Thu. May 26th, 2022

It is a well-known tale with a morbidly fascinating ending: people go wild. When they emerge from the wreckage of a crashed plane or a sunken ship, they are thrown into a desert. Their social moorings lost, the survivors drift towards depravity, chaos and death.

This is the premise of Showtime’s visceral series Yellowjackets, which has just ended its premiere season. Its gruesome depiction of cannibalism and deprivation seems too awful to be true. Yet several stories from Australia’s past show fiction can come dangerously close to our own reality.

Parallel destinies

The Yellowjackets trace two parallel fates. In 1996, a high school football team survives a plane crash in a remote Canadian forest. In our day, those who have done so remain united and divided by their common trial.

But the survivors share something more traumatic – and unthinkable – than just a plane crash. As the episodes progress, both the plot and the characters stand out and reveal a tale of mutilation, murder and cannibalism.

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The creators and critics have compared the Yellowjackets to fiction, most notably William Golding’s 1954 novel, The Lord of the Flies. Others draw parallels to the 1972 crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 in the Andes. Cannibalism sustained some of the survivors who showed up after 72 days of torment, including members of an amateur rugby union team.

Lifeboat dramas and shipwreck stories

The Yellowjackets are collapsing several genres of survival stories. In part, it evokes the discarded stories that ask how we maintain our moral, spiritual, and intellectual essence in the absence of everyday cultural constraints. The series also reflects the “lifeboat drama” in which traumatized survivors realize that they are completely dependent on each other for their future – or their death.

In 1929, for example, the celebrated Australian pilots Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm unleashed a tragic scandal. On a flight from Sydney to England, their record-breaking Southern Cross aircraft made an emergency landing in the Kimberley region of western Australia. They withstood two weeks of extreme temperatures and dwindling supplies before being rescued.

But two poorly prepared friends who took part in the search were less fortunate. After an engine failure, their small airplane, called the Kookaburra, landed in the Tanami Desert of the Northern Territory. Pilot Keith Anderson and mechanic “Bobby” Hitchcock had no water on board.

A gripping diary written by Anderson on Kookaburra’s tail recorded that the increasingly debilitated men drank the only fluids available to them: oil, gasoline, and their own urine. They quickly perished and added vitriol to the accusations that the Southern Cross disappearance was just an advertising stunt.

A black and white photo of a small plane with the text 'SOUTHERN CROSS' in white paint
Southern Cross, photograph around 1928.(Delivered: State Library Queensland)

Another accident in 1937 also left a bittersweet legacy. A Stinson Model A aircraft to Lismore from Brisbane disappeared. While an extensive search was launched, three of the seven men aboard its McPherson Range crashed on the Queensland-NSW border.

Believing he could see a farm in the distance, James Westray set off for help, but fell deadly over a cliff. Instead of resorting to cannibalism, however, Joseph Binstead fought for 10 days to keep alive his wounded fellow passenger, Jack Proud. When they were rescued, the couple asked their savior for the cricket results.

Accident, mutiny and brutal retaliation

Both lifeboat dramas and shipwreck stories are deeply rooted in maritime history – with good reason. Archaeologist Martin Gibbs has described the study of shipwreck survival camps as “the archeology of the crisis,” exposing the social challenges, survival strategies, and rescue plans for those washed ashore.

Departing from Calcutta in 1796 with merchandise for the new British settlement of Sydney, the sailing ship Sydney Cove began to sink and was deliberately stranded. Landing on Preservation Island in Bass Strait, its British and Indian crew established a camp and ate on native animals.

But their 17 shipmates, who set off to sound the alarm in Sydney, suffered desperate distress. Their small longboat was wrecked on Victoria’s Ninety Mile Beach. As they battled 700 kilometers over land, they faced unknown land and terrifying river crossings. The marooned sailors were first helped by the coastal people of Kurnai and Thaua. Eventually, however, exhaustion, injuries, hunger, and the inferior instincts of humans under extreme compulsion took them off. In the end, only three ragged sailors reached Port Jackson’s safety.

The wreck of Batavia

Where Australian history, however, most viciously resembles the Yellowjackets, is a series of small islands off the west Australian coast. Here, in 1629, a Dutch ship named Batavia struck a coral reef. Its commander, Francisco Pelsaert, set off in a boat with 48 others to seek help. Over 200 crew members, soldiers and passengers remained stranded.

When he returned more than three months later, Pelsaert found out that a relentless mutiny had taken place. It was headed by Jeronimus Cornelisz, an officer of the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), or United East India Company. Prior to the shipwreck, he had plotted to kill Pelsaert and command Batavia, including its cargo of silver coins.

A sepia-toned illustration of two ships at sea
An engraving from the 17th century by Batavia and the Wallabi group from an illustration in the Jan Janz 1647 edition of Unhappy Voyagie.(Delivered: WA Museum)

Determined to ensure that their supplies would last, Cornelisz recruited a cadre who hunted and slaughtered up to 125 men, women and children. The mutineers drowned, popped, stabbed and stabbed the strongest first before moving on to the sick and weak. Those spared faced rape, sexual slavery, evil punishment, and death. The amount of corruption – including the murder of pregnant women and infants – was as dark as the fictional events in the Yellowjackets.

Eventually, there were two groups of survivors left: the mutineers and the loyal soldiers who had been sent to another island. After several beach battles, the soldiers captured the wild Cornelisz, who was quickly executed.

Perhaps the moral corruption of the mutineers in the Houtman Abrolhos Islands constituted what we might consider Batavia’s first “series”. If that is the case, the retaliation measured by VOC would give an equally brutal season 2.

The Yellowjackets may take survival drama to the extreme, but our own episodes of endurance remind us that no one comes out of the woods unscathed.

Yellowjackets streams in Australia on Paramount Plus.

Peter Hobbins is Head of Knowledge at the Australian National Maritime Museum and an honorary affiliate at the University of Sydney. This piece first appeared on The Conversation.

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