Hayes and Cornelisz sent out boats to intercept the ship, hoping to establish their version of events as fact and save themselves from punishment. Fortunately, Hayes's men reached the ship first.

Only 80 to 90 survivors out of the Batavia's 300-plus passengers eventually arrived in present-day Jakarta. Cornelisz, who never showed a hint of remorse or offered an explanation for his brutality, was hanged along with his co-conspirators. The bones of his victims, preserved in the island's alkali coral sand for almost four centuries, are now revealing clues to the historical mystery. 

"Horrible things happened to these individuals. They clearly were victims," Paterson tells Bartlett. "But the archaeology allows us to get their story told." 

Thursday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Guitar Kits, Memory-Foam Pillows, and Smartwatches

Amazon
Amazon
As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 3. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

Archaeologists Discover the Jousting Yard Where Henry VIII Had His Historic Accident

National Trust, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
National Trust, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Henry VIII may have never earned his reputation as an ill-mannered tyrant if it weren't for injuries he sustained at age 44. Now, as Live Science reports, archaeologists have uncovered the infamous jousting yard where that history-changing accident took place.

Prior to the beheading of Anne Boleyn—his second of six wives—King Henry VIII was regarded as a kind, gregarious leader by those who knew him. The point where descriptions of him changed their tone coincided with a fall he took on January 24, 1536.

While jousting at Greenwich Palace, Henry was tossed from his armored horse and further injured when his steed fell on top of him. The incident caused him to lose consciousness for two hours and nearly cost him his life.

Though it was never diagnosed, some experts believe Henry VIII sustained a brain injury that day that altered his personality. From that point on, he was characterized as irritable and cruel. He was in constant pain from migraines and an ulcerated leg, which could also explain the mood shift. The (sometimes violent) dissolution of most of his marriages occurred post-accident.

Ruins of the jousting yard, or tiltyard, where that fateful incident took place are located 5.5 feet beneath the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site, the former site of Greenwich Palace. After falling into disrepair, the palace was demolished by Charles II, and the exact location of the tiltyard was forgotten. A team of archaeologists led by Simon Withers of the University of Greenwich used ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to locate the remnants buried beneath the ground earlier this year.

The giveaways were the footprints of two octagonal towers. The archaeologists say these were likely the foundations of the bleacher-like viewing stands where spectators watched jousting matches. That would place the historic tiltyard about 330 feet east of where it was originally thought to be situated.

The radar scans provided a peek at what lies beneath the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site, but to learn more, the archaeologists will need to get their hands dirty. Their next step will be digging up the site to get a better look at the ruins.

[h/t Live Science]