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The “Amboyna Massacre” of 1623

  • D. K. Bassett


On 27 February, 1623, Gabriel Towerson, the chief factor or merchant of the English East India Company in Amboyna, was beheaded by command of the local Dutch governor, Herman van Speult. Nine other Englishmen, ten Japanese and one Portuguese shared Towerson's fate. The charges brought against these unfortunate men were that they planned to kill Speult and overwhelm the Dutch garrison of Fort Victoria as soon as an English ship appeared in the roadstead to support them. It is not the purpose of the present article to re-open the more controversial aspects of the Amboyna tragedy. Suffice it to say that the plausibility of the Dutch accusation has never commanded much respect in the estimate of British historians and it is unlikely that this attitude will change. On the other hand, there is every evidence to suggest that Speult, despite English suspicions to the contrary, was genuinely convinced that an English plot was afoot to overthrow his government. Normally the governor was a humane and reasonable man, who had received Towerson at his table on many occasions, and his bitterness at the strange turn of events in February, 1623, is very understandable. Dr. Stapel has recorded the reputed reply of Towerson to Speult when the latter upbraided him for thus abusing his hospitality and friendship: “Alas! If it were to beginne againe, it should never be done”. Is this the response of a man who knew he was innocent? asks Dr. Stapel. On the face of it, Towerson would appear to be condemned by his own words, but it must be remembered that his physical condition at that time was pitiful. He had firmly protested his innocence under prolonged and severe torture until his powers of endurance were broken, after which he sought relief, presumably, by telling the Dutch what they wanted to hear. In these circumstances, it is difficult to attach to Towerson's rather cryptic expression of repentance the importance it would otherwise deserve.



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1. Hall, D. G. E.: A History of South East Asia, London, 1955, p. 250.

2. Stapel, F. W.: “De Ambonsche ‘Moord’”; Tijdschrift van het Bataviaasch Genootschap (TBG), LXII, Batavia & The Hague, 1923, p. 224.

3. Towerson to Fursland, 19 Sept., 1622. I.O., Java Records, III, i, f.351.

4. For a brief note on Towerson's career see SirFoster, W.: The Voyage of Sir Henry Middteron to the Moluccas, Hakluyt Society, London, 1943, p. 98.

5. Towerson to Fursland, 19 Sept., 1622. Java Records, III, ff. 352, 357.

6. Loc. cit., f. 355.

7. Fursland to Towerson, 17 Dec., 1622. Java Rec, III, i, f. 455.

8. de Klerck, E. S.: History of the Netherlands East Indies, I, Rotterdam, 1938, p. 232; de Jonge, J. K. J.: Opkomst van h'et Nederlandsch Gezag in Oost-Indie, V, The Hague & Amsterdam, 1870, p. xix; Stapel, F. W.: “De Ambonsche ‘Moord’”, TBG, LXII, p. 212. De Jonge also points out that one of the reasons why the executions were carried out in Amboyna was to terrorise some rebellious Ternatens.

9. Stapel, : “De Ambonsche ‘Moord’”, p. 224.

10. The corresponding Dutch garrison in the Amboyna district in August, 1622, was 345 European and 83 Asian troops; there were 463 Dutch soldiers holding ten forts in the Moluccas and 420 Dutch soldiers in the Bandas. The total Dutch force in the Spice Islands was thus almost four times as large as the contemporary Dutch garrison at Batavia itself. See Colenbrander, H. T.: Jan Pietersz. Coen: Beschieden, I, The Hague, 1919, pp. 800801. Towerson would not only have to capture Fort Victoria, but presumably hold it against counterattacks.

11. See, for example, letters from Welden and Moore at Neira, Banda, 20 08, 10 Sept., 1622. Java Rec, III, i, ff. 340, 345.

12. Fursland to Gonning, 24 Sept., 1622. Java Rec, III, i, ff. 429–430.

13. Fursland to Towerson & Gonning, 17 Dec, 1622. Java Rec, III, i, ff. 459, 462–463.

14. Fursland, to Towerson, , 21 fan., 1622/23. Loc. cit., f. 465. For similar letters to Welden and Gonning see ff. 467, 469.

