On Dryden’s Amboyna, Part 3

AmboynaPlay

See also the first and second parts of this series.

With Towerson’s life having been spared — for now — his wedding to Ysabinda goes ahead. The celebrations include an epithalamium, a dance, and a song honouring Towerson’s heroics at sea (“Hark does it not thunder, no ’tis the guns’ roar/The neighbouring billows are turned into gore”). But the wedding is interrupted by the arrival of Captain Middleton and an unnamed English woman “all pale and weakly, and in tattered garments”. The minor character of Middleton was possibly based upon Captain John Middleton, who did indeed visit the island — but would have been dead years before the story’s events take place.

The woman details a harrowing tale: while at sea aboard an English ship, she and the rest of the passengers were invited on board a Dutch vessel; the treacherous Hollanders then proceeded to ply the guests with wine, steal their goods and throw them overboard. She narrowly escaped with her husband, who subsequently died of grief. Furthermore, she accuses the Dutch merchant Van Herring of being complicit in the crimes, thereby establishing that the play’s only Dutch character to show the faintest degree of moral nuance so far is as bad as the others after all.

After some further altercations, the governor’s son Harman Junior manages to catch Ysabinda alone. He then forces himself upon her:

Ysabinda: You dare not, sure, attempt this villainy.
Harman Junior: Call not the act of love by that gross name. You’ll give it a much better one when ’tis done; and woo me to a second.
Ysabinda: Dost thou not fear Heaven!
Harman Junior: No, I hope one in you.

Harman Junior subsequently feels remorse, although the Fiscal remains as cold as ever:

Fiscal: Where have you left the bride?
Harman Junior: Tied to a tree and gagged, and–
Fiscal: And what? Why do you stare and tremble? Answer me like a man.
Harman Junior: Oh, I have nothing left of manhood in me; I am turned beast or devil; have I not horns, and tail, and leathern wings? Methinks I should have by my actions–Oh I have done a deed so ill, I cannot name it.
Fiscal: Not name it, and yet do it? That’s a fool’s modesty; come, I’ll name it for you: you have enjoyed your mistress?
Harman Junior: How easily so great villainy comes from thy mouth! I have done worse, I have ravished her.
Fiscal: That’s no harm, so you have killed her afterwards.
Harman Junior: Killed her! Why thou art a worse fiend than I.

The Fiscal is not impressed with Harman Junior’s regrets, his dialogue framing Asia as a heathen place where the laws of Europe do not apply:

Those fits of conscience in another might be excusable; but in you, a Dutchman, who are of a race that are born rebels and live everywhere on rapine; would you degenerate and have remorse? Pray what makes any thing a sin but law; and, what law is there here against it? Is not your father chief? Will he condemn you for a petty rape? The woman is an Amboyner, and what’s less, now married to an Englishman: come, if there be a hell, ’tis but for those that sin in Europe, not for us in Asia; heathens have no Hell.

Fearful that Ysabinda will testify, the Fiscal demands that she be killed. Before the murder can be carried out, however, Towerson has already stumbled across his wife bound to a tree (“What’s that which seems to bear a mortal shape, yet neither stirs not speaks! Or is it some illusion of the night? Some spectre, such as in these Asian parts more frequently appears”).

Ysabinda, feeling herself stained and unclean, pleads for her husband to “fly this detested isle, where horrid ills so black and fatal dwell, as Indians could not guess, till Europe taught”. It’s worth remembering that Dryden was the author who coined the phrase “noble savage” (in his play Conquest of Granada from 1672, the year before Amboyna). Ysabinda is portrayed as a virginal innocent, contrasting both with the other named female character (the sexually promiscuous Julia) and with the devilish Dutch. The play is not exactly anti-colonial, however, given that the Christianising influence of the English on Ysabinda (and by extension, the other islanders) is portrayed as a positive force.

Towerson vows to punish the Dutch villain responsible for Ysabinda’s rape (“for sure hell has its Nether-lands, and its lowest country must be their lot”). A confrontation follows, with much overripe dialogue. “No, Villain, no; hot Satyr of the Woods!” says Towerson to Harman Junior. “Expect another entertainment now. Behold revenge for injured chastity, this sword Heaven draws against thee, and here has placed me like a fiery cherub, to guard this paradise from any second violation.” Towerson kills Harman Junior in combat; the Fiscal intervenes but ends up at the point of the Englishman’s sword. When he pleads for his life, even the saintly Ysabinda declares that “‘Tis none to kill a villain, and a Dutchman”. The scoundrel is forced to make an offer: if he be spared, he will testify against the late Harman Junior and so prevent Towerson from being punished.

Towerson accepts, but the Fiscal immediately breaks his promise once Harman Senior turns up. Although Towerson and Ysabinda explain what really happened, the governor dismisses their stories; and when the Englishmen Beamont and Collins take the side of Towerson, the Fiscal brands them accomplices in murder. Harman Senior orders the Englishmen imprisoned, and the story lurches ever-nearer the notorious Amboyna massacre.

Once again, of course, none of this happened in real life. Harman Junior and Ysbinda are both products of Dryden’s imagination, and the tragedy that plays out between them is simply the playwright’s method of leading up to his dramatisation of the historical trial.

On to part four…

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