First published in 2011 by Penguin Books, Australia
New edition to be published May 2020 by Kirsty Eagar
For Jamie Mackie, summer holidays in the coastal town of Rocky Head mean surfing, making money, and good times at the local music festival. But this year, vampires are on the festival line-up … fulfilling a pact made on the wreck of the Batavia, four hundred years ago. If their plans succeed, nobody in Rocky Head will survive to see out the new year.
A distinctly Australian vampire thriller.
- SHORTLISTED, THE NEW SOUTH WALES PREMIER’S LITERARY AWARDS FOR YOUNG ADULT FICTION
Imagine surviving a shipwreck and being marooned on a barren island, only to find that your situation is the least of your worries and you are more likely to be murdered than die of hunger or thirst ...
The vampires in Saltwater Vampires are all based on mutineers who survived the real-life shipwreck of the Batavia in 1629. They are: Jeronimus Cornelisz, David Zeevanck, Gerrit Haas and Jan Pelgrom.
Travelling through Geraldton in Western Australia, I visited the museum there and saw the Batavia exhibit. The story fascinated me.
In 1628, the Batavia set sail from Amsterdam, bound for Java. The ship belonged to the Dutch East India Company, at that time the most powerful trading cartel in the world. While the journey was arduous for all on board, things were considerably more comfortable for those in the stern. To see what life was like for those who didn’t have it so easy – the sailors and soldiers – read the prequel chapter below.
One of those well-to-do passengers was Jeronimus Cornelisz. An apothecary by trade, Jeronimus’s life had been dogged by rumour and scandal. He was a known associate of Torrentius, who spent time in prison for his suspected involvement in a secret society with heretical beliefs.<!–more–>
The Batavia ran aground in the Abrolhos Islands, some fifty kilometres off the West Australian coastline, in June 1629. While an estimated forty of those onboard drowned, the rest of the passengers were ferried to safety to a nearby island in the ship’s longboat and yawl. The Commander and around forty others then took the longboat and yawl and set sail for Java, effectively abandoning the remaining survivors to their fates.
The survivors formed a council, and Jeronimus, as the highest ranking individual remaining, assumed command.
What followed was horrific. Jeronimus led a small group of men in an act of mutiny that began as a means of taking control of the remaining food and water supplies and degenerated into a killing spree.
And that’s just the half of it!
Batavia’s Graveyard by Mike Dash gives a fully researched and beautifully written account of the events and people involved in the story of the Batavia.
Islands of Angry Ghosts by Hugh Edwards, an Australian journalist, discusses the events of 1629, but also the eventual discovery and recovery of the wrecked ship.
Voyage to Disaster by Henrietta Drake-Brockman was the first comprehensive account of the tragedy.
I became obsessed with the shipwreck of the Batavia while I was writing Saltwater Vampires, the result being that I had about 20,000 too many words in my manuscript, most of them flashbacks. This was one that was cut. I’ve left it here because I think it shows what life was like for those on the Batavia who stood to gain most from a mutiny …
The Batavia, Indian Ocean, 1629
Gerrit Haas stared at the six people slumped around him in the Batavia’s longboat, his eyelids so cracked and dry it hurt to blink. Who were these people and how had he come to be here with them? What had happened to the ship and the other passengers and crew? At ten paces long, the open boat they were in could have easily carried fifteen or sixteen more. It cut a straight line through the water, travelling swiftly. Its sails were full, but oddly enough he could feel no wind blowing. Nor was there any rise and fall. The ocean was as flat and smooth as glass. Steely grey clouds blocked out the sky overhead.
‘What devil place is this?’ Gerrit muttered, the words like rocks in his parched throat. All he could see was sky and water, the water reflecting the sky. He felt as though he was trapped between two mirrors, a trick shown to him once by a harlot in an Amsterdam brothel.
