Mutiny in Robinson Crusoe and Beyond

by Rachel McGinnis

Mutiny on the open seas is as common to pirate lore as buried treasure and “X” marking the spot.  A story about pirates simply would not be complete without some form of mutiny that typically results in a death or marooning in a desolate region of the world, whether on an island or an uninhabited seacoast.

Similarly, the novel Robinson Crusoe, which tells the story of an unfortunate man who is shipwrecked on an undiscovered island for twenty-eight years, employs this typical element of piracy.  Although the primary portion of the book contains a number of seamen who are loyal to their captain and honest to a fault, it ends with a battle between Crusoe and several other characters against a mutinous crew that has arrived on the island to murder the captain, his mate, and a passenger.

Nevertheless, they are prevailed upon by the captain and, instead of committing murder, the sailors choose to maroon their captives on the supposedly deserted island.  Unbeknownst to them, Robinson Crusoe resides there and quickly takes pity on the unfortunate plight of the captain who has been taken captive by his own crew, causing him and his servant, Friday, to rally against the treacherous men.

Daniel Defoe’s depiction of a mutiny initially appears to be relatively realistic, but how historically accurate was this mutiny and the subsequent punishment of the crew?  An exploration of a mutiny that occurred prior to the novel being published indicates that Defoe’s treatment of acts of piracy might have been a bit sugarcoated.

On October 29, 1628, the Batavia, a ship of the Dutch East India Company, set sail to the Dutch East Indies to obtain spices.  Skipper Ariaen Jakobsz and under-merchant Jeronimus Cornelisz were aboard the ship during this fateful voyage.  Destitute, frustrated, and desperate, the two men conspired to steer the ship off course, hijack it, and start new lives with the boat’s supply of silver and gold.

The deplorable rouges set their plan in motion by gathering a group of supporters and then attacking a young woman on board, Lucretia Van der Mijlen, to provoke the senior merchant, Francois Pelsaert.  They hoped that Pelsaert would severely punish them for the attack, thereby fostering the sympathy and support of their fellow crewmates.  Their plan backfired, however, because the senior merchant failed to make any arrests following the attack largely due to the young woman’s inability to identify the majority of her attackers and the mutiny was temporarily delayed.

On June 4, 1629, the ship struck a reef in the Houtman Abrolhos off the western coast of Australia.  The captain, some senior officers, Jakobsz, and Pelsaert departed hoping to find drinking water, leaving the under merchant, Cornelisz, in command of the islands and the 268 surviving passengers.  Now considered one of the greatest feats of naval navigation, the sizable group of forty-eight traveled an astounding thirty-three days before reaching Batavia, which is now Jakarta – the modern day capital of Indonesia.  After reaching the city, Pelsaert returned on a rescue ship, the Saardam, intending to recover the remaining survivors.  Unfortunately, instead of finding the passengers, the senior merchant discovered that a bloody mutiny had taken place.

Knowing that Skipper Jakobsz would accuse him of inciting the intended mutiny, Cornelisz planned to hijack the rescue ship and seek a safe haven elsewhere.  In order to do so, he gathered a group of followers that he later convinced to murder men, women, and children thereby circumventing any resistance that would have foiled his escape plan.  One hundred and twenty-five shipwreck survivors were drowned, strangled, bludgeoned, and hacked to pieces.  The act was so treacherous, the region quickly became known as “Batavia’s Graveyard.”

Roughly two months after his departure, Pelsaert returned just prior to Cornelisz’s attempt to eliminate the last group of survivors.  The senior merchant had the mutineers arrested and immediately tried for their acts of piracy.  Following his court marshal, the ring-leader Cornelisz was promptly executed on the island by first having both his hands amputated.  He was then hanged with several of his most abhorrent followers.

