1623: Amboyna Massacre

5 comments February 27th, 2010 Headsman

On February 27,* 1623, the Dutch East India Company beheaded twenty who had been waterboarded into confessing to a terrorist plot.

English prisoner suffering “waterboarding” faux-drowning torture, published under the name “A true relation of the unjust, cruell, and barbarous proceedings against the English at Amboyna in the East-Indies 1624”.

The torturers “poured the water softly upon his head until the cloth [wrapping his head] was full, up to the mouth and nostrils, and somewhat higher, so that he could not draw breath but he must suck in all the water.” More nasty description.

(cc) Image from Flickr | BiblioOdyssey

Posh Spice

As in modern times, this scenario originated with resource competition in the Muslim world … in this case, competition for spice, in Indonesia.

European colonialism had pitted the Dutch East India Company against its British counterpart on the archipelago, both scrabbling after the lucrative trade in cloves and pepper, with garnishes of nutmeg, cinnamon, mace, and ginger.

The two rival powers had, as we lay our story, recently come to a tense truce, dividing the commerce between them — and swapping mutual accusations of violating that pact. The arrangement basically gave the Dutch a bigger slice of the pie, so we’ll find them when the cloves hit the fan having the balance of power on their side.

Terrorists

We’re going to oversimplify to set the scene.

On Ambon Island, one of the very “Spice Islands” (i.e., the Moluccas) — at the Dutch-controlled fortification of a trading post also shared by the English — the Dutch merchant-governor Herman van Speult heard that a Japanese mercenary had asked about the Dutch fortifications.

The security-conscious van Speult ordered that unfortunate soldier interrogated under torture.

As tends to happen when the interrogators in such a case are convinced of a ticking time bomb situation, the torture uncovered a ticking time bomb situation.

The mercenary got the Dutch to stop burning and drowning him by “revealing” a highly implausible** English plot to seize the Dutch fort, with 20 guys or so and no prospect of imminent outside aid. Wouldn’t you know it: when the supposed confederates named by the mercenary were similarly tortured, they too admitted the plot. Van Speult’s English opposite number, Gabriel Towerson, was one of them.

The Amboyna Massacre followed anon, with Towerson and nine other British East India Company employees beheaded, along with nine Japanese mercenaries and one Portuguese. (The latter ten worked for the Dutch East India Company, not the British. A fifth column!)

They went to their deaths protesting their innocence, and many smuggled out written recantations to that same effect: “tortured … with that extream Torment of Fire and water, that Flesh and Blood could not endure it, and we take it upon our Salvation, that they have put us to Death Guiltless.”

Anger in the English Street

That last quote comes from Karen Chance, “The Amboyna Massacre in English Politics, 1624-1632,” in Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies (Winter 1998).

As the title of that piece suggests, the Amboyna Massacre outraged Towerson’s countrymen and -women once word finally made it back to the mothership. (In addition to the torture/wrongful execution dimension, the legal authority of the Dutch trading concern to impose judicial punishment on their English counterparts was questionable at best.)

English demands for satisfaction against the perpetrators continued to complicate Dutch-English relations into the reign of Charles I and beyond. Even Oliver Cromwell required, as the price of peace for the First Anglo-Dutch War in the 1650s, punishment of any surviving offenders. (Which was apparently nobody at all.)

And still later, the burgeoning British Empire’s propaganda arm reached for the Amboyna narrative to justify seizing New Amsterdam on the grounds that the Dutch had attempted to spring a massacre on English settlers — “their Amboyna treacherous Cruelty extended itself from the East to the West Indies, and pursued thus the straight channel of Dutch blood”.

As for the trade-jockeying: the Netherlands’ commanding position in Indonesia ultimately squeezed the English out.** But don’t fret for Old Blighty: she turned attention to gobbling up India, and made a lot more bank than did the Dutch spice racket.

* February 27 was the date according to the Julian calendar in use at this time by the British. By the Gregorian calendar the Dutch were using, the massacre took place on March 9.

