Hell on Ascension
19 December 2014
The story of Cochin’s Robinson Crusoe – found guilty of sodomy and banished to Ascension Island.
On a monsoon day, I went to see Lazarus House, an isolated and lacklustre building on the island of Vypin at Cochin, facing the calm waters of the Arabian Sea. Once upon a time, it was an asylum for lepers in the town, its cold cement benches and flooring giving little comfort to its unfortunate inmates. It was built in 1728 by the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie – VOC), with public subscriptions from soldiers and officials stationed in the trading town they had come to occupy a few decades earlier, after driving out the Portuguese. Today, Lazarus House is a small convent school. In its immense solitude, I looked for the presence of Leendert Hasenbosch, a young Dutch soldier who had donated more than two-thirds of his annual salary in 1718 for its construction. I realised that this small and nondescript building is the only thing that remains in his memory. But his story is far from lost. Leendert’s diary and other historical sources reveal details of his life and his terrible, lonely death as a castaway on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic.
The discovery of the diary of this unfortunate young Dutchman was as accidental as the twists and turns of his own life. Captain John Balchen, British commander of the East India Company ship James and Mary, left the Cape of Good Hope on Monday, 6 December 1725, to start his voyage to England. He was in the company of the Compton, another East India Company ship commanded by Captain William Morson. During the voyage home, Captain Balchen recorded in his logbook on 20 January:
Anchored on the NW side of the Island Asscesion… here is a fine sandy bay and good landing… sent our boat shore to Turn Turtles… this morning the boat returned with two… Here we found a tent with Bedding and Several Books with some writings by which we find there was a Dutch man turned on Shore here out of a Dutch ship for being guilty of Sodomy in Last May. Could not find him so believed he perished for want of water…
The log of the Compton had similar entries for the same date. Two days later, both ships weighed anchor and set off to continue their course to England, with the Dutchman’s diary deposited in one of them. They reached Woolwich in April.
The subsequent history of the diary has been described by a descendant of Captain John Balchen in a post on manfamily.org (a website presenting genealogical and biographical information on members of a family, including John Balchen, who can trace their ancestry back to one Jonas Man). It appears Captain Balchen took the diary to some scholars in London and a translation of it appeared the same year titled Sodomy Punish’d. A note on the frontispiece announced the diary was found by “Persons belonging to an English ship Named the James and Mary”. Two years later, in 1728, another version was published in London under the title An Authentick Relation of the Many Hardships and Sufferings of a Dutch Sailor. The title page in this publication said the diary was taken from the original journal found by “some Sailors who landed on Board the Compton, Captain Morson Commander”. A note to the readers said the original manuscript of this journal may be seen at the publisher’s. A third version was published in 1730, titled The Just Vengeance of Heaven Exemplify’d. But soon, the original manuscript disappeared.
The disappearance of the original diary and the moralistic sermons in the published translations made many scholars believe that the text had been fabricated. Evan Davis, an American scholar argued in an article in the University of Pennsylvania journal, The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, that if the Dutchman’s journal was factual, “it would be a valuable 18th century artifact, a rare record of the dying months of a man convicted of sodomy.” He also said “the Dutchman would provide a compelling counterpart to Alexander Selkirk, two genuine island solitaires separated by a decade from the 1719 publication of Robinson Crusoe.”
The identity of the Dutch sailor however, remained a mystery for 277 years after his death. Only in 2002, the Dutch historian Michiel Koolbergen found proof that his name was Leendert Hasenbosch, a 30-year-old Dutch sailor, who wrote the diary in solitude for almost six months. Koolbergen’s Dutch book, Een Hollandse Robinson Crusoe, describes the taxing detective work he did in the Dutch shipping archives looking for records to establish the identity of the doomed sailor. According to a book by Alexa Ritsema, A Dutch Castaway on Ascension Island, published in 2006, which describes the search for Leendert’s identity with riveting detail, Koolbergen came to know about the story of the Dutch Robinson Crusoe when he came across a copy of the English book An Authentick Record at the Amsterdam Maritime Museum. The detailed subtitle to this book would have been exciting to any Dutch historian:
An Authentick Relation of the many Hardships and Sufferings of a DUTCH SAILOR, Who was put on Shore on the uninhabited Isle of Ascension, by Order of the Commodore of a Squadron of Dutch ships WITH A Remarkable ACCOUNT of his Converse with APPARITIONS and EVIL SPIRITS, during his Residence on the Island. AND A particular DIARYof his TRANSACTIONS from the Fifth of May to the Fourteenth of October, on which Day he perished in a miserable Condition. Taken from the original JOURNAL found in his tent by some sailors, who landed from on Board the Compton, Captain Morson Commander, in January 1725/6.
