Amboyna massacre

Amboyna massacre

The Amboyna massacre [The old spelling for the name Amboina/Ambon is used, because "Amboyna massacre" is a common expression in the English language. For that reason the word "massacre" is retained, though the incident was not a massacre in the usual sense of the word.] was the torture and execution in 1623 of twenty men, ten of which were in the service of the British East India Company, by agents of the Dutch East India Company, on accusations of treason [ Shorto, p. 72.; State Papers, No. 499I ] . It was the result of the intense rivalry between the East India companies of England and the United Provinces in the spice trade and remained a source of tension between the two nations until late in the 17th century.


The Dutch Republic was at war with the Spanish crown (to which Portugal belonged since its annexation in 1580) from its inception. As in 1598 the king of Spain embargoed Dutch trade with Portugal, the Dutch went looking for spices themselves in the areas apportioned to Portugal under the Treaty of Tordesillas. This put them into conflict with the Portuguese empire. In February 1605 Steven van der Hagen, admiral of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), conquered the Portuguese fortress of Victoria at Amboyna [Old spelling of the English name for Ambon Island] , thereby taking over the Portuguese trading interests at that place. Like other European traders [The English, for instance, tried to do the same at Run.] they tried to obtain a local monopsony in the spice trade, if need be keeping out the factors of other European countries by force of arms. This caused a lot of strife with other East-India companies, especially the English one [Best known is the expedition of Sir Thomas Dale in 1619, which resulted in a naval engagement between the English and the Dutch, and caused the Dutch to temporarily evacuate Java;Jourdain, pp. lxix-lxxi] . Unavoidably, the national governments got involved, and this threatened to poison the good relations between James I of England and the Dutch States-General.

These parties therefore caused the two warring companies to conclude a Treaty of Defence in London in 1619. According to this Treaty the companies would henceforth cooperate in the East Indies. The market in spices was divided between them in a fixed proportion of two to one (both companies having legal monopolies in their home markets); a Council of Defense was instituted in Batavia that was supposed to govern the merchants of both companies; most importantly, those merchants were now supposed to share trading posts peacefully, though each company was to retain and police the posts it occupied previously. The Dutch interpreted this latter provision so as to mean that each company had legal jurisdiction over the employees of both companies in the places it administered. The English, on the contrary, maintained on the basis of the arbitration-article 30 of the treaty that only the Council of Defence would have jurisdiction over employees of the "other" company. This proved to be an important difference of opinion in the ensuing events.

The incident

Despite the treaty, relations between the two companies remained tense. Both parties developed numerous grievances against each other about bad faith, non-performance of treaty-obligations, and "underhand" attempts to undercut each other in the relations with the indigenous rulers with whom they dealt. In the Amboyna region, local VOC-governor Herman van Speult had in late 1622 trouble with the Sultan of Ternate, who showed signs of intending to switch allegiance to the Spanish. Van Speult suspected the English of secretly stirring up these troubles [State Papers, No. 537I] .

