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The Amboyna Massacre in English Politics, 1624–16321

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2014

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On March 9, 1623, ten English merchants were beheaded on Amboyna in Indonesia by order of Harman van Speult, the Dutch governor of the island. They died accused of plotting to seize control of Fort Victoria, the island's stronghold, in order to take over the local spice trade. Considering the number of lives lost in the centuries of conflict between Dutch and British merchants in the East Indies, the incident on Amboyna seems in hindsight to have been a rather insignificant affair. Yet the occurrence played an important role in English politics under the early Stuarts, and influenced English/Dutch relations for a century.

News of the incident, which the English came to know as the Amboyna Massacre, reached England on May 29, 1624, and caused a diplomatic dilemma. James I, who was negotiating an alliance with the Netherlands against Spain, chose to deal with the situation through diplomacy rather than military reprisals, a position his son supported. It was a decision for which neither the Stuarts' contemporaries nor their modern chroniclers would forgive them. John Chamberlain, the friend and correspondent of many important court figures, wrote in July 1624 that he hoped James would “say lesse so he would do more” to make the Dutch pay for insulting English honor. By February of the next year, he was lamenting that he had “knowne the time when they [the Dutch] durst not have offered the least of those indignities we have lately swallowed and indured.” Chamberlain's belief that James's policy consisted primarily of inaction, and that it played into the hands of the Dutch, has been a popular theme in modern accounts.

Research Article
Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 1998

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I would like to thank Dr. Richard Greaves for suggesting this topic.


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