On Dryden’s Amboyna, Part 2


See the first part of this series here.

Amongst the real-life figures included in Dryden’s Amboyna: A Tragedy are the English captain Gabriel Towerson and the Dutch governor Herman (or Harman) van Speult. Dryden gives each of these men a fictional family member: Towerson is now engaged to a native woman named Ysabinda, while van Speult has a son, Harman Junior. These two made-up characters are central to the events which, in Dryden’s telling, culminate in the Amboyna massacre of 1623.

Harman Junior, who is purportedly friends with Towerson, has become attracted to Ysabinda. He tries to court her, stressing that he has more money than Towerson, but she shows no interest. He then pleads with Towerson, offering various benefits in exchange for Ysabinda: “I’ll make my father yours, your factories shall be no more oppressed, but thrive in all advantages with ours; your gain shall be beyond what you could hope for from the treaty”. Towerson, however, dismisses this call to “make merchandise of love”.

Harman Junior decides that he has just one course of action left: killing Towerson. While pursuing the Englishman he bumps into the Dutch Fiscal. “I would, like you, have Towerson dispatched; for as I am a true Dutchman, I do hate him” says the Fiscal, although he tries to encourage the impetuous young man along a more subtle path.

Dryden then introduces another subplot of love and lust with the arrival of Perez, a Spanish captain who was formerly Towerson’s lieutenant and presently in charge of the Dutchmen’s slaves: he is accompanied on the island by his wife Julia, who is the object of the Fiscal’s desires. The character of Perez was based upon Augustine Peres, who was indeed captain of the island’s slaves; however, English accounts identify him as having been Portuguese rather than Spanish, while the Dutch record of the trial states that he was born in Bengal.

Adding a still another corner to the love polygon further, Julia is also apparently entangled with Beamont, the English merchant who had a small role earlier on. She is given an aside to summarise the affairs: “If my English lover Beamont, my Dutch love the Fiscal, and my Spanish husband, were painted in a piece with me amongst ’em, they would make a pretty emblem of the two nations, that cuckold his Catholic Majesty in his indies”. Julia is a rather loose woman, then, contrasting with the fidelity of Ysabinda.

Despite all of this, Perez and the Fiscal are on good enough terms to make a deal: should the Spaniard kill a man at the Fiscal’s behest, the Fiscal will pay Julia. (The fact that that the Fiscal specifically offers to pay Julia rather than Perez himself is, perhaps, a euphemistic indicator that he expects sexual favours from her: certainly, in her aside she suggests that the two men are “driving a secret bargain for my body”). The target for the assassination is, of course, Towerson.

Beamont turns up, allowing the play to attack the Dutch with a series of backhanded compliments (“For frugality in trading, we confess we cannot compare with you; for our merchants live like noblemen: your gentlemen, if you have any, live like bores”). We then come to Perez and his attempt to murder Towerson; as he approaches his former employer with a knife while the latter sleeps, Perez justifies his actions to himself on the grounds that Towerson has failed to pay him due wages.

However, the would-be murderer then finds a document showing that Towerson actually intends to pay him after waking up. Perez decides against killing the Englishman after all: “oh base degenerate Spaniard, hadst thou done it, thou hadst been worse than damned”. The play’s Dutch villains will have to do the dirty work themselves, then…

The history behind the fiction

Before I wrap up this post, I should stress that none of the above actually happened. The multiple fractured relationships, the assassination attempt on Towerson, the crisis of conscience experienced by Perez/Peres — none of it has any basis in fact.

The central document on the Amboyna massacre, from the English perspective, is a 1624 pamphlet entitled A True Relation of the Unjust, Cruel, and Barbarous Relations Against the English. The events leading up to the discovery of the supposed conspiracy at Amboyna, as described in this text, bear little resemblance to Dryden’s story.

After a short account of the treaties made between the Dutch and English and a brief description of Amboyna’s geography, plus an outline of the principal Dutch fortress on the island, the main text lodges its first complaint on behalf of the Englishmen at Amboyna. Specifically, it asserts that they were paid less than the Dutch soldiers who made up the castle’s garrison; the English, we are told, sent complaints about this matter to the council of defence at Jakarta.

The pamphlet portrays “the discontent between the English and the Dutch, about these and other differences” as being the incitement for the false accusation of conspiracy — an accusation colourfully described as being “a sword… to cut in sunder that knot at once, which the tedious disputes of Amboyna and Jaccatra could not untye.” There is also a brief mention of Englishman Abel Price having been imprisoned “for offering in his drunkennesse to set a Dutch-mans house on fire”; the pamphlet does not dwell on this point, although it is easy to imagine that the incident may have increased tensions on the island.

Dryden likely had access to this text, but it seems that disputes over payment or a drunken threat of arson excited his dramatic imagination rather less than love triangles and temptations to betrayal.

As a final digression, the above pamphlet was preceded by an earlier document, A True Declaration of the News that Came Out of the East-Indies, which spun the story in the favour of the Dutch. A copy of this pamphlet can be read here; in addition, Google Books has an 1878 Calendar of State Papers that reprints the text of the document in a form (to me, at least) rather easier to navigate. The True Declaration goes into more detail about the politics that fed into tensions between the English and Dutch; it also documents the involvement of a native people, the Ternatans, who are blamed for multiple acts of violence.

The pamphlet responds to “[t]he great outcryes which have been made in England upon the last news which came out of the east Indies about a certain execution which was done in the island of Amboyna”. It describes how the Dutch colonists of Amboyna harboured a “suspicion that some thing was plotted against the province”, something that “did first flow from the great licentiousness of the Ternastanes in Moluque and Amboyna”: the incident referred to here is an attempt to make peace with the king of Tedore without the knowledge of the Dutch authorities, “contrary to the contract of Alliance, 1606” and also to form a truce with the Spanish, “their and our ancient adversaries”. The pamphlet complains that “the English merchants there in the East Indies were unwilling to furnish us with ships of war toward the common defence, as they were bound to do, according to the treaties 1619.”

Because of such actions, the pamphlet argues, “[t]he subjects of the King of Ternata begun to commit great insolencies (otherwise than they were wont) against our nation”. We are told that the Ternatan population of Amboyna “have armed themselves at sea and invaded divers islands and places standing under the Netherlands Governor in Amboyna, spoiling them, and killing out subjects, and taking others, and carrying them away for slaves […] and openly threatned to murder the Dutch merchants, and to spoil and burn the logie or factory”. Indeed, according to the author “the Ternatanes at Loho did actually set on fire and ruined the said Netherlands factory”.

The pamphlet establishes that even after the governor personally confronted them, the “stout and daring” Ternatanes threatened to “come and spoil our subjects by a general army with above a 100 frigates; with these they said they would come against Amboyna”. This led to “a great fear upon the Indians standing under the subjection of the High and Mighty Lords the States, as also over the Netherlanders”.

After making a vague mention of “divers secret correspondences between the Indians and others which gave us great suspicion” the pamphlet ties all of this back to Holland’s European rivals — including England:

[I]t might be thence clearly gathered that something might be plotted against the State in Amboyna, and that the Indians (of themselves) durst not offer to undertake ant such great design without some great help of some of Europe either of Spaniards, Portugals, or some others, and also [the colonial government] understood that they of Loho, Cambello, &c., had great secret correspondence with the English merchants.

Surprisingly, the Dutch pamphlet — although designed specifically to downplay the scale of the atrocity — offers far more dramatic potential in the events prior to the trial at Amboyna than does its English counterpart. Dryden might have found himself with rather more material had he been a Dutch propagandist!

Continue to part 3

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