Then a glint caught his eye and he looked down to see that there was a knife resting in his lap, even though he’d never owned a knife like that – the Company forbade its sailors bringing weapons onboard. And why was it glistening when there was no sun? It was beautifully crafted, but it was a hideous thing. The blade seemed to sing to him, and he wanted to pick it up and throw it overboard. But his arms were heavy and would not move.
All he could do was ignore it, which was easy enough because the thirst he was suffering from was so great it blocked everything else from his mind. With an effort he closed his lips and tried to suck up some saliva. But there was nothing left and without it his tongue seemed like a great block of wood in his mouth. His throat was closing over, too; with each whistling breath less air reached his lungs. Maybe the knife was meant for him. A way to end this misery.
He looked at the others – three young men and three young women. Their fine clothes, delicate skin and intact teeth marked them as being from the stern of the ship, a place sea dogs like him were not allowed to go. Even now, they did not seem to be suffering like him; they were sleeping peacefully, their skin flushed rose and plump with youth. Plump enough to be –
Pricked? He looked down and saw that the knife was now in his hand. God, but he was thirsty. So thirsty.
All the old tales came crowding back into his mind, sailors’ tales of others lost at sea who’d done unthinkable things to survive. They said if you were going to do it, you should do it early on, before thirst set in and the blood became slow and thick. Yes, best do it now, while the blood still flows like water, clear lovely water, fresh from a stream, not like the slimy water scooped from the barrels of the ship, writhing with worms.
Just one. The others wouldn’t know, they wouldn’t even wake up. Look at them, so fast asleep. He looked longingly at one of the women, fat with water. One quick flick, and her throat would open like a smile, a big red smile, and he could drink, and drink, and drink …
When he woke, Gerrit Haas found himself sitting up straight on his sleeping mat onboard the Batavia, swiping the air in front of him in a frenzy. It was the smell that brought him back to reality – urine and excrement, and the rankness of men who hadn’t washed in months. He rubbed his eyes, trying to push away the last of his dream, and when he opened them again, he made out the dark shape of someone sitting on the small wooden chest that housed his worldly belongings.
He shuddered. Then he hissed, ‘Been helping yourself to my things, have you?’
There was no answer. As Haas’s eyes adjusted to the gloom – there were only a few lanterns in the sailors’ quarters, and Haas had made his bed well away from them – he realised just who was sitting there. The realisation was like a cold hand gripping his bowels and squeezing hard.
It was the cabin boy, Jan Pelgrom. A freakish abomination of a creature who was one of the few things that could jar the sailor’s heart in his chest.
‘What do you want?’ Haas warbled, fear making his voice high and weak. He hoped to wake one of the others sleeping around him. Nobody stirred.
That the boy said nothing was to be expected. He looked like an angel with his blond hair and cheeks burned red by the sun, but early on in the voyage he’d made the crew uneasy. After they’d discovered what he’d done to the ship’s cats, the men beat him senseless. They might have stopped if he’d begged for mercy, but he hadn’t made a sound, enduring the punishment with the same blank look he wore now, blue eyes wide and staring, as though he were in a trance.
Waking from a nightmare to see Jan Pelgrom was too much for Haas. His mind scattered and his thoughts made no sense at all. He was convinced that the cabin boy had put the dream into his head. And he’d enjoyed watching Haas battle senselessly in his sleep.
The sailor struggled to his feet, hearing the scurrying of disturbed cockroaches. ‘I’m going to the latrine. When I come back you’d best be gone, boy, or I’ll tell them I caught you stealing from me and you know what that means. You’ll be hoping for just a flogging.’
On deck, the cold southerly cleared Haas’s mind and made him see sense again. There was something not right about Pelgrom, that was certain, but he didn’t have the power to go around putting dreams into men’s heads. There was a decent moon in the sky, enough to clearly see the man on night watch by and – when Haas reached the bow of the ship – the hole he needed to aim his arse over, and the wash beneath.
The thought of Pelgrom watching him while he slept had done something to his bowels. Filth ran from him, slippery and quick. At least at this hour there wasn’t a line of impatient men waiting, yelling at him to hurry up.
