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Unhealthiness of Batavia


Students of Cook are generally cognizant of Batavia’s prominence in the First Voyage story, sensibly so since the death toll was so alarming.  The events of two other voyages are worth recounting.


Cook’s Third Voyage


Before leaving Kamchatka in September 1779, Captain John Gore asked his junior officers in Resolution and Discovery for their advice on the track to pursue home to England.  One of the dominant concerns evinced in Petropavlovsk harbor was the necessity of seeking re-supply in Chinese port cites with the view toward avoiding Batavia at all costs.


Initially Resolution and Discovery had trouble fetching Macao, immediately raising the fear on board that the ships might have to bear for Batavia after all, just like Endeavour had.  As Captain James King recorded in the official account of the voyage, Batavia was “a place we all dreaded exceedingly, from the sad havoc the unhealthiness of the climate had made in companies of the former ships that had been out on discovery, and had touched there”.1  Foremost among these ships was Endeavour.  With palpable relief, King recorded that once having taken on Chinese pilots, making Macao was guaranteed.


Of course, the physiognomy of the globe being what it is, Batavia’s neighborhood could not be completely avoided.  After leaving Macao in January 1780, Resolution and Discovery headed for the Sunda Strait (separating Java and Sumatra), the gateway to the Indian Ocean and home.  Predictably, King noted that as soon as the ships entered the Java Sea his Discovery company “began to experience the powerful effects of this pestilential climate”.2  Several men had “malignant putrid fevers”, but through an early version of social distancing (“putting the patients apart from the rest”) combined with “the salutary regulations introduced amongst us by Captain Cook” the worst that “these fatal seas” could bring on was avoided.  Indeed, fearing that Gore wasn’t as diligent about this prophylactic protocol as he was, King wouldn’t allow any men in his ship to visit Resolution.  The Third Voyage had no loss of life from its close encounter with Batavian waters.  


Baranov’s Voyage


King and Gore might have avoided the most injurious effects of Batavia on their return from the Arctic, but another noted figure from the North Pacific wasn’t as fortunate.  Alexandr Baranov was not quite an explorer in the mold of the other maritime fur traders who followed Cook’s track to the Northwest Coast of America, adhering to the commercial guidance James King offered in the concluding pages of the official account of the Third Voyage.  Baranov was more of a corporate integra­tor, having arrived in North America in 1790 to join the Russian sea otter trade.  Nevertheless, he was an adventurous character.  After the consolidation of numerous fur trade enterprises into the Russian American Company in 1799, Baranov became the de facto viceroy of Alaska.


In November 1818, after a long and productive career, Baranov sailed from Sitka (in what is now Alaska) for St. Petersburg and his home in Russia.  He sailed aboard Kutuzov, named for Mikhail Kutuzov, the Russian army commander who repelled Emperor Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812.  After stops in Hawaii and Guam, Kutuzov reached Batavia in March 1819, where she remained for 36 days for re-supply and re-fitting.  As Ken Owens wrote in his biography, “Baranov had to endure a protracted stay in an unfamiliar place, under conditions that must have been especially hard for someone who had not lived outside Alaska for decades”.3  While at Batavia, Baranov began to feel unwell.  He died four days after Kutuzov sailed for Cape Town.  As explained by Leontii Hagemeister, her captain, “the mortal poison of the [Batavian] climate infected him”.  


According to Owens, the “mortal poison” was yellow fever.  Spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, this virus requires four or five days to incubate, meaning Baranov contracted the disease while lodging in the more commodious circumstances onshore at a Batavian inn rather than the close confines of his cabin.  Baranov, like Cook, was buried in tropical waters.  This, Owens notes, was “a sadly ironic ending for a man of the north who had never before traveled anywhere farther south than Moscow or Sitka”.4 


David Nicandri



  1. James Cook and James King. A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean Undertaken, by the command of His Majesty, for making discoveries in the Northern Hemisphere, to determine the position and extent of the west side of North America, its distance from Asia, and the practicability of a Northern Passage to Europe.  Performed under the direction of Captains Cook, Clerke, and Gore, in His Majesty's ships the Resolution and Discovery, in the years 1776, 1777, 1778, 1779, and 1780. G. Nicol and T. Cadell. 1784. Vol. 3. Page 414.
  2. ibid.  Page 478. 
  3. Owens, Kenneth N. Empire Maker: Aleksandr Baranov and Russian Colonial Expansion into Alaska and Northern California. University of Washington Press. Page 269.
  4. ibid.  Page 270. 

    Originally published in Cook's Log, page 36, volume 44, number 1 (2021).

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