Abandoned on Ascension Island. 2,250km from the coast of Brazil. 1,600km from the coast of Africa. 800km away from the nearest island, Saint Helena.
No water. No human contact. No way of escape. Forced to hunt for food and drink the blood and urine of dead sea turtles to stay alive. An average high temperature of 29 degrees Celsius in August. One degree higher in December. 70 percent humidity. Ocean all around, as far as the eye can see.
Six months alone. Dehydrated. On a volcanic desert island with nothing to live for. On the verge of death. Going, going… gone.
The story of sailor Leendert Hasenboch is an excruciating tale of attempted survival. Set ashore on Ascension Island, one of the most remote in the world, as a punishment for sodomy in May 1725, the Dutchman was condemned to extremes of every kind imaginable in order to extend his life, one day at a time.
And yet somehow, Hasenboch managed to last almost six months on the desolate island, leaving his diary behind him after death for British mariners to find in 1726, take back to their homeland, translate, and eventually publish.
The latest take on the diary, covering translations and research about the Dutch sailor, comes from Alex Ritsema, a Dutch professor. His book ‘A Dutch Castaway on Ascension Island in 1725’ reveals the struggles of Hasenboch, a man attempting to survive in one of the most inhospitable habitats on Earth.
“I have always loved small island stories,” tells Ritsema when we catch up with him. “By accident I found a Dutch book, ‘Een Hollandse Robinson Crusoë’, meaning “A Dutch Robinson Crusoe” in 2005.
“My book is meant as an honour to two Dutchmen who died too young: Leendert Hasenboch, probably 1695-1725, and Michael Koolbergen, the author of that book, who died young and who’s book was published in 2002, some months after his death.”
The tale of Hasenboch truly is astonishing. From a punishment nearing a death penalty to the loss of hope, strength and sanity, the sailor was forced to take to shocking extremes that only the looming scythe of death could lead a human to do.
It is impossible to understand the struggle of the Dutchman, though, without first giving some detail on the hellish setting he washed up on, from lava fields and drought to endless ocean and isolation.
Tectonic plates; the 100km thick pieces of the Earth’s crust and uppermost mantle that make up our continents and shape our world. When plates spread, they create new seafloor, resulting in mid-ocean ridges; giant underwater mountain systems that push up from the crust of the planet to create new islands in the middle of the sea.
Millions of years ago, the separation of the American and African plates did exactly that, birthing a series of volcanic islands. Ascension island was born. A desert place, baron, filled with volcanic rocks cooking in nearly 30 degrees heat year round. There are no seasons on Ascension, only permanent desolate warmth above scorched rocks. Only water is visible all around the small, 88km2 island, and yet none of that oceanic salt water can cure the inevitable, grave dehydration.
The island itself is actually a mountain peak, rising 10,000 feet from the Atlantic floor, a volcanic product of the subterranean Mid-Atlantic Ridge, part of the biggest mountain range in the world.
Much of Ascension remains a wasteland of lava fields and cinder cones even now, though the RAF now use it for training purposes. It truly is an island of isolation, and especially back before it was put to use by the airforce, it was truly no place for a human being.
Of course, that’s why centuries ago sailing captains used to use the island as a prison and death sentence for their unwanted prisoners. And that’s where Leendert Hasenboch comes in.
A Dutch Robinson Crusoe
“Bad food, bad sleeping conditions, lack of sanitary and terrible corporal punishments,” says Ritsema of the conditions Hasenboch would have been able to expect as a sailor even before being abandoned on Ascension.
“During his voyage in 1724-5 though, Leendert was an officer, hence he may have had a small private cabin – or a cabin that he had to share with one other officer.”
The squalor of the ship was made to look heavenly, though, in comparison to Ascension, where he was left on 5 May 1725. It was out of the frying pan and into the fire for the Dutch sailor – given the temperatures involved in his abandonment, almost literally.
And yet, his banishment was not a death penalty. For Hasenboch was left on the shore of Ascension with a cask of water which would last him for weeks, two buckets, an old frying pan, some chick peas, rice, onions and told two key facts that would give him, ultimately, misplaced hope.
Firstly, he was told that there was a water source on the island. What was referred to was a vibrant water spring in the enticingly named Breakneck Valley on Ascension.
The second piece of information he was told before being left was that “it was the time of year for shipping to pass that way, [to Ascension].” Of course, Hasenboch would have no such luck in either finding the spring or being rescued by such a vessel.
Ritsema continued: “The lack of water was doubtless the biggest problem to survive on the island. There was little rainfall, no rivers and no lake.
“[Hasenboch] probably never found the strong water spring near the summit of the island [referred to by his captain]. If he had found that spring, he could have survived for years, and he would have had a good chance of being picked up by a ship.”