15. Coen's letters to Speult in October and December, 1622, also commented upon the complete absence of English ships from London and this fact must have been common knowledge in European circles at Amboyna. See Colenbrander: Bescheiden, III, The Hague, 1921, pp. 254, 274. In July 1624, Edward Collins, one of the Amboyna survivors, affirmed before Sir Henry Marten in the High Court of Admiralty: “the English had then noe shippe or other vessell there, neither did they expect any to come at that tyme”; the Dutch, on the other hand, had four ships, three pinnaces and one junk at Amboyna. See Depositions, Java Records, II, iii, f. 31.

16. The English made known their intention of leaving the Spice Is. in the Council of Defence at Batavia on 10/20 January, 1623. See Colenbrander, H. T.: Coen: Bescheitfen, I, pp. 786787.

17. Coen wrote to all the governors of the Spice Islands on 18/28 January, informing them that Carpentier was assuming the governor-generalship, but made no reference to English plans in his letter. See Colenbrander, , op. cit., III, p. 286.

18. Several of the Amboyna survivors later testified that Speult told them he had intercepted correspondence from president Fursland, but the only conclusion he drew from it was that neither Fursland nor the English directors were implicated in the plot. See Depositions, Java Records, II, iii.

19. Coen, to Speult, , 28 10, 1622 (N.S.). Colenbrander: Coen: Bescheiden, , III, p. 253. The question of jurisdiction had been raised because of a duel between an English factor and a Dutch corporal at Kambelu, in which the Englishman was killed; the other Englishmen insisted on the execution of the corporal, although Speult would have preferred a more lenient punishment. Coen was anxious that the law of the land should be applied with equal rigidity to offending Englishmen when the opportunity arose.

20. Vlekke, B. H. M.: Nusantara: A History of Indonesia, The Hague and Bandung, 1959, p. 141.

21. de Klerck, E. S.: History of the Netherlands East Indies, I, Rotterdam, 1938, p. 233.

22. Stapel, F. W.: Geschiedenis van Nederlandsch-Indie, III, Amsterdam, 1939, p. 162.

23. Hall, D. G. E.: A History of South East Asia, p. 249.

24. Harrison, B.: South East Asia: A Short History. London, 1957, p. 102.

25. Gonning, John's Diary, 10 1623, Java Records, III, ii, f. 7.

26. Vlekke, : Nusantara, p. 140.

27. Furnivall, : Netherlands India: A Study of Plural Economy, Cambridge and New York, 1944, pp. 3031.

28. Harrison, : South East Asia, pp. 102103, 106.

29. Glamann, K.: Dutch-Asiatic Trade, 1620–1740, Copenhagen and The Hague, 1958, p. 13.

30. These figures are based on a study of the Court Minutes, Letter Books and Factory Record(Java) in the India Office Library, London, for the period 1600–1682. Readers should consult Krishna, Bal: Commercial Relations between India and England, 1601–1757, London, 1924, pp. 331351, for additional information on this subject. The ships listed there as sailing to Bantam from London must be supplemented by others which came to Java from India with piecegoods and then returned direct to England.

31. I.O. Library, London. Court Minutes, 17 Feb, 1608/09, vol. 2, f. 111.

32. SirFoster, W.: The Voyage of Thomas Best to the East Indies, 1612–1614, Hakluyt Society, London, 1934, p. 73.

33. Danvers, F. C.: Letters Received by the East India Company, I, London, 1896, p. 289; Foster, W.: op. cit., II, 1897, p. 271.

