On Dryden’s Amboyna, Part 1


A current research topic of mine is the Amboyna massacre, which occurred in 1623 on Ambon Island (or Amboyna, to use its antiquated name). The incident arose from the island’s Dutch colonists becoming convinced that their Japanese mercenaries were conspiring with a small community of English colonists to rebel; after a round of dubious confessions were extracted through torture, the island played host to a mass execution: ten Englishmen, nine Japanese and one Portuguese were killed.

Looked at from a full perspective, this incident was — in terms of bloodshed — a footnote to colonialism’s brutal trail through the Spice Islands. Two years previously Jan Pieterszoon Coen, Governor General of the Dutch East India Company, oversaw a massacre at the Banda Islands; this led to Coen himself reporting that of the native population, “About 2,500 are dead either by hunger or misery or by the sword”.

Coen, incidentally, also appears to have helped to stoke the flames that led to the Amboyna massacre. Although he had left the island before the affair took place, he encouraged Amboyna’s governor Herman van Speult to be on the lookout for English troublemakers, as described in George Masselman’s 1963 book The Cradle of Colonialism:

In the preceding year, Coen had warned all the Company’s factors to be on their guard against any suspicious activities on the part of the English that might undermine Dutch authority. The governor at Amboyna, Herman van Speult, had acknowledged this admonition in June: “we hope to direct things according to your orders that our sovereignty shall not be diminished or injured in any way by their activities. And if we may hear of any conspiracies of theirs against the sovereignty, we shall with your sanction do justice to them without delay.”

(The source cited by Masselman is page 74 of Geschiedenis van Nederlandsch-Indië by F. W. Stapel, but I have  been unable to find a copy of this document)

Compared to the thousands slaughtered at the Banda Islands, the execution of twenty men at Amboyna is a much smaller atrocity. But unlike the native people of Banda, the English of Amboyna had an entire country in a position to avenge their deaths. As hostilities between the English and Dutch continued over the following decades, the Amboyna massacre became a key narrative in the media of England. A pamphlet entitled A True Relation of the Unjust, Cruel, and Barbarous Relations Against the English was published in 1624 and subsequently republished for many years to come. Later, in 1673, John Dryden used the incident as the loose basis for his play Amboyna: A Tragedy.

Dryden wrote his play during the Anglo-Dutch war of 1972-4, and so had a propagandistic motive in dramatising the atrocity from decades earlier. In contrast to the noble English, the play depicts the Dutch as dastardly villains. This is illustrated in the opening sequence, in which Herman van Speult (whose name is rendered as Harman Van Spelt) speaks with his chief legal officer, the Fiscal (whose real-life counterpart was named Isaaq de Bruyn). The Fiscal reveals that there is news from England that will be pleasing to Dutch ears:

Harman: Is their East-India Fleet bound outward for these parts, or cast away, or met at sea by pirates?
Fiscal: Better, much better yet, ha, ha, ha.
Harman: Now am I famished for my part of the laughter.
Fiscal: Then my brave Governor, if you’re a true Dutchman, I’ll make your fat sides heave with conceit on’t, till you’re blown like a pair of large smiths’ bellows, here look upon this paper.

The news turns out to be a financial advantage that the Dutch have obtained over the English. “If we can scape so cheap, ‘t will be no matter what villaineie we henceforth put in practice” gloats Harman. The Fiscal steps forward with a plan:”this now gives encouragement to a certain plot, which I have long been brewing, against these skellum English”, he says.

The rather straightforward plan against the English is to “cut all their throats, and seize all their effects within this island”. Taking part in this conversation is a Dutch merchant, Van Herring, who likes the idea of seizing English factories; “but for this wanton cutting of throats, it goes a little against the grain”. After all, the English have protected the Dutch from the Spanish. Plus, the English reached Amboyna before the Dutch and therefore have a greater claim to it.

Harman and the Fiscal dismiss these concerns, however, and even Van Herring relents, claiming to harbour “a true Dutch antipathy to England” after all. English merchants Collins and Beamont (based upon Edward Collins and John Beaumont, two of the men implicated in the Amboyna affair) then turn up and announce that the distinguished English captain Gabriel Towerson has returned. Beamont gushes with praise over the captain: “if he has any fault, ’tis only that, to which great minds can only subject be, he thinks all honest, ’cause himself is so, and therefore none suspects.” “I like him well for that,” remarks the duplicitous Fiscal.

Gabriel Towerson is another authentic historical figure, although Dryden departs from the facts by placing him on the island alongside his fiancée, Ysabinda, a native woman who converted to Christianity. “Now I shall love your God, because I see that he takes care of lovers”, says Ysabinda in her first scene onstage. (Ysabinda, incidentally, is the only native islander in the play who can truly be termed a character: one scene has “Amboyner’s” enter to dance, but none are given dialogue).

In reality, Towerson’s wife was Mariam Khan, a woman from Mughal India; the two married in England, shortly after Khan’s first husband William Hawkins perished at sea. By the time he arrived back at Ambon, Towerson had abandoned his wife. Dryden clearly felt that the dramatic potential of Towerson sharing the island with his beloved in the events leading up to his death justified a little poetic license, and so the play creates the fictitious Ysabinda as a stand-in for Mariam Khan.

As well as a fictional wife for Gabriel Towerson, Dryden invents a fictional son for Harman Van Spelt who turns up in the second act. The two made-up figures then become central to Dryden’s heavily romanticised narrative, as Harman Junior’s designs on Ysabinda lead ultimately to the Amboyna massacre.

On to part two

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