Cornelisz’s second in command was “broken on the wheel,” in which his limbs were bound to a cart wheel that revolved slowly.  A large hammer or iron was then applied to his limbs, breaking the bones with the tortuous punishment being repeated several times.  Various accounts of breaking a condemned individual on a wheel cite that the punishment often terminates with a “merciful” blow to the head or chest that proves fatal.  On some occasions, however, this fatal blow is not administered and the broken limbs of the accused are woven, known as “braiden,” through the spokes of the wheel, which is then hoisted on a tall pole.

Punishment for lesser offenders was considerably less harrowing than that of the ringleaders, yet was still relatively unmerciful.  Jakobsz, who was not present at the time of the mutiny, is believed to have died while imprisoned in Batavia.  Additionally, two minor malefactors, Wouter Loos and Jan Pelgrom de Bye, were marooned on mainland Australia and never heard from again, while other minor offenders were imprisoned and taken to Batavia where they were executed after being flogged, dropped into the ocean from the yardarm, or keelhauled.

Keelhauling is a type of punishment that involves tying a sailor with a rope that loops beneath the vessel, throwing them overboard, and pulling them to the other side while underwater.  Often times, the bottom of the ships were covered with barnacles and other marine growth that caused lacerations and other injuries if the individual was pulled under the vessel quickly.  If pulled slowly, this form of punishment would simply result in drowning.

Although the mutiny of the Batavia occurred prior to the publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719, the fictional account of resistance and punishment in the novel is surprisingly different.  As indicated by the historical treatment of mutineers, actual acts of piracy that took place on the high seas were serious crimes that received serious, brutal punishments.  Nevertheless, the would-be marooned captain of Robinson Crusoe appears to be a forgiving, benevolent man who does not employ the typical means of punishment or warning.  For example, in the case of the Batavia, hands were amputated and men’s limbs were weaved through wheel spokes to serve as a warning to the treacherous crew that a similar fate might befall them if they made another attempt to overthrow authority.  Although this sort of cautionary tale is employed in Robinson Crusoe, specifically when the rebel captain’s body is hung from the yardarm, it is Crusoe who suggests this course of action as opposed to the captain.

In a scenario in which any sign of weakness might be taken advantage of, the captain does not immediately employ this brutal, psychological battle tactic to regain control of his crew.  His passe attitude makes the reader question if he would have even thought to create the warning had it not been for Crusoe’s suggestion.

Later in the novel, the captain threatens to hang several especially villainous members of the crew, yet is instead swayed by their promises of allegiance.  In fact, one of the few forms of punishment that is similar to an actual mutiny appears when five sailors are marooned on the island.  Nevertheless, even this punishment is considerably more humane than historical chastisement because the sailors are provided with the supplies, housing, and necessary knowledge that allowed Robinson Crusoe to survive during his twenty-eight years of confinement.

They are taught how to manage crops and livestock and are provided with the tools necessary for their survival.  However, historical accounts of marooning reveal that the condemned individuals were left with little or no supplies and that their intended punishment was clearly a slow and painful death.

Defoe utilizes historically accurate detail in the brief segment of the novel in which two of the marooned sailors return to the boat and beg the captain to permit them to board.  Although the sailors believe that the captain will hang them for their transgressions when they arrive on the ship, he does not.  Instead, after being whipped and pickled (salt rubbed into their wounds) the sailors are allowed to rejoin the crew regardless of the fact that, by all historically accurate accounts, the pair should have been executed.  Although their original choice was to be either marooned on the island or returned to England where they would be hanged for mutiny, these men are reinstated into the crew, satisfying the captain with their desperate pleas for mercy.

One of the most striking elements of the captain’s disciplinary actions is the fact that he often cites the governor as the source of the crew’s chosen punishments.  Discussing the seemingly ruthless governor with his men, the captain often promises them that he will plead with the island’s ruler regarding their apparently overly harsh death sentences.  Strangely, this character seems to refuse to take any direct action in reprimanding his crew with the exception of the members he executed.

Perhaps Daniel Defoe’s intention was to create a compassionate character.  Nevertheless, this character is a relatively inaccurate depiction of the seagoing lifestyle and attitude of a ship’s captain following an attempted mutiny.


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