34. I. O. Library. Court Minutes, 23 Sept., 1617, vol. 4, f. 8.

35. Colenbrander: Coen: Bescheiden. I, p. 786.

36. Loc. cit.

37. Furslands to Towerson, 19 Sept. and 18 Oct., 1622. I.O., Java Records, III, i. ff. 350, 445.

38. Batavia to London, 22 Dec, 1623. Java Records, III, ii, f. 204.

39. Batavia to Macassar, 22 July, 1624. Loc. cit., f. 292.

40. Bantam to London, 6 Dec, 1630. O.C. 1326, f. 4.

41. I.O., Court Minutes, 20 Sept. & 18 Nov., 1633, vol. 14, ff, 88, 166.

42. Bantam to London, 31 Jan., 1635/36. O.C. 1552, f. 1.

43. Brouwer to Hon. XVII (the Dutch directors), 4 Jan., 1636 (N.S.), quoted in Tiele, P.A.: Bouwstoffen, II, pp. 282283.

44. Glamann, K.: Dutch-Asiatic Trade, p. 96.

45. The best accounts of Dutch relations with Macassar and of the troubles in Amboyna at this period will be found in F. W. Stapel: Het Bongaais Verdrag, Groningen, 1922, and Tiele, P. A.: Bouwstoffen voor de Geschiedenis der Nederlanders in den Maleischen Archipel, The Hague, 18861895, 3 vols., vol. II and III.

46. Cartwright (Bantam) to London, 9 Dec, 1643, I.O., O.C. 1847, f. 4.

47. London to Bantam, March, 1651. Quoted by president Baker in a letter from Ft. St. George, Madras, to London, 11 Nov., 1655. I.O., O.C. 2348, ff. 1–2.

48. London to Bantam, 19 Dec. 1660. I.O., Letter Books, II, f. 360.

49. Glamann, K.: Dutch-Asiatic Trade, p. 74. The comparable European demand in 1622 was 7 million lbs.

50. Dacres(Bantam) to London, 29 Dec, 1670. I.O., OC. 3531, f. 4.

51. As an indication of the capabilities of the Jambi factory, it might be noted that 1,102,000 lbs. of pepper were received into the English godown there between 31 Nov., 1664 and 1 Jan., 1668, when trade was slight because of the Anglo-Dutch war. The comparable quantity purchased in Bantam between 8 Oct., 1672, and 29 Nov., 1674 — again during a period of war — was 3,910,368 lbs. I.O., O.C. 3237 and Java Records, vol. 6A, Section 105, f. 7.

52. See f. n. 50.

* Since writing the above two paragraphs, my attention has been drawn to Table 18 in Glamann, op. cit., p. 84, which I inadvertently overlooked. The table presents the details of the English Company's imports of black pepper between 1669 and 1686 as recorded in the General Ledgers. Dr. Glamann's figures naturally will supercede the rough estimates I was able to make on the basis of the cargoes known to have been disaptched from Bantam. In making a comparison, it should be remembered that my estimate of the pepper carried by “the fleet of 1670”, for example, must be equated with Dr. Glamann's imports in London for 1671.

53. The English Company made belated and not very energetic efforts to resume trade with Palembang, Indragiri and Banjermasin in 1661–1664, but governorgeneral Maetsuycker was too quick for it; Palembang signed a new monopoly agreement with the Dutch Company in June, 1662; Indragiri did so in October, 1664; and Banjermasin confirmed its former agreements in September, 1664. J. E. Heeres: Corpus Diplomaticum Neerlando-Indicum, II, BTLV, 87, pp. 209–212, 285–287, 291–297.

54. I.O., OC. 4282 contains an account of the murder.

55. I.O., Letter Books, V, f. 540, VI, f. 1.

56. Company to Bantam, 25 Aug., 1680. I.O., Letter Books, VI, f. 225.

57. The references to a possible site for a new headquarters are very numerous. Acheh, Kedah, Johore, Indragiri, Silebar, Lampong, and Jambi were seriously considered for this role in October–November, 1683. See: London to Madras, 19 Oct., 1683, and London to Surat, 16 Nov., 1683. I.O., Letter Books, VII, ff. 223E–223F.6, F.9–10; also f.223–L9. The directors assumed at first that Ord and Cawley, who had been dispatched from Madras, would build a fort at Priaman and sent two companies of soldiers there in November, 1685, on the Herbert and Royal James, but later heard that Bencoolen had been selected. Court Minutes, vol. 34, ff. 127129, 154.

58. London to Bombay, 3 Aug., 1687. Letter Books, VIII, f. 321.

59. Glamann, K.: Dutch-Asiatic Trade, pp. 8990.

60. Glamann, , p. 90.

The “Amboyna Massacre” of 1623

  • D. K. Bassett


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