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To fully understand this rich immersive novel about a 17th Century mutiny and its murderous aftermath—a prime candidate for a “crime-of-the-century” label—it’s best to understand the true story of what happened in 1629 off the coast of what is now Indonesia.
The Batavia was a treasure-laden fleet ship of the powerful Dutch East India Company, the global Amazon of its time, with more than 300 men, women, and children on board. But the Batavia’s fate was sealed by a greedy captain and a mysterious pharmacist who highjacked the ship for its booty and crashed it on a speck of an island off the Australian coast.
When survivors of the shipwreck landed, Jeronimus Cornelisz the pharmacist, and his followers were said to have murdered upward of 100 of them. Historians believe that some were brainwashed to kill one another, take women survivors as sex slaves, and slaughter several children. Some individuals place Cornelisz in the same evil company as serial killers Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and Jeffrey Dahmer.
The most complete historical record of the massacre came from Francisco Pelsaert, the Company’s senior representative on board the wrecked ship. His diary, written shortly after the Batavia tragedy occurred is the basis for this novel.
We are taken deep into Pelsaert’s story who is dying as the book opens. We get to know him as a Company man, no less dedicated to commerce than any globe-traveling corporate soldier of our own times. But as the story of the Batavia unfolds, we also see the politics of the era, an understanding of the competing political forces in the 1600s ransacking the world for treasure and spices—the Dutch, Spanish, and English—entities no less complicated but far more vicious and venal than today’s international trade warriors. The truth be told, these times were hellish. Deaths, almost unimaginable tortures, and barbarism were rampant in this era, and the novel spares the reader few details of them.
Even as Pelsaert provides us with a detailed accounting of the Batavia disaster, written in graphic and often profane language, he also stares deeply into his own complex past, jumping in time from past to present and back again. We see how a road warrior of those times thought and acted, as unsparing of himself as he is of his contemporaries. You may not ultimately like the Company man, but he will treat you to a reading experience of a world both far removed from our own and yet sadly familiar.
Pelsaert’s Nightmare won First-Place in the CIBAs 2018 Chaucer Book Award for pre-1750s historical fiction.