Island reveals its brutal past

Kent Acott
Uncovered: The bones of the young person on Beacon Island. Pictures: Nic Ellis/The West Australian

In July 1629, a wave of killings swept across tiny Beacon Island, about 80km off the coast of Geraldton.

More than 120 people - including women and children - were shot by musket fire, run through with swords, strangled, poisoned, drowned and had their throats cut.

They were the victims of the Batavia mutiny, perhaps the bloodiest and most fascinating chapter in WA's maritime history.

Yesterday, the skeletal remains of one of the victims, perhaps a woman or a young man, were unearthed in a find described by forensic archaeologists and maritime experts as "extraordinary" and "exciting".

As the sand was brushed away, the skeleton seemed largely intact.

Its arms were crossed and, strangely, its skull sat perpendicular to the rest of its body. There were no signs of trauma but two musket balls lay alongside - clear indicators of the victim's violent death.

"This is the first skeleton found on Beacon Island using archaeology," University of WA archaeologist Alistair Paterson said. "Some other bodies have been found since the 1960s but always by accident."

The Batavia, a Dutch East India Company ship, was wrecked on Morning Reef near Beacon Island in the Houtman Abrolhos in 1629.

Of about 341 people aboard, most made it to nearby islands but dozens were killed during a mutiny among the survivors.

The wreck site was discovered in 1963, and since then archaeological work on nearby islands located material associated with the wreck, as well as human remains.

In 1999, a WA Maritime Museum team working on Beacon Island found a mass grave.

For the past 10 days, scientists from all over the world have been back on the island seeking to identify likely sites of mutiny burials.

It is part of the Shipwrecks of the Roaring Forties project funded by the Australian Research Council.

But yesterday's historic discovery nearly did not happen, according to WA Museum head of maritime archaeology, Jeremy Green.

"We started excavating the area as a possible grave site on Sunday," he said. "We got to about a metre deep and had not found anything . . . we were thinking of filling it back in and trying another spot.

"But suddenly one of our forensic anthropologists found what he thought was the top of a skull and, sure enough, the skeleton was found.

"It is a very exciting find, especially after all the work that so many people have done."

Part of the Roaring Forties project will be the creation of a virtual reality website that will allow visitors to see Beacon Island as it has stood over time. The website is expected to be online later this year.