England and the Netherlands: the ties between two nations > The Ambon murder

In Asia, both the Dutch United East Indian Company (VOC) and the English East India Company (EIC) endeavoured to take over the position of power the Portuguese had occupied since 1500 with regard to the extremely profitable spice trade between Asia and Europe. In 1619, the two companies concluded an agreement to cooperate and join forces in order to drive the Portuguese away. The governors of the VOC were seeking English support in connection with new developments in Europe where with The Twelve Years’ Truce coming to an end in 1621, the war with Spain and Portugal threatened again.

The employees of the VOC in Asia, with Governor-General Jan Pieterszoon Coen setting the example, had no sympathy whatsoever for such agreements. The position of the English was extremely weak. Irritated, Coen wrote to his superiors in the Netherlands that niet een sandeken van’t strandt hadden sij in de Moluccos, Amboyna noch Banda, te pretenderen (not one grain of sand on the beach of the Moluccas, Ambon nor Banda could they lay claim to). In Asia, the Dutch and the English feigned friendship whilst trying to harm each other in all possible ways. So much rivalry and mistrust easily gives rise to suspicion of treason. In 1623, an event that was to go down in history as the Ambon murder put an abrupt end to the strained relations.

On 9 March 1623, a VOC court on the island of Ambon ordered the execution of ten English employees of the East India Company. Ten Japanese mercenaries at the service of the VOC and the man in charge of the company slaves were executed as well. They had allegedly planned to take over the local VOC rule by force; the extremely profitable clove trade could have fallen into the hands of the English. Almost all the suspects were subjected to torture and coerced into signing a confession. Finally, they were sentenced to die by the sword. The news of this shocking event reached Europe in June 1624, when the VOC ship De Haze put into port on the Dutch island of Texel.

A conspiracy
The news of the Ambon murder unleashed a storm of protest in England. The VOC was blamed with having made up the conspiracy in order to oust the English from the spice trade. After all, the English plot was too absurd to be true. How could a handful of Englishmen, ten Japanese and a bunch of slaves have overpowered an entire VOC garrison? Therefore, the trial and, consequently, the verdict were unlawful in the eyes of the English: the VOC judges were not qualified and forced the suspects to confess by cruelly torturing them. The suspects were compelled to breathe through a cloth which had been drenched in water and wound tightly round their head, so their bodies swelled so much that the water seeped out of their eyes, ears and nostrils. The English also claimed that victims were tortured with burning candles and by inserting gunpowder under the skin; they thought this to be particularly cruel. In that time, inflicting pain was already prohibited according to English common law (which does not mean it was never done).

In July1624, the Waerachtich verhael vande tijdinghen gecomen uut de Oost-Indien, met het jacht ghenaemt de Haze (True story of the news which came from the East Indies with the yacht called De Haze). It is a reaction to the great commotion which the news caused in England. All the reproaches made by the English are refuted. The English attack would certainly have had a chance of success with the help of native troops. And with respect to the torture: mild pain as administered on Ambon was quite normal according to Dutch jurisdiction.

The pamphlet war
This marked the beginning of a true pamphlet war. Pamphlets, also called broadsheets or blue booklets (they often had a soft blue cover), were cheap prints which seized on topical subjects, publishing news and opinions on whatever was receiving attention at the moment, such as all kinds of political, social or religious matters.The East India Company reacted full of indignation to the Waerachtig verhael, by publishing a thick pamphlet with the title A true relation of the unjust, cruel, and barbarous proceedings against the English at Amboyna, which enlarges on the subject of the tortures. This story confirmed the English prejudice that the Dutch were cruel people. Until far into the eighteenth century, shorter or longer reprints of these pamphlets appeared on the occasion of every new Dutch-English conflict.

The English-Dutch relations are ruined
The English called the execution ordered by the court on Ambon ‘murder’, demanding satisfaction from the Netherlands. The States-General recalled the Ambon judges to the Netherlands to account for the very carelessly conducted trial in front of a special court and in the presence of English observers. Their acquittal added fuel to the English flames. In London, a Dutch mission negotiated in vain for five years.

Almost twenty years later, the affair was a convenient excusse for the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-54), the real cause being the Anglo-Dutch economic and political rivalry. The Treaty of Westminster settled all the old disputes between the VOC and the East India Company. In total, the surviving relatives of the men executed on Ambon received 3,615 pounds.

Nevertheless, the Ambon murder continued to put pressure on English-Dutch relations. At every conflict, the affair was raked up as an example of Dutch cruelty and unreliability, and the pamphlets were reprinted. During the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672-1674), the English poet and dramatist John Dryden wrote a play about the affair at the request of one of the ministers of Charles II. Only in the eighteenth century did the English anger begin to ebb away.

Although the VOC archives include boxes full of documents about the Ambon murder, it is still not possible to establish whether the English plot actually existed or not. The suspect may have confessed to it only to be spared the rack. The sources include enough indications to argue both ways.

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