[The reference to both years, 1725 and 1726, relates to the fact that the Dutch were using the modern Gregorian calendar which was 11 days ahead of the old Julian calendar, with its new year on March 1, still in force in England at the time.]
Koolbergen came to know from this book that the Dutch sailor was on his way home from Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies (now Jakarta) when he was accused of sodomy and banished on Ascension Island. Trying to uncover the sailor’s identity, Koolbergen began by locating all the Dutch ships that left Batavia for home in 1725, a fleet of 23 ships commanded by Commodore Ewout van Dishoeck. What he found, however, was that the logs of the entire fleet had gone missing. Koolbergen also found that Commodore Ewout van Dishoeck had attended two major meetings at The Hague to report his actions on the voyage; first, the Heeren Zeventien (‘Lords Seventeen’ or the VOC high commanders), and then the Staten Generaal (a committee of the Dutch parliament). But there was no mention of the decision of the captain and the Breede Raad (the broad council of the fleet) to abandon a Dutch sailor convicted of sodomy on an island, in any of the records.
When facing what seemed like a blind alley, Koolbergen found a stray comment in a German book, Reise durch die Sued-Laender und um die Welt (voyages through the south lands and around the world) published in 1737 by Carl Friedrich Behrens. This book had a casual reference to Ascension Island as a place where criminals, like the Dutch bookkeeper found guilty of sodomy, were sometimes set ashore. Taking this as a possible reference to the same Dutchman who wrote the journal, Koolbergen set out to look for the bookkeepers of the ships that left Batavia in 1725 and found a list of 18. A search of their salary logs revealed the one who failed to collect his pay at the conclusion of the voyage. Leendert Hasenbosch had sailed home on board the Prattenburg, serving as its bookkeeper at a salary of sixteen guilders a month. The salary log for Leendert ends with the following statement: “On 17 April 1725, on the Prattenburg, he was sentenced to be set ashore, being a villain, on the island of Ascension or elsewhere, with confiscation of his outstanding salary.”
This is how Leendert found himself alone on the island where he wrote his diary. He had with him a can of water, some provisions, bedding, a lamp, a Bible and some other materials including paper and a pen – things he would have carried when he first entered the VOC.
A soldier at the age of 18, Leendert was sent to Batavia on the VOC ship Corssloot, which set sail on 17 January 1714, drawing a meagre salary of nine guilders a month. He was among a team of 28 new recruits on the ship and they arrived in Batavia on 13 August. Soon he was posted to guard duty on the Castle of Batavia.
The life of a VOC soldier was dull and often tedious and consisted of drills, parades and patrols six days a week, with only one night out, away from the barracks, for unmarried soldiers. However, Leendert was luckier; his father and three sisters were also living in Batavia, having moved there after the death of their mother Maria van Bergende a few years earlier. His father, Johannes Hasenbosch, was a sexton at a small church and his three sisters were married and settled in the town. Records exist of occasional family get-togethers, like the baptism of Maria Elizabeth’s child, where Leendert’s father and eldest sister Cornelia were recorded as witnesses.
One year after his arrival in Batavia, Leendert was sent to Fort Cochin on the Malabar Coast, to fight the Calicut ruler Zamorin whose forces had launched an attack on Cochin country, an ally of the Dutch. In January 1715, Zamorin’s forces attacked the Dutch fort at Chetway, to the north of Cochin, and destroyed it completely. The Dutch made several attempts to retake Chetway, but failed. According to William Logan’s Malabar Manual, the Dutch could not stand this affront and Councillor Willem Bakker Jacobtz took the field at the head of 4000 European and native troops, defeating the Zamorin in January 1717. For this expedition, the Dutch had moved a large number of soldiers from Batavia to Cochin, including Leendert, giving him his first chance to be in a military encounter in the east.
Leendert continued to stay in Cochin for almost five years. The Dutch fort in Cochin was small and they were involved in the trade of pepper and other spices. Private trade was rampant and most of the Europeans who served in these remote forts made it “a good milch cow” as William Logan describes it, making their fortunes from it. It is not known whether Leendert did so as well. But in June 1718, he undertook a great feat of charity, donating his entire outstanding salary of 75 guilders, 5 stuivers, and 3 penningen for the building of Lazarus House for lepers. What made him give away such a huge amount, almost two thirds of his annual salary, is not known. By the time the building was completed a decade later, to give asylum to around fifty lepers, Leendert was already dead, leaving behind only his small diary.
