“With Honour Quit the Fort”: Ambivalent Colonialism in Dryden’s Amboyna

Candy B. K. Schille
Georgia Southern University

Schille, Candy B.K. "“With Honour Quit the Fort”: Ambivalent Colonialism in Dryden’s Amboyna". Early Modern Literary Studies 12.1 (May, 2006) 4.1-30 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/12-1/schiambo.htm>.

  1. For a play called by its author “scarcely [worth] a serious perusal” [1] and once deemed by its editors “beneath criticism” and “utterly worthless” (by Sir Walter Scott and George Saintsbury, respectively), [2] John Dryden’s Amboyna, or The Cruelties of the Dutch to the English Merchants: A Tragedy (1673) has received a good deal of critical attention in the last fifteen or so years.  The reasons are related to the reason Dryden wrote the play in the first place: a wide-spread and timely fascination with colonialism and empire building.  According to most modern accounts, however, Dryden applauds English empire building in his play, while readings like those of J. Douglas Canfield, Bridgett Orr, Robert Markley, and Shankar Raman deplore it.  Such readings seem to spring from a valuable deconstructive or postcolonial orientation that allows us to “read through” a text’s apparent pernicious, coherently propagandistic intentions.  What I would suggest instead is that Amboyna–particularly in those aspects of the play that have been neglected or confused in recent scholarship–displays Dryden’s own ambivalence toward unalloyed jingoism and imperialism.[3]  My project, then, is to reassess Dryden’s supposedly unilateral, if wrongheaded, propagandistic stance vis a vis his subject, and in so doing to link the relatively inconsequential Amboyna to Dryden’s more famous works, to his religious evolution, and to the arc of Restoration history.

  2. Among the aspects of Amboyna which I will revisit are these: 

    The passage in which Dryden condemns Amboyna occurs in his dedication to Thomas Clifford, the Lord Treasurer.  It  reads:
    To this Retirement of your Lordship, I wish I could bring a better Entertainment, than this Play; which, though it succeeded on the Stage, will scarcely bear a serious perusal, it being contriv’d and written in a Moneth [sic], the Subject barren, the Persons low, and the Writing not heightned with many laboured scenes. (5) [4]
    Notable in Dryden’s apology is his deeming his “Subject barren” and his “Persons low.” This is at odds with many commentaries which have focused on the topicality of the “Subject”–read as a jingoistic rehashing of the Dutch “massacre” of  English merchants in the Molucca islands in 1623--and its propagandistic relevance in the 70's when the English were engaged in the Third Dutch War.  Such commentators have emphasized Dryden’s strenuous efforts to elevate his merchant “Persons” by attributing to them the manners and ideals of the English gentry, as opposed to the materialistic Dutch “boors” (2.1.393)–overemphasized, I feel, since we shall see that Dryden’s valorizing of the English is not absolute.

  3. Further, in addressing his dedication to Clifford, Dryden is making his apologies to a dead man: On August 18, 1673, Clifford, a Catholic, had reportedly hanged himself in his “Retirement,” having felt compelled to resign from the government after the passage in March of the Test Act requiring all office-holders to deny that transubstantiation occurs during the Eucharist.[5]  Estimates for the premier of Amboyna vary from June 1672 to May 1673, but the play was not published, with its dedication, until November 24, 1673 (Dearing 257-58; 277 n.3; Gardiner 18-27), three months after Clifford’s death.  Thus, while Clifford’s supposed suicide cannot have inspired Dryden’s original composition of the play (though it may have had some impact on the published version), it is interesting that its tragic climax begins with a long debate between the play’s hero and heroine as to whether suicide can be moral; finally, they decide it can.  Their debate is deeply concerned with issues of Providence, a topic to which Dryden doggedly returns throughout his career.  Notably, however, none of the recent discussions of Amboyna have mentioned this debate, much less investigated its relevance to whatever values Dryden is espousing.

  4. Also under- or misrepresented in recent discussions is the ambiguous handling of the play’s secondary couple: the Spaniard Perez and his wife Julia.  Julia, also courted by an Englishman and a Dutchman, is usually treated as a symbol of contested colonies previously Iberian, but her nationality, her worth, and her allegiance require further investigation, as do the heroism or venality of Perez, and his motives.

  5. To show how such matters suggest that Dryden’s endorsement of the colonial project is considerably less than wholehearted, let me begin by sketching the plot of Amboyna in relation to its immediate political occasion, and its relevance to the larger cultural context of its composition.


