Batavia's Graveyard: Mike's view

Batavia’s Graveyard might just be my favourite among my books. It involved some of the most challenging research done for any of my titles, and it’s certainly got the most fully-rounded, most dramatic narrative.

Even so, the story the story as given in most editions is not quite complete. Since Batavia's Graveyard was first published, additional information has come to light in several Dutch archives regarding the family and background of the book’s villain, Jeronimus Cornelisz, undermerchant of the VOC ship Batavia. This material, which fills in several important gaps in our knowledge, was incorporated, fully referenced, into the British, Dutch and American paperback editions, but readers elsewhere will not have seen it, so I summarise it here. I am indebted to Hans Zijlstra of Amsterdam, a local historian and genealogist specialising in north-east Frisia and a reader of the Dutch edition of the book, for passing me the leads that led to the discovery of this new material.

Jeronimus Cornelisz was born into a family of apothecaries. His father, a man by the name of Cornelis Jeroensz, was born in a village called Landsmeer, in the district of Waterland, in 1568 or 1569. By the time of his marriage, in April 1595, Jeroensz was a newly qualified pharmacist living on ‘t Water (today the Damrak) in central Amsterdam. We have no way of knowing why Jeroensz moved away from his birthplace – though plainly the opportunities for young apothecaries must have been far greater in a large city than a small village – but this new information confirms that Jeronimus’s father was a Dutchman. His mother, though, was Frisian. The registers of banns of marriage in the Amsterdam archives give her name as Sijtske Douwes and state that she came from the Frisian capital, Leeuwarden.

Cornelis and Sijtske married not in church, but before magistrates. This means that they must have been non-conformists rather than members of the Dutch Reformed Church, and tends to confirm my speculation in Batavia’s Graveyard that the family were Anabaptists (though it is not impossible that one or other was a Lutheran or a Catholic). The young couple seem to have settled in Leeuwarden immediately after their marriage; the Leeuwarden Burgerboek [Citizens’ Register] records that Cornelis Jeroensz was granted citizenship there in 1595. This suggests that Sijtske Douwes’s family may have been better off than Cornelis’s. It also helps to explain how Jeronimus himself came to be co-heir to a certain Griete Douwes of Bergum, Friesland. Jeronimus Cornelisz, who was born c.1598, thus almost certainly began his life in Leeuwarden, though – as discussed in the book – there is no trace of him in the (Calvinist) baptismal records there. It seems very likely that his father practised as an apothecary in the town, and this would explain how Jeronimus came to have such close relations with the prominent Leeuwarden pharmacist Gerrit Evertsz – who could well have been the boy’s master during his apprenticeship, and who certainly did become his legal agent in Friesland in the late 1620s.

At some point between 1595 and 1612, however, Cornelis Jeroensz moved with his family a few miles north to the little town of Dokkum. He was accepted as a citizen there on 31 October 1612, and his son was still living in the town as late as 1626. Probably, then, it was Dokkum – a place of no more than 2,000 to 3,000 people – that Jeronimus thought of as home. He may well have been educated at the Latin School there, which was founded in 1545 and enjoyed a strong reputation for excellence.

Cornelisz must, nevertheless, have travelled, if only as far as the adjoining province of West Friesland, across the mouth of the Zuyder Zee. In March 1626 he was probably in Hoorn, the major Frisian port, where the banns of his forthcoming marriage were published for the third time. Thanks to the discovery of an entry in the local marriage register, we now know that his bride, Belijtgen Jacobsdr, was a native of that town, and that her full name was Belijtgen Jacobs van der Knas. She, too, may have come from an apothecary’s family; there were at this time several pharmacists called Jacob in Hoorn, including one named Jacob Jacobsz. The town was, of course, one of the seven major VOC ports, and as such it imported considerable quantities of spice – one of the main requisites of the apothecary’s trade.

Neither Jeronimus nor his wife had been married before, and they seem not to have lived in Hoorn. The town marriage register notes that the couple were granted permission to marry elsewhere (which they did on 29 March 1626), so we do not know for certain where they wed. What is clear is that they moved to Haarlem in 1626 or 1627, thus setting in motion the train of events that led, two years later, to Cornelisz’s appearance on the Batavia.

My own view is that Jeronimus must at one stage have practised as an apothecary in Dokkum. He would have qualified as a pharmacist around the year 1623, was still definitely living in the town three years later, and does not crop up in Haarlem records until 1627. From this perspective, it is particularly interesting to note that the apothecaries of Dokkum found themselves embroiled in a serious dispute with the town council between the years 1623 and 1627. On 15 November 1623, Dokkum’s councillors ordered the local pharmacists to desist from slandering the council on pain of being removed from office – and this, of course, implies strong words had already been exchanged. The same dispute was still rumbling on four years later, when steps were taken against several apothecaries who had refused to attend court cases brought against them. A short while later, the most recalcitrant among these malefactors were actually exiled from Dokkum and forced to seek their livelihoods elsewhere.

The coincidence of dates is remarkable, and it does not seem too much to suggest that Jeronimus Cornelisz was probably one of the fractious Dokkum apothecaries expelled from the town shortly before he first appears in Haarlem. Several reviewers of Batavia’s Graveyard have wondered how a ‘mild-mannered’ Dutch apothecary was somehow transformed into the demonic psychopath of the Abrolhos islands. The new information now available to us suggests that Jeronimus may well have been a pugnacious character all along.

Mike Dash, London, October 2009