Back in Batavia, in August 1720, Leendert received his first promotion as military clerk, a minor bookkeeper in a VOC establishment, at 16 guilders a month, and was posted to the Utrecht Gate of the Batavia castle. His father and two older sisters were still in the town, but his younger sister Maria Elizabeth had been widowed and returned home to marry again in her home country. Cornelia, the eldest sister, had also lost her first husband and had remarried. The baptism of her child from the second marriage was held on 5 November 1722 and the entire family was in attendance, with Leendert’s father Johannes and sister Ursula acting as witnesses.
That year something unusual happened to Leendert. He had left his home country seven years earlier, spending most of the years since in remote parts of the Malabar Coast. But someone from his native country managed to track him down in Batavia to make a demand for a long-pending payment. What Leendert owed this man named Jan Backer and how he came to be indebted to him in his youth is unknown, but in August 1722, Leendert ordered his entire outstanding salary, a substantial sum of 287 guilders, 2 stuivers and 4 penningen, to be paid to Jan Backer through two men who functioned as his proxies back home.
The next year, in July 1723, Johannes Hasenbosch, Leendert’s father, died at the age of 50 or 51. He was a sexton at the Portuguese outer church in Batavia, which served the local population who embraced the Dutch Reformed Church, the official religion of the United Provinces. The church records mention his survivors: three daughters, their husbands and a son, Leendert Hasenbosch. After the death of his father, Leendert drew up plans to go home to start a new life. He may have thought of marriage and setting up a family. Finding a suitable wife in Batavia was next to impossible.
‘Guilty’ of sodomy
In October 1724, Leendert found work as a bookkeeper on the ship Prattenburg, which set sail for home on 1 December. The Prattenburg was part of the fleet commanded by Commodore Ewout van Dishoeck. While official bookkeepers were paid 22 guilders a month, Leendert, being only a clerk, had to accept a salary of 16 guilders. Until Cape Town, the trip back home was uneventful for Leendert – except for the outbreak of a contagious disease that killed twenty of the less fortunate crew members and soldiers who were crowded on the deck. But the officers, living more comfortably behind the deck, were not affected, and Leendert, being an officer, was among the fortunate ones.
The Prattenburg reached Cape Town on 19 March 1725 for an extended stay of several weeks to refill its stocks, take care of urgent repairs and allow rest for its crew and officers. When the Prattenburg resumed its voyage on 11 April, the fleet had grown in size as more ships had joined them. The details of what happened in the six days between 11 April and 17 April are not known except that the Breede Raad (broad council of the fleet) consisting of the commodore and captains of the entire fleet had met and found Leendert guilty of sodomy on 17 April.
Sodomy was among the gravest sins in those days for most of Christian Europe. All sorts of homosexual activities were described as sodomy and was punishable, often with death. This was especially so in the Calvinist Netherlands where punishments were enforced more strictly than in England. Cape Town’s court records for VOC ships mention 44 sodomy trials from 1700 to 1794, involving 150 persons. In 1730, the Dutch parliament passed stricter laws making it compulsory for judges to award the death penalty for ‘full sodomy’, the act of anal penetration. Within two years, 300 persons were prosecuted for sodomy in the United Provinces and around 75 were given the death penalty. VOC ships were alert to the sin, ready to throw the culprits into the sea if they were caught in flagrante delicto or betrayed later on. Reynier Aedriaansen recorded one such trial on a VOC ship in 1680:
Two persons were brought to the ship’s council, accused of having committed the sins of sodomy … both were chained, one above the other on the poop deck, sat there for five days, when they were judged, to be both, alive, be bound back to back and then put in a sack to be thrown into the sea, alive.
Leendert got away with banishment on Ascension Island. There is no mention what befell his partner; most likely he was sentenced to death. Leendert’s diary describes him as one among the apparitions that came to him in those solitary nights on the island.
Leendert’s diary begins in a matter-of-fact way on Saturday, 5 May 1725:
By Order of the Commodore and Captains of the Dutch fleet, I was set on Shore on the Island of Ascension, which gave me a great deal of Dissatisfaction, but I hope Almighty God will be my Protection. They put ashore with me a Cask of Water, two Buckets, and an Old Frying-Pan, &c. I made my Tent on the Beach near a Rock, wherein I put some of my Clothes.
