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victorian engraving of Batavia, Dutch East Indies, Digitally restored from a late 19th Century encyclopedia

Current Thoughts

The inspiring story of Wiebbe Hayes, a common soldier who saved the passengers of the sailing ship Batavia in 1629.

While it’s impossible to know for sure, most experts estimate that approximately 108 billion people have lived on Earth.  Most of those people, of course, have long since passed away, leaving the 7 billion of us still alive today.

I would guess that the vast majority of people who occupied this planet lived and died in relative obscurity.  After all, most people’s focus isn’t to change the world or become famous, but simply to get by.  But one of the amazing things about human beings is that the seed of greatness can be found in all of us.  Uncommon traits like courage, valor, and leadership can be found anywhere, in anyone … even in those who, on the surface, seem like the most common people of all.  Take, for example, the story of Wiebbe Hayes.


Mutiny!  The word conjures up stories of the HMS Bounty and the famous insurrection that took place in the late 18th century.  But another, even more dramatic mutiny took place over 150 years prior, when the ship Batavia struck a reef off the western coast of Australia.

It was the year 1628, and the Netherlands ruled the seas.  It would be a remote corner of the world indeed where a Dutch ship could not be found, as the famous Dutch East India Company sent its massive fleet to and fro, from one hemisphere to another.  One of its many ships was called Batavia.  Built in Amsterdam, the Batavia embarked on its maiden voyage with over 300 people on board, including many women and children.  Their destination was Indonesia, some to settle and some to trade for spices.

Unfortunately, the ship was doomed never to complete its voyage.  Unbeknownst to most of the passengers, there was a devil on board.  His name was Jeronimus Cornelisz, and sometime during the voyage, he hatched an evil plan.  Collaborating with the captain, Ariaen Jacobsz, he plotted to murder the Batavia’s master, Francisco Pelsaert, and steal the ship.  Slowly but surely, Cornelisz convinced other members of the crew to join the conspiracy.

Shortly after rounding the Cape of Good Hope, Jacobsz purposefully steered the ship off course, away from other vessels.  Instead of heading toward Indonesia, they were now pointed straight at Australia, although it’s possible the conspirators didn’t know it.  The island continent had only been discovered a few decades before, and it would be over a century before it would be mapped completely.  In the meantime, the Batavia continued to sail as the mutineers waited for the perfect time to strike.

But they waited too long.  On June 4, 1629, the Batavia ran smack-dab into a reef and sank.  There are many small islands off Australia’s western coast, and it was to these that the passengers fled.  Most made it to safety, but soon they were confronted with another problem:  they had no food and no water.

The ship’s master, Pelsaert, left the island in a small boat to explore the Australian mainland.  To his dismay, he still could not find water.  There was only one thing left to do:  take the boat and try to reach Batavia (modern-day Jakarta), their original destination and the ruined ship’s namesake.  Once he and his party arrived, they would be able to send help to the other shipwrecked passengers.

It would take them 33 days.

Meanwhile, Cornelisz took charge of the other survivors.  He was forced to alter his original plan and wait for a rescue ship, which he would then commandeer.  But first, he decided to get rid of anyone who was a threat to him.  Enter the hero of our story, Wiebbe Hayes.

Before the voyage, Hayes was a nobody.  Only 21 years old and a common soldier of low rank, Hayes was well on his way to a life of relative obscurity.  But traits like courage, valor, and leadership can be found anywhere, in anyone … even in the most seemingly common of people.  They only need some reason to show themselves.

As the Batavia sank, Hayes’ innate qualities surfaced.  During the initial catastrophe, Hayes was all action.  Despite his youth and lack of rank, he took the lead by helping passengers into the boats, collecting supplies, keeping people calm, and ensuring discipline.  Even though several officers outranked Hayes, the other soldiers instinctively looked to him for leadership.  Cornelisz undoubtedly noticed this, which is why he asked Hayes to take a large group and explore another group of islands in the distance.  He also asked that Hayes and his followers leave their weapons behind.  Cornelisz instructed Hayes to put up smoke signals if he found water, but assumed the young soldier would die of thirst long before he returned.

With his one rival out of the picture, Cornelisz proceeded to terrorize, abuse, and even murder the other survivors.  He faced little opposition until three weeks later when smoke appeared in the distance.  Hayes had found water!  While Cornelisz made plans to deal with Hayes once and for all, a few survivors managed to escape.  They swam to Hayes’ island to warn him of what Cornelisz had done … and what he would try to do.

Hayes wasted no time.  He immediately set his men to building a ramshackle fort made of dry stones.  It was the first structure ever built by a European in Australian territory, and part of it still stands today.  Having no weapons, Hayes decided to improvise new ones using stones and wood.  Then, he waited.

Cornelisz attacked twice, but thanks to Hayes’ preparation and courage, his small band of stubborn survivors held on.  On the third attack, the mutineers’ muskets began to take their toll.  But just as things looked bleakest, Hayes looked out and saw salvation in the most Hollywoodesque way possible:  a sail on the horizon.  It was the Batavia’s master, Pelsaert, in a new ship.

Once again, Hayes took the lead.  Knowing he had to reach the ship before the mutineers did, he raced to his one remaining boat.  The mutineers did the same.  But Hayes reached Pelsaert first, warning him of Cornelisz’s true intentions just in time.  Before long, the mutineers were all captured.

The Batavia’s survivors had been saved.

It’s unlikely that most of us will ever face the kind of situation that Wiebbe Hayes did.  But I find it inspiring, somehow, that someone so unheralded, so unknown, so seemingly common could rise from the depths of obscurity to do what he did.  No, he didn’t make a tremendous discovery, invent new technology, or change the fate of nations.  But in its own way, his accomplishment is equally amazing.  He discovered a hidden strength inside himself, a strength he probably didn’t even know he had.  He realized what the rest of us should always remember:  that no matter who you are or where you come from, the seed of greatness can always be found inside you.

I hope you enjoyed this story as much as I did.  It certainly taught me a valuable lesson:  that we all have the ability to be brave and valorous; that we all can be leaders.  Whether we decide to be, well … that choice is up to us.


Story provided with permission from David Brennan, Jr.