On Dryden’s Amboyna, Part 4


See also the first, second and third parts of this series.

In the final act of Dryden’s Amboyna, the Dutch villains respond to the failure of their plan to provoke Perez into murdering Towerson. They decide that Perez needs to be done away with so as not to act as a witness, the Fiscal hits upon an idea “to kill him by form of Law, as accessory to the English plot, which I have long been forging.” The Dutchmen also congratulate each other for pinning Harman Junior’s death on the innocent Towerson; the conversation then turns to a certain Japanese soldier, whose actions are described by the Fiscal:

Some two or three nights since, (it matters not;) a Japan Soldier under Captain Perez came to a Sentinel upon the Guard, and in familiar talk did question him about this Castle, of its strength; and how he thought it might’ve taken; this discourse the other told me early the next morning: I thereupon did issue private order, to wrack the Japonnese, myself being present.

According to the account of the Fiscal, the Japanese soldier maintained even under torture that there was no English plot. Only after being offered to be not only freed from torture but also “bounteously rewarded” did this man finally yield and tell the Fiscal what he wanted to hear.

This marks a turning point in the play’s engagement with history, as for the first time, Dryden is incorporating historical details into his narrative. Having spent the majority of the play on a melodrama sustained by Towerson’s (fictional) wife, Harman’s (also fictional) son and the character of Perez (who may as well have been fictional), Dryden now adapts the events leading up to the Amboyna massacre.

How does Dryden’s fictionalisation stack up against the facts? This question, of course, runs into the secondary question of exactly what the facts were, as surviving documents give quite different stories. To start with, let’s turn back to A True Declaration of the News that Came Out of the East Indies, the pamphlet that puts a pro-Dutch spin on the events.

After a long introduction, the pamphlet reaches its main story in the discovery in 1623 of “a horrible conspiracy against the castle and person of the Dutch Governor and the whole state of Amboyna”. This began with…

…the apprehension of a certain Japonian (a complice of the feat) who at an unreasoanble time was often seen upon the wall of the castle where he also over curiously enquired of the most unskilful and silliest soldiers touching the setting and change of the watch and what number of people might be in the castle, and many other things.

After this comes a calm account of the Japanese man confessing to plotting alongside the English against the Dutch. There is no mention of torture: we read merely of the prisoners being “lawfully and orderly examined”, their subsequent confessions taken at face value. This is followed by a detailed description of the supposed plan for the coup.

Standing in stark contrast to this torture-free account is the anti-Dutch pamphlet A True Relation of the Unjust, Cruel, and Barbarous Relations Against the English. Here, we are told of how the first Japanese suspect happened to ask a Dutch sentinel “some questions touching the strength of the Castle, and the people that were therein. The pamphlet implies that he was simply curious lest he be called to assist in the castle’s watch as the Japanese mercenaries sometimes where. However, he was apprehended for treason and tortured, as were other Japanese men and a Portuguese slave-keeper. The Englishmen should have been left out of this, the author argues, “having never had conversation with the Japons, nor with the Portugall aforesaid”.

Dryden follows the latter account with reasonable accuracy, his main alteration being his decision to incorporate the whole affair into his fictional story of Harman Junior, with the Dutch ultimately plotting to get back at Towerson. Indeed, in one significant respect, Dryden follows the suit of both the anti-Dutch and the pro-Dutch pamphlets…

A detail that the two conflicting accounts have in common is a failure to name the Japanese man at the centre of the supposed discovery. Dutch records show that he was a 24-year-old named Hytieso, hailing from Hirado, and that he was tortured with water. Even the anti-Dutch True Relation, which goes into graphic detail about the torture and has a vested interest in humanising the victims, skims over the details concerning Hytieso — not to mention the other Japanese suspects, and the Portuguese man (that would be Augustine Peres, the loose basis for Dryden’s Perez). The emphasis is specifically on the English victims.

Dryden’s play follows the convention of sidelining the Japanese victims in favour of the English. Hytieso is reduced to an unnamed “Japan soldier” who doesn’t even appear as a character, his apprehension and torture being offstage affairs that are described by the Fiscal after the fact, setting the scene for the climactic torture of the Englishmen.

In the next post: the spectacle of torture, in pamphlets and on stage.

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