The next day he went up the hills to survey the place, trying to find anything of use for his survival but did not find anything green. He immediately falls into a state of despair: “I sincerely wished that some accident would befall me, to finish these miserable days.” In his diary, Leendert repeatedly describes his melancholic mood and the death wish that possessed him from the very start of his agony. He did, however, find a few slow-moving birds called boobies, killed three and salted them for food. He survived on the meat of these birds and tortoises he found on the beach for most of his time on the island. On the third day, he tried to bring the cask of water he had left on the beach to his tent. He was clumsy, and overturned the cask, losing much water – a terrible loss as the island had very few water sources.
Leendert had heard of some sailors who were stranded on the island after a shipwreck and survived there for several months. Indeed, William Dampier and the sailors in the English ship Roebuck had spent six weeks there before they were rescued. Most of the days, he went up the hill looking for signs of ships, but was always disappointed. He kept a boobie as a pet in his tent and within a few days it died. He tried to plant a few onions and peas for future use but later found they were all eaten by rats or rodents. He searched for water, found none and spent most of the time reading his Bible, praying and despairing about his misfortune. Leendert, in his misery, was negligent of his own affairs. One day on his return to the tent he found it in smoke. He had left tinder alight on his quilt and the strong winds started a fire. Luckily, he could douse it before causing much damage. “I have lost nothing by it but a banyan shirt, a corner of my quilt, and my Bible singed,” he wrote.
Leendert had little water and all his searches to find water on the island proved fruitless. By mid June he had not even a drop left. In his desperation, he started digging for water but found none. Then he saw some goats in a valley and trailing them he came to a source of trickling water in the rocks in another part of the island. But as the summer peaked, even that dried up. Following the goats, he sometimes found a little water trapped in the rocks here and there. That was when the ghostly spirits and apparitions started making their appearance:
In the night was surprised by a noise round my tent of cursing and swearing, and the most blasphemous conversations that I ever heard… My concern was so great, that I thought I should have died with the fright… anybody would have believed that the Devil had moved his quarters and was coming to keep Hell on Ascension.
Some of these noises appeared to be familiar, and he was certain that one of the voices belonged to “an intimate acquaintance of mine; and I really thought that I was sometimes touched by an invisible spirit”. It was around three o’clock in the morning when the noises stopped tormenting him but at day break, as Leendert started praying, he again heard a voice crying “bouger”.
The next night, there were no strange voices, instead he saw an apparition similar to a man “whom I perfectly knew, he conversed with me like a human creature, and touched me so sensibly of the sins of my past life (of which I have sincere and hearty repentance)”. The man was a soldier whom Leendert knew in Batavia. “We were as great as two own brothers”, he wrote in the diary. In the next few days the same apparition would visit many times: “He haunts me so often, that I begin to grow accustomed to him.” Leendert was so disturbed by these strange visitations at night that he tried to keep a light all night, but the saucer that contained it jumbled and broke. He was tormented by a sense of guilt: “I hope this my punishment in this world may suffice for my most heinous crime of making use of my fellow creature to satisfy my lust, whom the Almighty creator had ordained another sex for.”
By the end of August, summer was so advanced that Leendert could not even find a drop of water anywhere. He started drinking the blood of turtles and boobies and even tried to boil some tea with his own urine. On 31 August he wrote: “I was walking, or, more properly speaking, crawling on the sand, for I could not walk three steps together.”
Then he saw a turtle. “I … cut off his head with my razor, and lay all along and sucked his blood as it run out… I got out some of its eggs, and carried them home, and fry’d them, and afterwards drank some boil’d piss mixed with tea; which, though it was so nauseous, revived me much.”
Soon he was so weak, unable to kill even a turtle. “I am so much decay’d, that I am a perfect skeleton, and cannot write the particulars, my hand shakes so.” But he still kept up the diary, just a word or two or ‘ditto’, and on October 7 a brief note: “my wood’s all gone, so that I am forced to eat raw flesh and salted fowls. I cannot live long, and I hope the Lord will have mercy on my soul.”
Then the same word every day until the final entry in the diary on 14 October: “ditto”.
Leendert may have died on the same day or the day after. But neither the crew of James and Mary or Compton who retrieved his diary three months later, nor any of the ships that subsequently called on the island, could find his body. Perhaps in a superhuman effort, he dragged himself to the vastness of sea to cleanse himself of his sorrows and ‘sins’?
This will always remain a mystery.~ N P Chekkutty is a Calicut-based journalist and co-author of two books with John C. Roberts on European burials in South India.