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  • Amboina, 1623: Fear and Conspiracy at the Edge of Empire by Adam Clulow
  • Tonio Andrade
Amboina, 1623: Fear and Conspiracy at the Edge of Empire. By adam clulow. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019. xiv + 289 pp. ISBN 978-0-231-17512-8. $65.00 (hardcover); $64.99 (ebook).

In March 1623, Dutch officials executed twenty-one people on the Spice Island of Ambon, including ten Englishmen and nine men from Japan. They accused the victims of plotting to overthrow Dutch rule, but when some refugees from Ambon returned to London, they told a different story. They said the Dutch made up false accusations as a pretext for removing English competition and described ruthless torture and brutal imprisonment. The details enflamed an English public already suspicious of Dutch expansion, and through the following decades, both sides—British and Dutch—blamed the other, holding hearings, submitting complaints, publishing pamphlets, demanding compensation.

The British probably had the better case—there’s no good evidence that there actually was a conspiracy against the Dutch—but Adam Clulow’s delightful new book is about far more than an execution and its aftermath. He uses the incident to tell a vivid and compelling global story, bringing alive the Spice Islands at the beginning of Netherland’s Golden Age, when the Dutch East India Company was forging the most extensive and intensive maritime trading empire the world had known.

Anyone who wishes to understand the Dutch East India Company, the history of early modern Southeast Asia, or European colonialism should pick it up, and they are in for a treat, because the prose is fluid, the structure simple and intuitive, and the care for the reader apparent on every page. I know of no book that better introduces and explores the great competition for spices in the early modern period, a competition that the Dutch East India Company won, at least for a time.

The Spice Islands themselves were the prize, especially Ambon, famous for its cloves, and the Banda Islands, known for nutmeg and mace. But many people wanted a piece of the action. Contending with the Dutch were the Portuguese, Spanish, English, and, perhaps most important of all, neighboring Asian polities such as Macassar, Ternate, and Tidore, whose armed fleets sought to carve out and protect their own maritime realms.

Clulow shows how the company navigated this difficult geopolitical terrain and how it increasingly resorted to armed force, sometimes [End Page 638] genocidally. In 1621, for instance, the company attacked Banda, but after the leaders capitulated and signed a peace, Dutch leaders feared that they were secretly planning to rebel. Company officials captured forty-five Bandanese nobles (orang kaya) and began torturing them. Some fled. Some committed suicide. Others, forced by torture into confessions, were executed.

None of this made the Dutch leaders feel safe, so they decided to proceed with a plan to depopulate Banda. Clulow is sparing with the word genocide, but I don’t think the term is misplaced. Company officials swept into villages and captured locals, marching them onto ships for transport to the company’s Asian headquarters in Batavia. Some resisted and were killed. Others fled into the hills and were starved out. The archipelago’s population dropped from around 15,000 to a few hundred. To take care of the nutmeg trees, the company began importing slaves and colonists.

The depopulation and repopulation of Banda did not bring security, and Clulow does a wonderful job of exploring the paranoia that gripped company officials. In Ambon, the company’s main colony in the Spice Islands, they felt themselves surrounded by enemies without and infiltrated by enemies within. Although the Dutch had captured the Portuguese colony on Ambon, Portuguese influence was still strong. Slaves and servants, overseers and merchants, spoke Portuguese, and the Portuguese still controlled parts of insular Southeast Asia. Even locals often spoke Portuguese, and although they had been cowed by company guns and ships, it was not clear that one could really trust them not to rise up. Most insidious of all were the English, with whom the Dutch were meant to be at peace, due to a Treaty of Defense signed in 1619. The...


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