** For more on both the fanciful nature of the supposed plot, and the economics of the East Indies trade as it unfolded in the 17th century, see D.K. Bassett, “The ‘Amboyna Massacre’ of 1623”, Journal of Southeast Asian History, September 1960.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Beheaded,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Indonesia,Innocent Bystanders,Mass Executions,Mercenaries,Netherlands,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Scandal,Soldiers,Terrorists,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1966: Christiaan Soumokil, South Moluccan President

7 comments April 12th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1966, an Indonesian firing squad on the island of Obira (or Obi) shot Chris Soumokil (the link is to his Dutch wikipedia page) for having styled himself the president of the Republic of the South Moluccas.

Soumokil’s fate underscores the many contradictory eddies of nationalism in the post-colonial age, and especially in that “imagined community” par excellence, the scattered archipelago of Indonesia.

Here is the background in outline, from a 2005 anti-terrorism text whose interest in the topic will soon become apparent:

The disintegration of the Dutch East Indies and the rapid dissolution of the federative state was anxiously watched in the Moluccas. … [Moluccans] were a privileged group and had favourable career opportunities … [they] were deeply concerned when Sukarno first proclaimed independence in 1945; indeed, many seemingly chose the side of the Dutch government and hoped for a return to colonial times, because they feared that a Java-dominated Indonesian state would significantly worsen their position. …

When Sukarno, in the spring of 1950, dissolved the state of East Indonesia, of which the Moluccas were a province, a group of Moluccans immediately responded by proclaiming and independent Republic of the South Moluccas (Republik Maluku Selatan) on 24 April. This, of course, was unacceptable for Sukarno. In November 1950, the Indonesian army occupied the island of Ambon, the cultural and political centre of the Moluccas. The RMS government and its sympathizers fled to the island of Ceram, where it started a guerrilla war against the Indonesian government. In the early 1960s it became clear that this struggle was utterly hopeless. In 1962, The Netherlands transferred New Guinea to the Republic of Indonesia, thereby depriving the RMS guerrillas of the safe haven where it [sic] had prepared its actions and found refuge.

Soumokil was captured in December 1962 and imprisoned; he was executed* just a month after the Indonesian government was seized by Suharto, on a programme of putting disorder to the sword.

Although politically moribund, the South Moluccan struggle to which Soumokil is a martyr is far from forgotten. And this is where the story of nationalism takes an unexpected turn.

Moluccan refugees in the Netherlands — a “temporarily” displaced population that became permanent, comprised largely out of ferociously anti-Indonesian former soldiers** among whom the RMS government-in-exile still maintains itself today — carried the memory of this struggle forward, far more so than it persisted in the Moluccas themselves.

For this Moluccan diaspora, already subject to all the strains of migration, the affair was a betrayal by their host country, which had failed to repay their ancestors’ loyalty to Holland during the colonial period by backing their people’s aspirations for independence — and had done this even while placing another colony, Suriname, on precisely the sort of stewardship-to-independence track the RMS had in mind for itself.

Soumokil’s execution (and his widow’s subsequent release to the Netherlands) helped (the link is Dutch) radicalize the next generation of Dutch Moluccans to the extent of carrying out some spectacular terrorist actions.

Though there haven’t been any bombs lately, there remains to this day enough currency in this cause to recommend it in the identity formation of the YouTube generation.

* An account of Soumokil’s last hours given by Soumokil’s widow posted here gives the particulars thus:

On April 11, 1966, Mrs. Soumokil and her son Tommie were given permission to pay a last visit to Mr. Dr. Soumokil from 08.00 AM to 11.30 AM to say good-bye to each other.

On April 12, 1966, at 01.00 AM Mr. Dr. Soumokil had been taken by the Indonesian Military from the condemned cell and transferred by motorboat to the island Obi in the archipelago Pulau Seribu … On April 12, 1966, one minute before 07.00am, Mr. Dr. Soumokil gave his last breath. He had been shot by the Indonesian firing-squad.

** Also generally Christian, vis-a-vis the predominantly Muslim Indonesia.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Indonesia,Martyrs,Netherlands,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Separatists,Shot,Treason

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