Amboyna massacre

  • Date: 1623/2/9 (March 9)

The Amboyna massacre is perhaps the most infamous incident of conflicts between the Dutch East India Company and British East India Company for power in the Southeast Asian spice trade. It involved the massacre, by Dutch and Japanese agents of the Dutch Company, of roughly twenty Englishmen & Japanese in service to the British Company, and had lasting effects upon the relationship between the two Companies, and between the two countries.

The Dutch were the dominant power, over the English, on the small island of Ambon, as they were throughout the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia). Japanese mercenaries were employed by the Dutch to help defend their interests on the island, but on 22 February, VOC authorities arrested one such Japanese mercenary, after he made persistent and extensive inquiries about VOC defenses, and he confessed, under torture, his involvement in a conspiracy by the British to seize control of the island. Dutch governor Harman van Speult then had his men arrest a number of the British merchants named, and tortured confessions out of them as well, soon determining that Gabriel Towerson, the chief English official on the island, was the leader of the plot.

A council of VOC officials discussed the issue, and in the end, ordered the execution (according to a number of English sources "massacre") of ten Englishmen on the island, along with at least nine out of eleven Japanese, on 9 March. These Japanese were all from Kyushu, and ranged in age from 22 to 50.

Word of these events reached London the following May. The governors of the English East India Company were reportedly outraged, and objected that the Dutch had no authority to try, let alone execute, Englishmen. King James I of England threw his full support behind the Company, threatening war and demanding the VOC punish the Amboyna officials and pay extensive reparations; the Dutch parliament, the States-General, initially took a similarly strong stance, but in November 1624 consented to at least recall Governor Speult and his men to Holland for questioning.

In the end, the Dutch courts could not accede to English interference in Dutch sovereignty, and so the case was allowed to drag on for many years, until pressure from English subsided somewhat, and the court was able to issue a verdict of "not guilty." The English continued to hold a grievance against the Dutch for the incident, however, and more than twenty years later Oliver Cromwell managed to get the Dutch Republic to pay out nearly £90,000 in damages and reparations, with £85,000 going to the East India Company, and just over £3,000 going to the descendants of those killed.


  • Adam Clulow, “Like Lambs in Japan and Devils outside Their Land: Diplomacy, Violence, and Japanese Merchants in Southeast Asia,” Journal of World History 24:2 (2013), 354-356.
  • Geoffrey Gunn, History Without Borders: The Making of an Asian World Region, 1000-1800, Hong Kong University Press (2011), 232.