BOOK REVIEW: Batavia (Peter FitzSimons, Random House)

Most Australians only know the vaguest details of the Dutch East India Company’s Batavia, shipwrecked off the coast of WA in 1629. The astounding tale of slavery and wanton murder which ensued is a sorry chapter in our history, and one that is brought to life in a pacy, entertaining, informative and chilly narrative by Peter FitzSimons—in his own inimitable style. Moving between the various groups of survivors, the narrative is gripping—almost like a good thriller movie. The actions of Jeronimus Cornelisz, the self-proclaimed leader (i.e. dictator) of the survivor colony are truly shocking. Cornelisz oversaw the murder by his fellow mutineers of at least 110 men, women and children in his care. Drawing on the extensive journals of the ‘Commandeur’ of the fleet as well as other surviving letters and documents, FitzSimons has reconstructed dialogue, personalities and scenes which complement the facts and give the narrative a life and pace which would otherwise be lacking. As with previous historical episodes getting ‘the Fitzy treatment’, history purists will likely frown upon his methods—no matter how well-researched and deliberate they may be. Due to this chatty and accessible style, however, many more readers will be educated about the incredible story of the Batavia and booksellers will enjoy a bestseller sure to outsell any academic treatment limited to provable history.

Scott Whitmont is the owner of Lindfield Bookshop & Children’s Bookshop in Sydney. This review first appeared in the March issue of Bookseller+Publisher.

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