Bad company

Australian fiction often reads like an argument against colonialism. Last year, Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang detailed the inevitable consequences of populating an entire continent with convicts. But strange and terrible things were going on in the Land Down Under long before the British started exiling prisoners there, as Arabella Edge’s first novel, The Company: The Story of a Murderer, chillingly points out.

Like Carey, Edge, a transplanted Londoner who lives in Sydney, bases her novel on a true historical event, the doomed 1629 voyage of the Batavia. The Dutch East India Company flagship was en route to the Indonesian colonies off the western coast of Australia when it struck a reef and sank, marooning nearly 400 passengers and crew on a series of deserted islands. Among the survivors was Jeronimus Cornelisz, a 30-year-old apothecary exiled for practicing the dark arts of necromancy. For the next 40 days, Cornelisz practiced these dark arts on the shipwreck’s survivors, temporarily establishing his own bloody version of hell on earth before the timely intervention of a rescue ship.

Cornelisz is Edge’s unlikely first-person narrator. He is a nobleman born in a time of aristocratic decline, his class supplanted by bourgeois mercantilists like the Dutch East India company men on board the Batavia, who, along with their wives and children, are en route to their new home in the colonies. Cornelisz loathes these early corporate men with their peculiar blend of commerce and Christianity, and the second the ship leaves Amsterdam, he begins plotting a mutiny, finding willing accomplices among the ship’s proletarian crew.

Edge imbues the 17th-century apothecary, with a 19th-century Nietzschean mindset, and since God is dead (or at least down for the count), the Haig-like Cornelisz presumes himself to be in control. It is doubtful that the historical Cornelisz would have reasoned in such a manner, but the device allows Edge to portray him as a sort of murderous precursor to the Marquis de Sade, one capable of casually executing the company’s stranded employees (splitting heads like coconuts, that sort of thing) because, after all, none of them have lived up to the corporation’s expectations, anyway.

Cornelisz is clearly unhinged, but there’s an underlying logic to his approach that resonates well with both the stranded survivors and our own present-day experience of corporate culture. It seems that 17th-century corporate types weren’t any more agreeable than their modern-day counterparts have been lately. Hypocrites, from top to bottom, in Cornelisz’s view. For example, when the colonists are marooned, their Dutch East India higher-ups abandon them, taking the only lifeboat, a clear violation of company policy. Capitalizing on the survivors’ disillusionment, Cornelisz convinces them to put him in charge. Big mistake.

These sheep have it coming, and it’s tempting to buy into the apothecary’s elitist monologue, just to see what sort of elaborate torture he and his henchmen have dreamed up for the next deserving victim. His first act as leader is to kill all the sick and wounded, poisoning them with hemlock. A philosophical death, he muses, and who needs all that dead weight around, anyway?

Of course, as the immortal Clint Eastwood once noted, we’ve all got it coming, and rest assured, Cornelisz gets his in the end. Or does he? “Revenge, revenge!” he cries on the way to the gallows, leaving one with the uneasy impression that the apothecary willingly paid the ultimate price for his deeds, and would gladly do so again. That makes The Company more than just a refutation of colonialism. With the character of Jeronimus Cornelisz, Edge acknowledges the existence of evil in the world, and the necessity of keeping it in check.