Throughout its history, this area has experienced waves of relative toleration for gay relationships. The VOC, however, had no such toleration. This is a difficult history to talk about, but it’s one that must be remembered. From the moment you stepped on a ship through however long you stayed in the colonies, you were exclusively under VOC rules. When women were caught living as male sailors, they were forcibly married to someone on the ship. Men caught together were violently punished. One such sad story made its way into history through a diary.
Around 1709, Leendert Hassenbosch’s newly widowered father moved with his three daughters to the Dutch colony of Batavia, in what is now Jakarta. We don’t know why he left his fourteen-year-old son Leendert behind. Leendert shows up in the records again at age 18 in 1713, when he enrolled as a VOC soldier in Enkhuizen. Half of his companions were foreign-born, as it was known by then that roughly 1 in 3 of those who left with the VOC never came back. Leendert’s ship set off from the island of Texel, where the VOC had publicly drowned five men for sodomy only a couple years earlier.
Leendert was reunited with his family briefly in Batavia, but within months he was sent to serve on the west coast of India. When he got promoted to corporal five years later, he was finally able to go back to Batavia. We don’t know why he signed up as a bookkeeper on the Prattenburg, a ship going back to the Dutch Republic in October of 1724. His father had died the previous year, but it’s also possible that he wanted to get away from VOC law or that he was having an affair that might be observed in Batavia’s relatively small society or that his lover was on the Prattenburg.
Whatever the cause, he joined a fleet of 16 ships that was overseen by a council of the ship’s captains, which convened on April 27 as the fleet was on their way home from Cape Town. With only partial records surviving, we know only that the council marooned Leendert for sodomy, not who he was with nor what happened to his partner. On May 5, he was left on an uninhabited island with a survival kit that included a tent, a cask of water, some food, paper, pen, and ink. Leendert began keeping a diary. At first, it was to track his efforts to find water or rescue. As days passed, he seemed to use the diary to ground himself, remind him who and what he was. The only fresh water on the island was a spring in a hidden mountain cave. He appears to have died of thirst in October of 1725.
The next ship to stop at the island was a British one in January of 1726 whose crew buried Leendert. The captain discovered his diary and brought it to a publisher in London. The first publication has Leendert’s name and, as far as we can tell, seems to be a straightforward translation. It was then picked up by Daniel DeFoe’s publisher, who took away the name and embellished it with visions of being tormented by demons. The VOC loudly protested the books as slander, but they eventually faded from public memory. Leendert’s story was forgotten until 2002, when a Dutch historian discovered his name and brought his story to light.
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