In January, 1726, a British ship, the Compton, made a brief stop at the uninhabited island of Ascension, in the South Atlantic.
A few of the crew clambered ashore and were startled by what they found on the beach - a tent, a kettle and a handwritten diary.
When they began reading the diary, they were deeply shocked. It recounted the final days of a Dutch mariner who had been cast away on the island seven months earlier. Within its pages was an extraordinary story of madness and human loneliness.
|Tom Hanks did better than Leendert Hasenbosch|
The castaway was a trader named Leendert Hasenbosch, who was returning to The Hague after a long spell in the East Indies.
At some point on the voyage home - the precise details remain obscure - he harboured a desperate yearning for sexual contact. With no women on board, he turned to one of the mariners - possibly a cabin boy.
And thus begun a terrible chapter of events that was to cost him his life. Sodomy was a grievous sin in 18th century Holland and Leendert found himself in big trouble. The ship’s captain could, by law, have had him executed: instead, he chose to cast him ashore on the next island they encountered.
It happened to be Ascension, one of the loneliest places in the world.
Leendert was left a few provisions and a little barrel of water: if he was to survive, he would need to display extreme resourcefulness and mental courage.
His first goal was to search for food and water. But he was beset with profound loneliness from the very outset. ‘I walked very melancholy along the strand,’ he wrote on the first day ashore, ‘praying to God Almighty to help me off this desolate island.’
|Ascension: a lonely place to be cast away|
He managed to kill three boobies, which he skinned and salted. He also managed to kill a turtle. But water continued to elude him. ‘I sat me down very disconsolate with thirst,’ he wrote on day five.
After two weeks on the island, his tinderbox tipped over and set fire to his belongings. He was by now in extreme need of water; his remaining supply was ‘so thick [with parasites] as obliged me to strain it through a handkerchief.’
By mid-June - after five weeks alone - Leendert’s mind started to wander alarmingly. ‘In the night, I was surprised by a noise round my tent of cursing and swearing, and the most blasphemous conversations that I ever heard.’
He felt a profound guilt for his crime and heard devils clamouring all around him, calling him a sodomite. ‘I hope this my punishment in this world may suffice for my most heinous crime of making use of my fellow creature to satisfy my lust,’ he wrote.
|Bosch's devils. Leendert was constantly afflicted|
Slowly but surely, Leendert slid inexorably into madness. He had visions of crucifixes in the trees and constantly heard voices of vicious little devils remonstrating with him.
Still unable to find water, he began drinking turtle blood. Then, when he finally managed to urinate, he drank his urine, mixed with tea and more turtle blood. It was all boiled into an unappealing broth.
It was an unhealthy diet for a sick man and Leendert grew physically weaker and weaker, recording his steady decline in his daily diary. By September, he was shaking so forcefully that he could hardly write. ‘I am so much decayed,’ he wrote, ‘that I am a perfect skeleton.’
Two weeks later, he knew the end was near. ‘Drank my own urine and eat raw flesh,’ he wrote.
At some point in the days that followed - stricken with thirst and too weak to move - he finally died.
He might have survived, if only he had clung to his sanity. Ascension Island had water, plenty of food and a temperate climate.
But - as recent psychological studies have shown - the will to survive is one of the most important factors in who lives and who dies when placed in extreme conditions.
In poor Leendert’s case, those guilt-provoked visions were to cost him his sanity and ultimately his life.
For information about my new book, Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War - and other information - please visit my website: www.gilesmilton.com
Leendert’s story was unearthed and researched by the Dutch historian Michiel Koolbergen. He died before he could publish his findings: the full story was eventually published by Alex Ritsema in his book A Dutch Castaway on Ascension Island in 1725. It is also recounted in Charles Neider’s Great Shipwrecks and Castaways.