As a result, the Dutch at Amboyna became suspicious of the British traders that shared the trading post with them. These vague suspicions became concrete when in February of 1623 one of the Japanese mercenary soldiers (ronin, or masterless samurai in the employ of the VOC [Japanese mercenaries were also in the service of the Portuguese and the Siamese kings; see Yamada Nagamasa] ) was caught in the act of spying on the defenses of the fortress Victoria. When questioned under torture the soldier confessed to a conspiracy with other Japanese mercenaries to seize the fortress and assassinate the governor. He also implicated the head of the English factors, Gabriel Towerson in this conspiracy. Subsequently, Towerson and the other English personnel in Amboina and adjacent islands were arrested and questioned [State Papers, No. 499I] . In most, but not all [A number of the factors from the adjacent islands(Powle, Ladbrooke, Ramsey, and Sadler) had unshakeable "alibis" and were therefore left in peace; State Papers, No. 499I] cases torture was used during the questioning [Under Roman Dutch Law, as under other continental European systems of law, based on the "ius civile", torture was allowed in specific circumstances; Evans pp. 4-6. Though the English common law did not need torture for investigative purposes (as a confession was not required for conviction), the English did torture in cases of treason. For this purpose a royal or Privy Council warrant was required, based on the Royal Prerogative.For a contemporary instance see the entry about the torture in February 1620/21 of one "Peacock of Cambridge" in the diary of William Camden in connection with the trial of Thomas Lake. A warrant for the torture of John Felton was however quashed in 1628.] . Torture consisted of having water poured over the head, around which a cloth was draped, bringing the interrogated repeatedly close to suffocation (this is today called waterboarding). This was the usual investigative torture in the Dutch East Indies at the time [According to governor Frederick de Houtman, a predecessor of Van Speult at Amboina; State Papers, Nos. 661II, 684. According to the English version of events even more sadistic forms of torture were used. This was later disputed by the Dutch; State Papers, No. 499I] . According to Dutch trial records most suspects confirmed that they were guilty as charged, with or without being tortured. Since the accusation was treason, those that had confessed (confession being necessary for conviction under Roman Dutch law) were sentenced to death by a court, consisting of the Governor and Council of the VOC at Amboina. However, four of the English and two of the Japanese condemned were subsequently pardoned [Collins, Beaumont, Webber and Sherrocke; Soysimo en Sacoute; State Papers, No. 499I] . Consequently, only ten Englishmen [Gabriel Towerson, agent of the EIC at Amboina; Samuel Colson, factor at Hitto; Emanuel Thompson, assistant at Amboina; Tymothy Johnson, assistant at Amboina; John Wetherall, factor at Cambello; John Clarke, assistant at Hitto; William Griggs, factor at Larica; John Fardo, steward of the English house at Amboina; Abel Price, surgeon; and Robert Browne, tailor; State Papers, No. 499I] , nine Japanese [Hiheso, Tsiosa, Suisa, all from Firando; Stanley Migiel, Pedro Congie, Thome Corea, all from Nangasacque; Quiondayo of Coraets;Isabinda of Tsoucketgo; Zanchoe of Fisien; all spellings as rendered in State Papers, No. 499I] and one Portuguese [ Augustine Perez; State Papers, No. 499I] (the latter being employees of the VOC), were executed. On 9 March, 1623 they were beheaded. The head of the English captain Gabriel Towerson was stuck on a pole for all to see.


In the summer of 1623 the Englishmen who had been pardoned and acquitted, sailed to Batavia, and complained to the Dutch governor-general Pieter de Carpentier and the Council of Defence about the Amboyna affair, which they said was a false accusation based upon a fantasy, to which the confessions were obtained by atrocious torture only. When the English could not get redress there, they traveled to England, accompanied by the English factor at Batavia. Their story caused an uproar in England. The directors of the EIC asked that the English government would demand reparations from the VOC and exemplary punishment of the Amboina judges from the Dutch government.

According to the English ambassador Sir Dudley Carleton the version of events as he presented it, also caused much anger at the VOC in Dutch government circles. Soon, however, the VOC came with its version of events which (not surprisingly) contradicted the English version in essential respects. Thereupon the States-General not unreasonably proposed a joint Anglo-Dutch commission of inquiry to establish the facts, which suggestion was rejected by the English as too time-consuming. As the Dutch were loath to execute the culprits summarily, as the English would have preferred, the States-General commissioned an inquiry by "delegated judges" from the highest courts in the Republic to investigate the matter. The Amboina judges were recalled from the East-Indies and put under house arrest [State Papers, Nos. 535, 567II, 661I, 695] .

The trial did not progress speedily, however, because the court of inquiry wished to cross-examine the English witnesses. The English government balked at this demand, because it felt it could not compel the witnesses to travel to the Republic. Besides, as the English based their case on the incompetence of the court to try employees of the EIC (according to the English interpretation of the Treaty of Defence), the executions were "ipso facto" illegal in the English view, and therefore constituted a judicial murder. This contention could be decided without an examination of the witnesses. The Dutch, however, maintained that the court at Amboina had been competent, and therefore concentrated their inquiry on possible misconduct of the judges [State Papers, Nos. 537I, 567II, 591, 661I] .

Finally, however, the English witnesses traveled to the Republic in 1630 in the suite of the embassy of Sir Henry Vane the Elder of that year. They were now made available to the court under very restrictive conditions [Resolutiën, 30/04/1630, 19] . The draft-verdict of the court (an acquittal of the accused) was presented to the new English king Charles I in 1632 for approval (as agreed beforehand by the two governments), but, not surprisingly rejected. The accused judges were then released [After the Amboyna Massacre, the English reduced their interest in the East Indies and focused their attention on the continent of Asia, specifically the Indian Subcontinent. The incident was cited as one of the causes for this decision at the time. However, apparently the decision to leave Amboina was already taken beforehand, irrespective of the incident.] .