Since I was obliged to drink my own urine, I might as well try to taste turtle’s urine likewise; and to my great astonishment it proved as cool as ice...
“In Ascension there are no seasons; it is always a hot and dry summer. He did anything to he could to get fluids as there was virtually no water.”
What ensued was an existence enough to break any human being. On day one he killed five birds, and ate them salted. He caught turtles, successfully planted vegetation even, but after just six days complained of being “almost dead with thirst.”
The human body can survive for almost three weeks without food. It can only survive for three days maximum without water, and in the humidity and heats that Hasenboch was facing, this statistic would almost definitely and significantly have dropped.
The Devils Had Broke Out Of Hell
The Dutch sailor desperately searched for water every day, taking routine walks around the island in hope of finding either such a source, or even better, the rescuing ship on the horizon he had effectively been promised by his captain.
On 10 June 1725, he used the last of his water to boil some rice. Frantically searching for more however, he would strike gold, stumbling across what Ritsema believes to be ‘Dampier’s Drip’, a hollow rock with running water at the foot of Ascension’s Green Mountain.
His new water source would last just 20 days, long before which Hasenboch had begun to show alarming signs of delusion, describing hallucinations which wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a gothic horror novel. On June 16 he talks of hearing:
“the most horrid and dreadful swearing and cursing, mixed with such blasphemous discourse, that no human creature can express, nor dare I write it with my pen; it seemed to me as tho’ all the devils had broke out of Hell. I was certain there was no man on the island but myself, and yet I felt myself pulled by the nose, cheeks, &c and beat[en] all over my body and face.”
Talk of this madness continues to the point where Leendert speaks regularly of hearing the voice of a ghost, a deceased soldier friend who he had served with in Batavia. He heard these horrors to the point where he proclaims the apparition “haunted me so often that I began to grow accustomed to him.”
Ritsema and others believe that the visions could have been brought on by the crying sea birds around his tent, and undoubtedly the lack of water, which would soon lead Hasenboch to drastic action.
The Urine And Blood Of A Dead Sea Turtle
On 21 August, after 109 days alone on Ascension Island, and having tasted water in days, the Dutch sailor made his first note of having drunk his own urine. We’ve never tried it ourselves of course, but judging by the discourse of Hasenboch, it’s not quite as light-hearted and joke-worthy as Bear Grylls makes it out to be – at least not when your life is on the line.
Just one day later, and the sailor was reduced to drinking the blood of a dead sea turtle, something which would become a regular fixture in his bid for survival, peaking in an excruciating diary entry on 28 August. Having killed and drunk the blood of a turtle, Hasenboch stoops to drinking the urine of the creature as well, writing:
“I went along the strand to look for turtles, and luckily found one, I drank the blood out of her head […] I then went to fetch another kettle full of blood, but was obliged first to take out the guts to come at the water with more ease, among the rest I took the bladder, which I cut off, thinking, that since I was obliged to drink my own urine, I might as well try to taste of turtle’s urine likewise; and to my great astonishment it proved as cool as ice. I drunk the whole bladder out with a good relish.”
The first mention of suicide can be found in the diary just two days later on 30 August. From there, the writing continues in a similar vein; living on the blood of sea turtles and sea birds, drinking his own urine and that of animals, searching, always fruitlessly, for a life line of water.
The diary becomes more sporadic through September, with fewer and shorter entries, leading up to the final entry, dated from 9 to 14 October, which states “I lived as before”, referring to the previous entry on 8 October which read simply “Drank my own urine, and eat raw flesh.” A rough end to a rough ordeal.
The Death of a Castaway
“We will never know how he died,” admits Ritsema, “because his body was never found. Perhaps he was drowned in the sea. Perhaps he died of exhaustion on a location some kilometres from his tent.”
The inevitable questions over suicide are also explored in Ritsema’s work. While the Dutchman’s body was never found, his belongings and a tent containing many of his books, including his diary, were found by the British mariners who arrived in January of 1926. The chances that he was indeed picked up by a ship and saved are less than low.
The story of Leendert Hasenboch is definitely not a myth. Most likely, the original diary is lost forever. [But] the man was genuine. He was marooned on Ascension, and he did write a diary...
His story lives on though. The gruelling tale of the sailing Dutchman who broke the law and was condemned to hell as a consequence; condemned to live on the blood of animals and the waste of both himself and whatever he could kill.
Ritsema concludes: “The story of Leendert Hasenboch is definitely not a myth. Most likely, the original diary is lost forever. [But] the man was genuine, and he really was marooned on Ascension, and he really did write a diary.”
It’s a story of another age, another world. A tale easier to imagine on the big screen or in the pages of an epic novel than in the realms of the real world. A stunning insight into the desperate life of a castaway, from a perspective unlike anything else that exists in the modern world.