Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Let Us Go To The Banks Of The Ocean

I was in the Netherlands in September. Partly I was letting my hair down after handing in my thesis, but mainly I was celebrating 100 issues of Frank's APA (the amateur press association for people who like music, always looking for new members, and that means you, punk (unless you are a timewaster)). We did a lot of kewl things and had a party and stuff. But I'm not going to talk about any of that. Instead I will provide some details on a trip the more discerning of us made to the town of Lelystand. I was going to hold off on posting about this until I mastered this posting pictures on the Internet technology you hear about, but that will take some time to come together, so for now it is just text.

Lelystand is a strange new town built on polders beside the Zuider Zee. Why did we go to this godforsaken hellhole, you might ask. Well, Lelystand has this naval museum there in which they like to rebuild olde ships. They are currently building a replica of the Seven Provinces, flagship of some Admiral Ruyter guy. There was very little stuff about him or his ship in English there, and small wonder – he is the man who repeatedly stuffed the English out of it in the Anglo-Dutch wars. His most famous exploit was to sail up the Thames to steal the English flagship and smash up the rest of the English fleet. Seeing the innards of a ship in the process of construction was fascinating, and made for various surreal photographs.

The real star of Lelystand, however, is a completed replica they have of the Batavia. Just in case 17th century Dutch history is not your strong point, the Batavia was a retourship, built by the Dutch East India Company to carry cargo and people from the Netherlands to the Dutch East Indies. In the 17th century, the Batavia would have been a monster, and even now its replica looks impressively large.

The Batavia's history is rather eventful. On its maiden voyage, the captain began to feud with the ship's real commander, the upper merchant of the Company. Together with the under merchant, a former apothecary, the captain plotted to stage a mutiny and convert the ship to piracy (or to sail away somewhere and live off its rich cargo, or something). These plans were however foiled when the ship foundered on islands off the west coast of Australia, then a strange and unknown land. The captain and the upper merchant (and others) left in an open boat to make the several thousand mile voyage to the Dutch East Indies, leaving the other survivors under the care of the under merchant. This fellow turned out to be a maniac, instituting a baroque reign of terror that saw him and his cohorts slaughtering something like two thirds of their fellow survivors, turning the women among them into their sexual property. The story is well told in Mike Dash's book Batavia's Graveyard, or in the earlier novel The Company by Arabella Edge.

So anyway, yes, going onboard the reconstructed Batavia was a real treat for us. Visitors had pretty much the run of the ship and could go anywhere they liked on it, and there was a wonderful disdain for health and safety, which allowed people to climb up on all sorts of things from which they could easily fall to their deaths. Excellent. Particularly atmospheric was being able to go down to the depths of the ship, in which the ship's human cargo of company soldiers were kept under permanent lockdown, apart from one daily half hour toilet break. Most visitors did not bother with the lowest holds of the ship, and even in there on your own they felt grim and claustrophobic; god knows what they would have been like with a couple of dozen tough soldiers for company.

Outside the museum they have this lot of outlet stores for clothes and stuff like that. One amusing feature of this was its slightly theme park element, being done up to vaguely resemble a Company trading post (with walls and cannons around it and the various stores meant to look like little trading pavilions). The kitsch and unironic use of the country's colonial history was fascinating – I wish someone would try to detourn it by opening up a slave dealership there.

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