Sodomy Punish'd by Leendert Hasenbosch
Sodomy Punish'd by Leendert Hasenbosch

Hell on Ascension

The story of Cochin’s Robinson Crusoe – found guilty of sodomy and banished to Ascension Island.
Cover page of the 1726 edition of Leendert Hasenbosch's diary.
Cover page of the 1726 edition of Leendert Hasenbosch's diary.

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 (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."

Mysterious identity
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.]

Cover page of the 1728 edition of Leendert Hasenbosch's diary.
Cover page of the 1728 edition of Leendert Hasenbosch's diary.

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.

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Himal Southasian