Waterboarding in the Seventeenth Century Spice Islands

“[He] poured the water softly upon his head until the cloth 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.”
A True Relation of the Unjust, Cruel and Barbarous Proceedings against the English at Amboyna (London, 1624). 

I’ve been reading Miles Ogborn’s Indian Ink: Script and Print in the Making of the English East India Company (University of Chicago Press, 2007) (which I recommend very highly, by the way) and, turning to page 125, was surprised to find an apparent depiction of waterboarding in the frontispiece to an English pamphlet from 1624! As you can see in the below image (from a 1671 reprint of the 1624 original) an English merchant is being restrained while a Dutchman pours a jug of water over his cloth-wrapped face.

This page (seemingly an extract or adaptation from Anthony Farrington’s Trading Places: The East India Company and Asia) has a good capsule description of the conflicts between Dutch and English merchants in the so-called Spice Islands that gave rise to these acts of torture, which appalled domestic audiences in Britain and the Low Countries alike:

In February 1623 Gabriel Towerson, English chief on the clove island of Amboina, and nine other Company servants (together with nine Japanese samurai mercenaries, some of them from Hirado, and a Portuguese) were executed by the Dutch Governor Herman van Speult on a charge of conspiracy to seize the fort there. The proceedings were marked by horrific tortures to extract confessions and it is likely that the `plot’ was a convenient fabrication designed to drive the English permanently out of the spice islands. The news caused uproar in Europe. Pamphlets replete with gory frontispieces and titles beginning A true relation of the unjust, cruell and barbarous proceedings against the English appeared in London, to be refuted in turn by publications from Amsterdam, but the affair was never settled and joined that of Run to bedevil Anglo-Dutch relations for two generations. Soon after the English Company withdrew from Japan and mainland Southeast Asia.

The edition of A True Relation scanned into Early English Books Online contains an interesting marginal annotation, which I’ve cropped below:

The poor scan quality and general illegibility of seventeenth century handwriting makes parts of this difficult to transcribe, but my guess it reads something like this:

“This Relation is made publick from an MS never before printed & written by Mr Beaumont one of ye Persons who escaped yt to Macassar[?] and with several others made affidavit of this Barbaritey in ye High Court of Admiralty.”

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5 thoughts on “Waterboarding in the Seventeenth Century Spice Islands

  1. Excellent paleographical skills Rachel! Duly noted. I kept reading “publick” as “sinbluck” because of the weird 'p'!

    Thanks for the correction.

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