  6. By the opening of the seventeenth century, the Dutch had driven the Portuguese out of the Moluccas (islands lying between modern Borneo and New Guinea) and were attempting to expel the English.  “Outgunned and out financed” (Markley 5), the British signed a treaty in 1619 which “allowed the Dutch to have two-thirds of the trade in the east, and the English one third, both companies [the Dutch East India Company or VOC, and the English East India Company] agreeing to fight as equal partners in declared and undeclared war on the Spanish and Portuguese” (Dearing 260).  The event at Amboyna (now Ambon, the provincial capital of Seram) occurred when the Dutch accused the English there of conspiring with Japanese soldiers and  Moluccan islanders (the Ternatans and Bandanese) to seize their fort, murder them, and use Amboyna as a stronghold from which to prey on VOC trade; they tortured and executed the English merchants.  Dryden had read two pamphlets by a shareholder in the East India Company, Sir Dudly Digges, both published in 1624: A True Relation of the Unjust, Cruell, and Barbarous Proceedings Against the English at Amboyna (reprinted in 1651 and 1672–and hence used as propaganda to fuel the second and third wars against the Dutch as well as the first) and The Answere unto the Dutch Pamphlet, Made in Defense of the Unjust and Barbarous Proceedings against the English at Amboyna, in the East-Indies, by the Hollanders There.  He had also read John Darrell’s 1665 pamphlet, A True and Compendious Narration; Or (the Second Part of Amboyna) of Sundry Notorious or Remarkable Injuries, Insolences, and Acts of Hostility which the HOLLANDERS Have Exercised from time to time against THE ENGLISH NATION in the East Indies (Markley 5-6). [6] 

  7. Dryden was motivated to dramatize the events described in his sources to gain support for the Third Dutch War (1672-74). Referring to the first earl of Shatesbury’s contention that “a War was absolutely necessary and unavoidable,”  Blair Hoxby tells us that “What Shaftesbury strove to do in Parliament [that is, argue that a ‘a War was absolutelyl necessary and unavoidable’], Dryden tried to accomplish on stage” (180).  Vinton Dearing, the editor of Amboyna in the California Works, remarks that Charles II’s councellors
    wished to pass off [the war], political at root, as commercial in essence [and Dryden was] following the official line.  He was, after all, poet laureate and historiographer royal, and Thomas Clifford, the Lord Treasurer, who had conceived the idea of suspending treasury payments except for the war effort, saw to it that Dryden got his full salary in 1672 and 1673.  It may be that the play was another of Clifford’s ideas, as it was later said to be. (257)
    “Political at root” refers to the fact that Clifford was one of only two councellors to whom Charles had confided the terms of the secret Treaty of Dover with Louis XIV (1670), which withdrew England from the Triple Alliance with Holland and Sweden against France and was intended to “prepare the way for [England’s] Catholicization and for French seizure of the Spanish Netherlands [modern Belgium]” (Dearing 263).

  8. An unflattering interpretation of these facts would be that Dryden’s motives for writing Amboyna as he did were strictly mercenary rather than at least partly principled.  Granting that Dryden may have been engaged in political hack work, I maintain that in the play he was unable or unwilling to entirely repress counter-propagandistic positions he expresses in other, better-known works. Hoxby—alone among modern critics—argues that the play has a “divided conscience” (185)—which she sees primarily in the brutal treatment of the Amboynese heroine, a contention that I would like to amplify significantly.  In any case, how far Dryden’s qualifications of the “official line” in Amboyna are conscious or unconscious and how far the speed of his composition (a month) may have contributed to the ambiguity of his treatment are unclear.  However, it is worth noting here one relevant detail concerning Dryden’s political orientation: Though he evinced “almost unmitigated dislike” for the Dutch throughout his life (Dearing 265-68), in Absalom and Achitophel (1681) Dryden would make the breaking of the Triple Alliance with Holland and Sweden (the “Triple Bond”) one more crime of the Earl of Shaftesbury, who argued for it in Parliament (175).

  9. So what sort of play did Dryden make of his openly propagandistic sources?  Dearing writes that the historical event occurred “very much as Dryden describes it” (261), and in relation to the “Persons Represented” he notes:
    Gabriel Towerson, (John) Beamont (Beomont), (Edward) Collins, (Augustine) Perez, Harman Senior (Harman van Speult), and the Fiscal (Izaak de Brune) were real people.  Their full names appear in True Relation (1624), in Answer, issued as part of True Relation, and in Acts, issued as part of Remonstrance (1632). (281)
    The play opens with Harman Senior (the Governor), the Fiscal, and Van Herring (a Dutch merchant) plotting to falsely accuse the English.  The English merchants Beamont and Collins enter to announce the return of the English “General” Towerson to Amboyna after an absence of three years.  Towerson has rescued Harman Junior from pirates at sea, but Harman’s debt of gratitude is soon cancelled by his desire for the Amboynese woman Ysabinda, Towerson’s betrothed.  Perez, a Spaniard (historically a Portuguese in service of the Dutch) who has not been paid by Towerson for fighting with him against the pirates, is hired by the Fiscal to murder Towerson.  Perez is reluctant to leave his wife Julia, who is being courted both by the Fiscal and by Beamont; but when he goes to Towerson’s lodgings and finds his memorandum to reward Perez for his service, he leaves Towerson alive with the note “Thy Vertue sav’d thy life.”  The Fiscal then enlists Harman Junior in the plot to kill Towerson.  After the wedding of Towerson and Ysabinda, an English woman appears to report that the Dutch have waylaid English mariners and colonists from neighboring islands and that she is the only survivor.  The Dutch, of course, deny the charge.  The Fiscal and Perez lure Towerson and Ysabinda separately into a wood. Perez, aware of the plot against Towerson, attacks Harman Junior, but Harman is saved by Towerson, though neither is certain of the other’s identity.  Harman Junior accosts Ysabinda, ties her to a tree, and rapes her.  When Towerson frees her, both decide to commit suicide after their revenge has been accomplished.  Towerson and Harman Junior fight and Harman Junior is killed, but Towerson is then wounded by the Fiscal.  The Fiscal swears that Towerson is guilty of murder and that he and the rest of the English have conspired to capture the Dutch fort.  The English (with women and children) are tortured and executed along with Perez, but Julia manages to have Beamont freed.  The play ends with the condemned Towerson prophesying “Universal Ruine” for the Dutch.


