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.

On this day..

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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1839: An opium merchant

7 comments February 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1839, the Chinese government provocatively beheaded an opium merchant before the European consulates in Canton.

Opium exports from India into China were a lucrative trade for the British Empire* — for those watching the macroeconomic books, it balanced Britain’s costly importation of Chinese tea — but the consequences for China were wealth hemorrhaging overseas and a growing population of addicts.

Qing decrees against the opium trade dated to decades earlier, but the English had simply smuggled the stuff in. Finally, in the late 1830’s, China began to move to enforce its prohibition.

The trading port of Canton — the English name for Guangzhou — under the administration of upright Confucian governor Lin Zexu (alternately transliterated Lin Tse-hsu) would become the tinder box for open war, by which Britain ultimately compelled China by force of arms to accept its unwanted product.

This day’s execution was one small escalation in that conflict.


Lin Zexu supervises the destruction of opium.

Late in 1838, Chinese police initiated drug busts and expelled at least one opium-trading British merchant. The beheading this date was of a Chinese dealer, but unmistakably directed at westerners given its placement before the foreign missions. The consular officials pulled down their flags in protest of the affront.**

But greater provocations were to follow anon, and by year’s end open hostilities were afoot.

The humiliating British victory that ensued forced China to accept Her Majesty’s drug-running … and helped seed domestic agitation that would ultimately undermine China’s decrepit Imperial rule.

* The United States also trafficked opium — primarily lower-quality opium imported from Smyrna, Turkey — into China during this time, on a much smaller scale than Britain. (Source)

** This period would also mark Canton/Guangzhou’s eclipse as a trading port. Britain seized Hong Kong during the Opium Wars and relocated its foreign offices. Most European powers followed suit, making that city the far eastern entrepôt of choice.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drugs,Execution,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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