A mid-eighteenth century engraving depicting the treatment of British prisoners by the Dutch during the so-called 'Amboyna Affair' of 1623. It originally appeared in a text by English clergyman, mathematician and topographer John Harris entitled: 'Navigantium atque Itinerantium Bibliotheca or Complete Collection of Voyages and Travels' around the beginning of the eighteenth century in London, England, although this particular engraving is from the 1744 edition. The engraver is unknown.
SignificanceThis engraving is very useful in that it gives an impression of how British people may have percieved the 'Amboyna Affair' of 1623; as a barbaric 'massacre' of innocent men. It is well documented as having been a source of constant tension between the British and the Dutch for centuries afterwards and was a major topic of anti-Dutch propoganda during the three Anglo-Dutch Wars of the seventeenth century. This depiction should not, however, be regarded as an objective historical source on the event, given its obvious anti-Dutch motive.
HistoryThese two portraits of the Dutch treatment of British prisoners during the so-called 'Amboyna Affair' (sometimes called 'Amboina') were engraved for use in a text by English clergyman, mathematician and topographer John Harris (1667? - 1719) entitled: 'Navigantium atque Itinerantium Bibliotheca or Complete Collection of Voyages and Travels.' This text was first published in two volumes sometime around the beginning of the eighteenth century in London, England.
Given that this particular engraving has been dated '1744' it is likely that it appeared in one of the many subsequent revised editions which are known to have been published throughout the eighteenth century. It is not known whether this particular illustration appeared in the original text, although it is believed to be situated on page 879 of Volume 1. The artist/engraver also remains a mystery given that these type of publications often included contributions from more than one artist.
Harris' text claims to detail geographical and historical information relating to "any part of Asia, Africa, America, Europe or the islands thereof to the present time." Such claims were not uncommon among English geographical works of this period. The text also contains a number of maps detailing "all parts of the world", an appendix of "remarkable accidents at sea" and 'original documents' concerning the "East-India trade" and the "Union of the Two Companies."
This engraving is very useful in that it indicates how many English people would have viewed the 'Amboyna Affair' of 1623; as a barbaric 'massacre' of innocent men. It is well documented as having been a source of constant tension between the British and the Dutch for centuries afterwards and was a major source of anti-Dutch propoganda during the three Anglo-Dutch Wars of the seventeenth century.
The seventeenth century was a period of intense commercial rivalry between the major European powers of the day. While Spain and Portugal were in the declining years of their colonial period, the British and the Dutch were only just beginning to expand their influence abroad. Among other things, both countries sought a monopoly over the spice trade in the East; a monopoly that had, up until this point, been held by the Portuguese. In 1602, the newly formed Dutch East India Company (VOC) set out to dominate trade in the East and to conquer their Portuguese rivals in the process. The British, meanwhile, had established the British East India Company (BEIC); an institution whose influence began in the British colony of India and spread steadily eastwards.
In 1609 the VOC established a trading post at Amboyna (Ambon Island) in the Mollucca (Maluku) Islands. In 1615 the British established their own trading post nearby at Cambello. In 1619 a Treaty of Defense was concluded in London between the VOC and the BEIC stating that, henceforth, the two companies would co-operate, dividing the spice market in a ratio of two to one respectively. The Dutch interpreted the Treaty as implying that each company would have legal jurisdiction over the employees of the other in the places that it administered. The British, meanwhile, maintained that it was only the newly established Council of Defense in Batavia that would have jurisdiction over the employees of the 'other' company.
Despite the Treaty, relations remained tense between the two companies. In Amboyna, local VOC Governor Herman van Speult became suspicious that the Sultan of Ternate, with whom he was negotiating, intended to switch his allegiance to the Spanish. Furthermore, he believed that the British in Amboyna were encouraging him to do this. Suspicions became concrete in 1623 when a Japanese mercenary soldier was caught spying on Dutch defenses at Victoria Fortress. When questioned under torture, the man confessed to a conspiracy between him and other Japanese mercenaries who were planning to seize the fortress and assassinate the Governor. Crucially, it was a conspiacy in which the head of the British trading post, Gabriel Towerson, was implicated and he was quickly arrested, along with a number of other British personnel.
In most cases, but not all, torture was used during the questioning of the men; it was a form of water torture in which the victim's hands and feet were tied, while water was poured into a funnel or 'bib' around their neck. The victim was encouraged to drink the water, lest it reach the level of his nostrils and asphyxiate him. This is clearly visible in the top frame of this print which depicts an interogation of one of the suspects by the Dutch. According to Dutch trial records, most of the men confessed to being guilty as charged, with or without being tortured. Given that the charge was 'treason' these men were subsequently sentenced to death. Among them were ten Englishmen, nine Japanese and one Portuguese. They were beheaded on 9 March 1623. This may well be what the lower frame of this print is depicting, given that one of the prisoners is knealing on the verge of being decapitated. On the other hand it may just be artistic liscence on the part of the British artists who sought to emphasise the poor conditions the accused men endured while incarcerated.
The story told by the Englishmen who were aquitted by the Dutch caused an uproar when they returned to their homeland. They argued that the accusations against them and their co-defendents had been false and that they had been based upon Dutch fantasies. The confessions, they believed, had only been obtained under the duress of atrocious torture. What has subsequently been called the 'Amboyna Affair' unleashed a propoganda war between the Dutch and the English, followed by the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654) in which Oliver Cromwell used the Affair as a pretext. When the British were victorious in the War, the Dutch Government was forced to compensate the relatives of the ten members of the BEIC who were executed. None of the Dutchmen directly involved in the Affair, however, were ever punished, despite a number of 'inquiries' that were conducted by both sides to look into the matter.