That boy … What had he been planning to do? Haas was afraid he knew the answer to that question. He was afraid he’d set Pelgrom an example.
As the ship traced the western coast of Africa, he’d given way to an impulse that had seized him as suddenly and quickly as the pain in his guts did now. One night when the heat seemed to weigh down on him, and his usual angry thoughts did not gradually die down but kept stirring up more and more injustices from the past, he’d given up on trying to sleep and wandered up to the sick bay. He wanted to view the men struck down with scurvy stretched out on mats there. If questioned, he would have said he was checking on a friend, but really he wanted to sneer. Because the difference between them and him was that he’d had the mouth rot on two separate voyages, so badly that his gums had grown soft like tar in the sun, oozing pus and blood, pushing out teeth one by one; and he’d lived.
Something in him had made him strong again. And he had looked with scorn on the men who were too weak to rise. On a curious whim, he bent over one man and covered his mouth and nose. The man hardly struggled before he was still. And when Haas rose to his feet, he saw that he was being watched by a pair of blue eyes that never blinked.
Had Pelgrom been going to try the same thing on him while he slept?
‘What’s that up ahead? I see white!’
The shout jolted Haas from his thoughts. White meant waves breaking on a reef, and a reef was a hungry dog that liked to tear ships apart. Then came the answering shout, ‘No, no, it’s nothing more than the moon shining on the water’, and Haas relaxed. He reached down and started pulling up the crusty rope that dangled through the hole, so he could use its frayed end, washed clean by the water, to wipe himself.
Gerrit felt like that dangling length of filthy rope – pressed into service so others could stay clean. He hated his betters, cloistered together in the stern of the ship, protected from the likes of him and staring in horror if their paths should happen to cross. And he hated himself, because despite the odds he survived each voyage, and he couldn’t help but celebrate the fact every time they docked, so that his measly wages were quickly spent on romps and drink and he was forced to take to sea again.
Life had been a lice-bitten, scurvy-ridden, salt-dried, sunburnt, bone-wearying experience. But the ultimate reduction of his measure as a man had been the loss of his teeth, which he kept like precious gems in a pouch. Sailors were not allowed any serious drinking onboard, the only pleasure they had to look forward to was food – although they hardly dined like those in the stern. But now Gerrit had to wet his tack until it was mush so he could gum it down; and he no longer bothered to tap the weevils out before he did so. There was no point, not when he drank down the worms in his water ration because he did not have the teeth to strain them out.
Killing that sick man had given him a giddy joyfulness that he hadn’t known since childhood – well, that was before he’d known what bastard meant and learned he’d have to shoulder that burden as well. The next day, as he watched the dead man’s body being pushed into the sea, he’d taken one molar out of his pouch, studied it in the sun, then thrown it overboard.
And when he’d heard the whispers, he’d whispered back. Yes, he’d join the mutiny. Not because he believed it would succeed – it would fail and the Company would crush them like cockroaches – but because he wanted to feel good again. He wanted to kill. One life for each tooth lost.
But it seemed that the damned thing would never begin. And waiting was sending him mad. How else to explain that dream? He’d been one of the group who had seized that Lucretia woman outside the Great Cabin, stripping her naked and painting her with slops and filth. That was the incident meant to have started it all. Commandeur Pelsaert should have meted out retribution in a frenzy, punishing innocent and guilty alike, not knowing who was who because they’d kept their faces covered. And the innocent men, facing unfair punishment, would have been easily convinced to rise up and join the side of the mutineers.
The commandeur had done nothing. Now, there were whispers he wouldn’t act until they sighted Java, when he could shout to the Company for help.
Haas reminded himself that there was still time. By all reckonings the great south land was still hundreds of miles –
A tremor passed through him, disturbing these thoughts. The deck began to shake and the ship shuddered so violently Haas was knocked off his feet.
The night filled with groans from the hull as it felt the teeth of the reef.