true crime

Murder Island: One of the darkest and bloodiest mass murders in Australian history.

On the west coast of Australia, near the Houtman Abrolhos Islands, lies a tiny place called Beacon Island.

It looks very much like the 121 other islands that surround it; green, sandy and encircled by clear, blue water, providing stunning visibility of the reef below it.

You would never know, from a bird’s eye view, that Beacon Island is a mass graveyard.

Known as 'Murder Island'. Image via ABC News.

In June 1692, a ship named the Batavia was making a journey from the Netherlands to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) when it struck a dense reef about 40 kilometres off the coast of Western Australia. Of the 322 passengers on board, it is estimated that 40 drowned at the sea that day. But for the men, women and children who survived, and eventually made it to Beacon Island, drowning may have been a far preferable fate.


A man named Jeronimus Cornelisz, a former pharmacist who was now bankrupt, was a member of the crew, and well before the ship sank, he had a plan.

Cornelisz, along with several other crew members, had devised a mutiny.

The Batavia was full of gold and silver, and the men planned to start a life somewhere new.

After the ship wreck, stranded on an island with the fellow survivors, Cornelisz's plans only intensified.

After a number of days it became clear there would be no rescue, so Captain Francisco Pelsaert took an unharmed long boat and embarked on a journey to Jakarta in a desperate search for help. The expedition would last 33 days and is today considered one of the most incredible boat journeys ever recorded.

But when he returned two months later, he was met with 125 dead bodies.

What happened during those months is said to be the largest mass murder on Australian soil.

After Captain Pelsaert left, Cornelisz took it upon himself to lead the survivors who remained on the island. All the weapons and food were in his control. He sent the soldiers to a nearby island in search of water, and expecting them to fail, left them there to die.

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Described retrospectively as possessing psychopathic tendencies, Cornelisz began ordering the systematic killing of anyone who challenged his authority. The murders were not carried out by Cornelisz himself, but by other crew members under his instruction. One source indicates that he may have killed one person on Beacon island; a baby who was strangled to death.

At first, Cornelisz spared many women who were held in 'rape tents', where they were routinely raped and tortured. Eventually, they too were murdered.

His co-conspirators became addicted to the violence, increasingly killing for the fun of it. The plan was to reduce the island population to ensure supplies lasted for longer, but suddenly their killing-spree was interrupted.

A male skull. Image via 60 Minutes.

Watching the events unfold, one man escaped and made it to the nearby Wallabi Island, where the soldiers had been sent by Cornelisz. Although it was presumed they were dead - they were very much alive.

Led by 21-year-old soldier Wiebbe Hayes, Cornelisz and his men were overthrown. But when the rescue ship arrived, expecting to see an island full of survivors, there were mostly just dead bodies.

When Pelsaert became aware of the crimes that took place, the mutineers were subjected to 10 days of torture and confessed to their crimes. In total, seven men were hanged and two were sentenced to marooning (exile) on Australia's mainland.

Referred to today as 'Murder Island', the tiny place on the west coast of Australia continues to hold secrets beneath its sand.

With every new discovery, scientists are able to better understand how these victims were murdered, and what happened in the weeks that preceded it.

One Dutch maritime archaeologist, Wendy van Duivenvoorde, says that she continues to work on the Batavia graveyard in an attempt to, "give them a little bit back of being left behind in this place at the end of the earth".

More than 400 years later, we are still piecing together Australia's darkest mass killing.

 You can listen to the full episode of Mamamia Out Loud, here.