The Amboyna Massacre
The 9th of March 1623 AD
The spice trade was often a bloody business – the psychopathic Vasco da Gama setting the tone early on. With da Gama violence seems to have been its own perverted end; generally those involved in the trade were protecting their interests, or fighting to win new ones – the comparison with the modern drugs trade is hard to avoid. England in the form of the East India Company and the Dutch with their version of that organisation, though supposedly brother protestant states, nearly went to war over their rivalry in the last years of James I ’s reign.
A treaty concluded in 1619 should have led to peaceful cooperation. It did not, suspicions and competition ending in the flashpoint of the Amboyna Massacre in 1623. On the island of Amboyna, or Ambon (now called Maluku) in the Moluccas the Dutch and English shared a trading enclave. When a ronin – a masterless samurai acting as a mercenary – was found to be spying on the Dutch he was tortured into confessing an English-inspired plot to kill the Dutch governor van Speult and usurp Dutch control of the trading-post fortress. All the English traders on Amboyna were arrested, and others on nearby islands were dragged into the net likewise. Most were then tortured, although as the method was waterboarding and George Bush’s administration assured us this wasn’t torture we are left with a historical ambiguity.
Under torture, or enhanced interrogation techniques, the merchants and various ronin confessed. Ten Englishmen, nine Japanese, and a Portuguese were all beheaded for the crime of treason. The head of the English chief trader, Gabriel Towerson, was placed atop a pole doubtless as a warning to others against testing the patience of the Dutch.
Four Englishmen found guilty but pardoned sought justice in Batavia, then when that was denied returned to London . It was not until Cromwell had won the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652 – 54) that compensation was granted to the heirs of the English dead, the quarter-century old dispute one of the causes of that conflict as it was again in the second and third.
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