Bontekoe’s Cabin Boys
On the quay in the historic town of Hoorn, three bronze cabin boys gaze out over the wide waters of what was once the Zuiderzee. They are listening to ‘the voice of the sea, which entices and intoxicates’. They are Hajo, Padde and Rolf, the cabin boys of shipmaster Willem IJsbrantsz Bontekoe (1587–1657), who found fame with the publication of his ship’s log about his improbable journey to Bantam (East Indies) in 1618, which he undertook in the service of the Dutch East India Company during the Golden Age.
Hajo, Padde and Rolf are now more famous than the master of their ship, thanks to one of the greatest storytellers and most prolific writers in Dutch literature, Johan Fabricius, who was inspired by Bontekoe’s log to write De scheepsjongens van Bontekoe (Bontekoe’s Cabin Boys) in 1924. This superlative, thrilling sea adventure is one of the classics of Dutch (children’s) literature. At the end of 2007 a large-scale adventure film about the cabin boys is coming out.
It is, above all, their true-to-life nature and their different characters that have ensured the threesome a place in the Dutch collective memory: Hajo is romantic and dreams of adventures in far-off lands. Padde, clumsy, fat and the butt of people’s jokes, is ‘Hajo’s shadow’ and reluctantly follows his friend to sea. And Rolf, Bontekoe’s nephew and an orphan, is contemplative and calm, and often rescues the others from predicaments.
And they certainly get into plenty of predicaments. Vividly and with a great sense of pace, Fabricius describes how the crew of the Nieuw-Hoorn is hit by storms, impenetrable fog, Spaniards, becalmed seas and scurvy, the ‘dreaded enemy’. The high point is a true event: an explosion that occurs when, through Padde’s fault, a candle flame spreads via a brandy barrel to the gunpowder store. The ship is blasted into a hundred thousand pieces, amidst ‘hissing and cracking’ it disappears into the sea.
When the cabin boys are washed ashore on Sumatra, they lose Bontekoe and begin a perilous journey through the interior of Sumatra (the mysterious atmosphere of which is captured perfectly by Fabricius, a native of Indonesia) to Bantam, Java. There, they are reunited with the survivors and with Bontekoe. They arrive back in Hoorn on New Year’s Eve 1620, in the spot where they are still standing on the quayside today, thanks to Fabricius’ exceptional talent for storytelling.