I have wanted to vist the Bataviawerf since I learned about it some years ago, and researching in the Netherlands finally gave me the chance to go. It is a museum in Lelystad, northeast of Amsterdam on the shores of the Zuiderzee, based around a replica of the Dutch East India Company ship the Batavia (if you want a quick introduction, there is a handy In Our Time episode from last March about the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC).
The original Batavia was built in 1628, and it is particularly famous because it came to a sticky end only a year later. During the ship’s first voyage it ran aground off the coast of western Australia, resulting, as the museum’s website puts it, in ‘a blood-curdling thriller featuring murder and manslaughter, treason, mutiny and the law that eventually prevailed’. The modern reconstruction was begun in 1985, led by master-shipwright Willem Vos, and the ship was launched in 1995, and was briefly transported to Australia before returning to Lelystad.
As a centrepiece for the museum it is hugely evocative. Even stationary by the shore, it vividly conveys an impression of life at sea, especially as voyages to the Indian Ocean were by far the longest that any ship undertook during the early modern period. The (relative) comfort of the captain’s cabin contrasts with the dark, cramped lower decks in which hundreds of soldiers and sailors spent their days. A large number of these men were immigrants to the Netherlands from elsewhere in northern Europe, principally from Germany and Scandinavia. Unsurprisingly, the VOC has attracted a lot of attention from Dutch historians: one example is the Nationaal Archief’s ‘Opvarenden’ database, compiled from the Compagnie’s payment books and listing thousands of seafaring personnel.
The museum is not just about this ship, though. Eerily striking at the centre of the yard, which stretches beside the Batavia, is the timber skeleton of another replica: the 7 Provinciën, reconstructing a battleship built in the 1660s. The gilded decorations of the ship’s stern prove that a republic like the United Provinces, as the Netherlands were known during the seventeenth century, could use ships as symbols to claim legitimacy and sovereignty just as well as any early modern monarch (about which, see my last post).
As this work-in-progress battleship shows, the Bataviawerf is about the process of building ships as much as the ships themselves, and this adds a fascinating dimension to the museum. Seeing the tools and materials and chatting to the enthusiastic volunteers in the sail loft, the woodcarving and rigging workshops, and the forge, is eye-opening – and the chance to do a bit of hammering in the forge was particularly good fun. Even this quick glimpse really brings home just how much work and knowledge it took to make what was, after all, probably the most complex and expensive machine of its age. Behind the VOC’s trade in Asia and Indonesia – or any maritime trade, coastal or oceanic, or any naval activity either – lay countless hours of skilled labour to produce and mantain the ships, and of course all the labour to sail them as well.
The attention to this perspective may come from, or at least be encouraged by, another aspect of the Bataviawerf’s programme. The construction of the Batavia replica involved many underprivileged youngsters and long-term unemployed people, often providing a step towards education or employment (for more about this, see this page on the museum website). Using such a historical focus to preserve and promote skills, and to create other positive social impacts, seems to be an idea with some currency at the moment. Two examples in Britain, both based around early modern ships and both emphasising training for participants and benefits for the local community, are the Harwich Mayflower and Build the Lenox in Deptford.
If the Bataviawerf represents a successful example, it still has its problems. Work on the 7 Provinciën has paused because, one of the volunteers told me, they do not have enough money to proceed with the next stage; instead they are currently focusing on smaller boatbuilding projects. Keeping up momentum for this kind of project is clearly a challenge – but I do hope the Bataviawerf and other similar projects continue to rise to that challenge.