The Strange and Bloody Journey of the 'Gemma Constantiniana'

The widely traveled 'Gemma Constantiniana'
The widely traveled 'Gemma Constantiniana' / Rijksmuseum van Oudheden // CC0

Two hours before dawn on the fourth of June 1629, the Batavia ran aground on a coral reef about 31 miles off the west coast of Australia.

The flagship of the Dutch East India Company was on its maiden voyage from the Netherlands to present-day Jakarta, Indonesia. Along with more than 300 sailors, mercenaries, and passengers, every inch of the Batavia was crammed with silver coins, jewels, and treasures. One of them was the priceless Gemma Constantiniana—an Imperial Roman cameo nearly a foot wide depicting the emperor Constantine in carved sardonyx.

Most on board survived the wreck by washing ashore on a scattering of islands. But before rescue appeared, many would be dead from starvation, dehydration, or brutal murder. The wreck of the Batavia and the massacre that followed would become just another chapter in the bloody history of the Gemma Constantiniana—a fabled prize that has survived the collapse of empires, crusades, and shipwrecks.

Symbol of Victory

Monumental sculpted head of Roman emperor Constantine
The monumental head of Emperor Constantine / cdascher/iStock via Getty Images

The cameo now called the Gemma Constantiniana was probably created in 315 CE as a gift from the Roman Senate to Emperor Constantine. Three years earlier, Constantine had triumphed over his rivals to win the Imperial throne. The cameo was big, heavy, and beautifully carved with images celebrating Constantine’s rule over an empire that stretched from the frigid north of England to the sands of Egypt.

Constantine enacted reforms to strengthen Rome, including the introduction of standard currency and his own conversion to Christianity. He moved the capital of the empire to the Greek city of Byzantium in 330 CE and renamed it Constantinople. Though the cameo’s history is murky during this period, it likely followed Constantine to the new capital. While the Western Roman Empire fell and Rome itself was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 CE, a Christian empire based in Constantinople continued to thrive as the living Roman Empire. The Gemma Constantiniana was probably held as one of the treasures of the Byzantine court.

For 900 years, Constantinople resisted attacks from rival empires. By the early 13th century, however, the Byzantine rulers’ territories had shrunk considerably. The Fourth Crusade, a Christian army sent by the pope to recapture Jerusalem from Muslim control, took a detour to Constantinople hoping to raise funds for their conquest. In 1204, the crusaders found themselves outside the city’s gates; after they breached the walls, they looted countless priceless objects, which were then dispersed across the continent. One of those items was the Gemma Constantiniana, which seems to have ended up in France. It then reappeared under the ownership of one of Europe’s greatest artists.

Peter Paul Rubens (second from right) in a self-portrait with his friends, painted around 1602
Peter Paul Rubens (second from right) in a self-portrait with his friends, painted around 1602 / Peter Paul Rubens, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens found inspiration in the artwork of antiquity. He spent lavishly on a collection of Roman gems, cameos, and vases and created many paintings and drawings based on the Roman originals. Rubens also embellished his collection: An artist in his circle is thought to have added an elaborate gilded and jeweled frame to the Gemma Constantiniana, according to a 1765 drawing.

Financial pressures meant that Rubens had to sell some of his collection, but he could not bear to be parted from some of them. “I have reserved for myself the rarest and most beautiful gems” from a collection he sold to the Duke of Buckingham, he wrote to a friend. At some point in the 1620s, however, the Gemma Constantiniana passed to the ownership of a jeweler named Gaspar Boudaen. To sell the gem for its full worth, he looked for buyers further afield than the cameo had ever traveled.

Shipwreck and Massacre

A modern replica of the Dutch East India Company's flagship 'Batavia'
A modern replica of the Dutch East India Company's flagship 'Batavia' / EKH-Pictures/iStock via Getty Images

The Dutch East India Company, in its frequent trading with the Mughal Empire in India, brought vast quantities of spices, fabrics, and other goods to Europe. It also opened a pathway for selling luxury items to the Indian royal courts. Francisco Pelsaert, a merchant with the company, knew that the court of Emperor Jahangir expressed a particular appreciation for European art. Pelsaert negotiated with Boudaen to ship the Gemma Constantiniana on the flagship Batavia to India, where it could be sold at a huge profit.

Pelsaert led the outward voyage from the Netherlands, but he didn’t get along with the man responsible for actually sailing the vessel, Captain Ariaen Jacobsz. Another merchant on board, Jeronimus Cornelisz, sided with Jacobsz and attempted to foment a mutiny. He failed in his coup, but the Batavia’s wreck on the barren Houtman Abrolhos islands gave him another chance to seize control.

The survivors of the shipwreck found themselves stumbling onto the shores of low-slung outcrops without fresh water; food supplies were limited. In an attempt to find help (or possibly to flee), Pelsaert took a boat and the most able seamen and left in the night, giving Cornelisz the opportunity take over the islands and the castaways.

The mercenaries of the crew were rounded up and disarmed, then marooned on another island. Cornelisz turned his own island into a slaughterhouse. Evidence given in trials following the wreck revealed a lawless state where the sick were mercilessly killed and others forced to commit murder or die themselves. To buy the loyalty of his men, Cornelisz showed them the treasures he had saved from the shipwreck—including the Gemma Constantiniana—which he kept under watch in his own tent. One of those who served under Cornelisz, Andries Jonas, said they did so because they “were led into thinking that they would all be rich for life.”

They did not have long to enjoy their plunder. Pelsaert had managed to steer his little boat nearly 2000 miles to present-day Jakarta and returned with a ship from the Dutch East India Company. Cornelisz was hanged for his crimes and others were carried back to the ship to be tried later. The company retrieved most of the booty from the shipwreck.

Despite coordinating the rescue of people and valuables, Pelsaert had lost the company’s flagship, which didn’t bode well for the merchant or his wish to sell the Gemma Constantiniana. Selling the cameo and returning with a pile of gold might have allowed Pelsaert to retain his position with the company, but unfortunately for him, the Mughal emperor he had hoped would buy it had died in the interim, and his heir had less artistic tastes.

For 20 years, the Gemma Constantiniana’s handlers tried to entice rich nobles and kings in various Asian nations into purchasing it. It never found a buyer, and returned to Boudaen’s heirs in the Netherlands in the 1650s.

The Cameo’s Journey Concludes

An 18th-century sketch of the 'Gemma Constantiniana' with its elaborate gilded frame
An 18th-century sketch of the 'Gemma Constantiniana' with its elaborate gilded frame / Rijksmuseum van Oudheden // CC0

Over the next few centuries, the Gemma Constantiniana lost much of its elaborate frame, which was probably sold in pieces, and continued its search for a suitably appreciative owner. Napoleon Bonaparte very nearly bought it, but the end of his own empire in the early 19th century interrupted that sale.

Despite its long and wide-ranging travels across half of the globe, the Roman cameo’s journey ended relatively close to the ancient city where it was first carved. King Willem I of the Netherlands purchased it in the mid-19th century for the Dutch royal collection, and it remains in the Rijksmuseum van Oudehen in Leiden today.

Additional source: Batavia’s Graveyard