A Geraldton historian says he is excited at the prospect of one of Western Australia’s grisliest maritime tales potentially becoming a motion picture.
Author Hugh Edwards has confirmed Russell Crowe’s production company Fear of God purchased an option to turn his 1966 novel, Islands of Angry Ghosts, into a film.
The book tells the story of the 1629 Batavia shipwreck, detailing the 17th-century tale of murder and cannibalism that played out on the tiny Abrolhos Islands, west of Geraldton.
More than three centuries on, evidence from the grim chapter is still being unearthed and examined by archaeologists.
Geraldton-based historian Howard Gray, from the Batavia Coast Maritime Heritage Association, said the brutality in the episode was difficult to comprehend and would make for a compelling story for the silver screen.
“For anyone who reads the story, you just get blown away,” he said.
“There’s about a one-month period where there was just relentless day after day after day killing of innocent people because they were sick, because they were unnecessary, because they got in the way, and on occasions even just for fun.”
The option deal gave Fear of God a 12-month window to decide whether to adapt the story into a movie, with the ability to extend its option if desired.
Past Batavia film projects sunk
There have previous attempts to adapt the Batavia episode into a box office hit.
Auditions were held in 2008 for a contemporary interpretation of the Batavia shipwreck, but the project failed due to a lack of funding.
Film industry expert Kier Shorey said although many projects did not progress through initial development stage, having the project backed by an A-list star could significantly help its success.
“Obviously, with someone like Russell Crowe on offer as a the lead actor, that’s the difference,” he said.
“That’s the bit that makes a movie go from potentially being made, a one-in-100 shot, if Russell Crowe wants to get it made essentially.”
Mr Shorey said the Batavia shipwreck had all the right ingredients to be “perfect for Hollywood”, but even so the latest development did not guarantee a film would eventuate.
“It doesn’t mean that it’s going to be made necessarily, but it means they’re going to be looking at the next stage, which is to get someone to write a screenplay that actually adapts that 1966 book,” he said.
Even if the project was to receive the backing it required, Mr Shorey said it would take years before it was in cinemas.
“This development process can go on for a long time before a movie is ultimately green lit, just because they’re so expensive,” he said.
“If it’s going to feature Russell Crowe and it’s going to feature big boats and that sort of thing, it’s not going to be a small budgeted film, even though it probably won’t be as large as the huge Hollywood films.”
Crowe’s California-based agent has been contacted for comment.
Women kept alive for repeated rapes
The Dutch ship Batavia was on its maiden voyage for the Dutch East India Company when it veered far off course and was wrecked on a reef at the Abrolhos on June 4, 1629.
More than 300 people were on board at the time.
Most made it ashore but with little food or fresh water was found, Captain Ariaen Jacobsz soon organised a longboat to be sent to Java to find help.
But it took more than three months for help to return.
During that time, Jeronimus Cornelisz, a high-ranking official whose plans for a mutiny were cut short by the shipwreck, assumed charge of the group and began picking off survivors.
His men drowned and killed many men, and Cornelisz also arranged for the murder of women and children, the ill and infirm.
He also kept a number of women alive to be subjected to repeated rapes.
He was eventually overcome by a force of soldiers he had previously abandoned to another island under the pretence of directing them to find water.
When the Batavia’s commander Francisco Pelsaert returned to the site of the shipwreck, he sentenced the mutineers to having their right hands chopped off, then put them to death on the gallows.
Some of the lesser offenders were returned to Holland, while another two men were left stranded on the mainland as punishment.
Mr Gray said the remarkable chapter in WA’s history needed more recognition.
“The Dutch really know it very well but it’s surprising that it’s one of the greatest maritime stories, that isn’t all that well known,” he said.
“So hopefully this one comes together.”