War of pamphlets

Not surprisingly, the EIC was not pleased with this outcome. The directors published an exhaustive brochure, comprising all the relevant papers, with extensive comments and rebuttals of the Dutch position in 1632 [Reply] . The VOC had already sought to influence public opinion with an anonymous pamphlet, probably authored by its Secretary, Willem Boreel in 1624. At the time, ambassador Carleton had procured its suppression as a "libel" by the States-General. However, an English minister in Flushing, John Winge, inadvertently translated it, and sent it to England, where the EIC was none too pleased by it [State Papers, Nos. 537I, 548, 551, 555] .

The EIC-brochure contained the gruesome details of the tortures, as related in its original "Relation" [State Papers, No. 499I] . These details may not all have been true, but they were calculated to excite much anger at the Dutch. For this reason they were useful for propaganda purposes whenever the exigencies of the diplomatic situation demanded a rekindling of resentment of English public opinion against the Dutch.

So when Oliver Cromwell needed a pretext for the First Anglo-Dutch war the brochure was reprinted as "A Memento for Holland" (1652) [Schmidt, p. 297] . The Dutch lost the war and were forced to accept a condition in the 1654 Treaty of Westminster, calling for the exemplary punishment of the culprits, "then still alive." [Art. 27 of the Treaty.] However, no culprits appear to have been still alive at the time. Moreover, after arbitration on the basis of the treaty, the heirs of the English victims were awarded a total of £3615 in compensation [Hunter and Roberts, p. 427] .

The brochure and its allegations also played a role at the start of the Second Anglo-Dutch War. The annexation of the Dutch colony New Amsterdam was justified with a rather farfetched reference to the Amboyna Massacre ["Second Part of the Tragedy of Amboyna"; Schmidt, p.297] . The Treaty of Breda (1667), ending this war, appeared to have finally settled the matter.

However, during the Third Anglo-Dutch War, the matter was again raised in a propagandistic context. John Dryden wrote a play, entitled " Amboyna or the Cruelties of the Dutch to the English Merchants," apparently at the behest of his patron, who had been one of the chief negotiators of the Secret treaty of Dover that caused England's entry into that war. The play embellishes the affair by attributing the animus of Governor Van Speult against Gabriel Towerson to an amorous rivalry between the (fictitious) son of the governor and Towerson over an indigenous princess. After the son rapes the beauty, Towerson kills the son in a duel. The governor then takes his revenge in the form of the "massacre." [Zwicker, p. 141; Schmidt, p. 296]

ee also

*History of Indonesia


Further reading

*, "Aanteekeningen en opmerkingen over den zoogenaamden Ambonschen moord", in: "Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde van Nederlandsch-Indië", Vol. 101 (1942), p. 49-93
*aut|Evans, M.D. (1998): "Preventing Torture: A Study of the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment", Oxford U.P.; 512 pages, ISBN 0-198-26257-4
* (1899): "A History of British India", Longman, Green & Co.
* (1905): "The Journal of John Jourdain, 1608-1617, Describing His Experiences in Arabia, India, and the Malay Archipelago", Hakluyt Society
* (2006): "The Far East and the English Imagination, 1600-1730", Cambridge U.P.; 324 pages ISBN 0-521-81944-X
* Milton, G., "Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: How one man's courage changed the course of history", 2000 Sceptre; 400 pages, ISBN 0-340-69676-1
* Records of the special committee of judges on the Amboyna Massacre ("Ambonse moorden"), at the Nationaal Archief of the Netherlands in The Hague (part of the records of the Staten Generaal, records number 1.01.07, inventory number 12551.62)
*"A Reply to the Remonstrance of the Bewinthebbers or Directors of the Dutch East-India Company", East-India Company (1632)
*Shorto, R., "The Island at the Center of the World". Doubleday 2004
* (2001): "Innocence abroad:The Dutch imagination and the New World, 1570-1670", Cambridge University Press; 480 pages, ISBN 0-521-80408-6
* (2004): "The Cambridge Companion to John Dryden", Cambridge U.P., 318 pages ISBN 0-521-53144-6

External links

*, "Calendar of State Papers Colonial, East Indies, China and Japan - 1622-1624, Volume 4" (1878) []
* "Resolutiën Staten-Generaal 1626-1630", Bewerkt door I.J.A. Nijenhuis, P.L.R. De Cauwer, W.M. Gijsbers, M. Hell, C.O. van der Meij en J.E. Schooneveld-Oosterling []

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