The Amboyna massacre was the 1623 torture and execution on Ambon Island (present-day Maluku, Indonesia) of twenty men, including ten of whom were in the service of the English East India Company, and Japanese and Portuguese traders, by agents of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), on accusations of treason. It was the result of the intense rivalry between the East India companies of England and the Dutch United Provinces in the spice trade. It remained a source of tension between the two nations until late in the 17th century.

Dutch/Spanish Conflict

From its inception, the Dutch Republic was at war with the Spanish crown (who was in a dynastic union with the Portuguese crown from 1580 to 1640). In 1598 the king of Spain embargoed Dutch trade with Portugal. This sent the Dutch looking for spices themselves in the areas that had been apportioned to Portugal under the Treaty of Tordesillas.

In February, 1605 Steven van der Hagen, admiral of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), conquered the Portuguese fortress of Victoria at Amboyna and took over the Portuguese trading interests at Victoria. Like other European traders they tried to corner the spice market, attempting to keep out other European countries by force of arms. This caused particular strife with the English East India Company. Unavoidably, the national governments got involved, threatening the congenial relations between James I of England and the Dutch States General.

Treaty of Defence

King James I and the Netherlands States General caused the two warring companies to conclude a Treaty of Defence in London in 1619 creating cooperation in the East Indies. The market in spices was divided between them in a fixed proportion of two to one (both companies having legal monopolies in their home markets); a Council of Defense was instituted in Batavia to govern the merchants of both companies; most important, those merchants were now to share trading posts peacefully, though each company was to retain and police the posts it had occupied. The Dutch interpreted this latter provision to mean that each company had legal jurisdiction over the employees of both companies in the places it administered. Contrarily, the English maintained, on the basis of the arbitration-article 30 of the treaty, that only the Council of Defence would have jurisdiction over employees of the “other” company. This proved to be an important difference of opinion in the ensuing events.

Despite the treaty, relations between the two companies remained tense. Both parties developed numerous grievances against each other including bad faith, non-performance of treaty-obligations, and “”underhand”” attempts to undercut each other in the relations with the indigenous rulers with whom they dealt. In the Amboyna region, local VOC-governor Herman van Speult had trouble, in late 1622, with the Sultan of Ternate, who showed signs of intending to switch allegiance to the Spanish. Van Speult suspected the English of secretly stirring up these troubles.

Ronin Caught Spying

As a result, the Dutch at Amboyna became suspicious of the English traders that shared the trading post with them. These vague suspicions became concrete when in February 1623 one of the Japanese mercenary soldiers (ronin, or masterless samurai in the employ of the VOC) was caught in the act of spying on the defenses of the fortress Victoria. When questioned under torture the soldier confessed to a conspiracy with other Japanese mercenaries to seize the fortress and assassinate the governor. He also implicated the head of the English factors, Gabriel Towerson, as a member of the conspiracy.

Torture and Death

Subsequently, Towerson and the other English personnel in Amboina and adjacent islands were arrested and questioned. In most, but not all, cases torture was used during the questioning. Torture consisted of having water poured over the head, around which a cloth was draped, bringing the interrogated repeatedly close to suffocation (this is today called waterboarding). This was the usual investigative torture in the Dutch East Indies at the time.

According to Dutch trial records, most suspects confirmed that they were guilty as charged, with or without being tortured. Since the accusation was treason, those that had confessed (confession being necessary for conviction under Roman Dutch law) were sentenced to death by a court consisting of the Governor and Council of the VOC at Amboina. However, four of the English and two of the Japanese condemned were subsequently pardoned. Consequently, ten Englishmen, nine Japanese and one Portuguese (the latter being employees of the VOC), were executed. On 9 March 1623 they were beheaded, and the head of the English captain, Gabriel Towerson, was impaled on a pole for all to see.