  10. Dryden’s main additions to the historical event, then, are the love plots: “high,” involving Ysabinda, Towerson, and Harman Junior; and “low,” involving Julia, Perez, the Fiscal, and Beamont.  The women of both plots are not so much invented as drastically altered and embellished from what “sources” exist.  Ysabinda takes her name from Tsabinda, a Japanese soldier named in Digges’ True Relation (Summers 563 n. 352).  “Julia” is an invented name for an anonymous woman; of her, Dearing notes: “According to True Relation Perez ‘had, by the perswasion of the Dutch Gouernour, taken [a wife] in that countrey [i.e., Amboyna] (p. 28); Acts (p. 35) says she was one of the slaves, given to him by the Dutch to engage his loyalty and repossessed by them after his death” (282).  So one thing Dryden has done is bring women centrally into the action.  But to what purpose?

  11. The obvious purpose that suggests itself is to make the play more attractive to audiences; I can think of no tragedy by Dryden–or indeed any during the Restoration–that does not include an element of love in peril and, in the case of Ysabinda, the love plot may be intended to make Towerson’s doom doubly “moving,” as the term was in those days.  This strategy fails miserably with modern readers like Orr, who calls the Ysabinda-Towerson pairing “a degraded version of a heroic amour” (158) or Markley, who calls it a “redaction of the Pocahontas myth” (9).  The latter phrase suggests a reason for including the women more commonly argued today, and I have already touched upon it in relation to Julia, above: that both women represent the period’s contested colonies and that both prefer their English suitors (or colonizers) to any others; as Hoxby remarks, “Amboyna repeatedly equates sexual relations with commercial ones” (182).  Put plainly, possession of Ysabinda is a “synecdoche for the possession of Amboyna” (Orr 158), and Julia represents “Iberian colonial possessions in general” now being claimed by the English and Dutch (Raman 201).  I have reservations about such equations.

  12. To pursue Julia first, commentators always point to her remarks on finding the Fiscal with Perez, in which she explicitly announces the emblematic nature of the subplot:
    If my English lover Beamont, my Dutch Love the Fiscall, and my Spanish Husband, were Painted in a piece with me amongst ‘em, they wou’d make a Pretty Emblem of the two Nations, that Cuckold his Catholick Majesty in his Indies. (2.1.226-30)
    A little further on in the same scene, with Beamont’s entrance, we have an exchange that seems to confirm such emblematic readings:
    Beam.  Now Mr. Fiscall, you are the happy Man with the Ladies, and have got the precedence of Traffick here too; you’ve the Indies in your Arms, yet I hope a poor English Man may come in for a third part of the Merchandise.

    Fisc.  Oh, Sir, in these Commodities, here’s enough for both, here’s Mace for you, and Nutmegg for me in the same Fruit; and yet the owner has to spare for other friends too. 

    .  My Husbands Plantation’s like to thrive well betwixt you.  (2.1.281-88)
    Granting the significance of such exchanges, I would like, however, to take note of some complicating factors.  First, Dryden’s handling of Julia’s nationality (and therefore of her symbolic function) is at least ambiguous: Orr and Raman wrongly assume Julia is a Spanish woman (Orr 159; Raman 201) [7]; Canfield says that Dryden “seems to portray [her] as more European” (111); and Dearing, attempting to explain Beamont’s reference to Spain as “your [Julia’s] nation” (2.1.301), is compelled to suggest
    We have three possibilities.  Perhaps this is another mark of lack of “labour” on Dryden’s part.  Perhaps he regarded the wife as taking her husband’s nationality by marriage.  Perhaps there is an element of irony here, though the audience would have no sense of it unless Julia and Ysabinda were somehow costumed similarly and in some way differently from English women.  (295-6 n. 301).
    Given the difficulty modern commentators have had with Julia’s nationality, it seems reasonable to suggest that audiences might not have recognized that Julia is a native of Amboyna until near the very end of the play, when Perez suddenly announces before his execution,

    [. . .] my English friends, I’m not asham’d of death, while I have you for part’ners; I know you innocent, and so am I, of this pretended plot; but I am guilty of a greater crime; For, being married in another Country, the Governors perswasions, and my love to that ill Woman, made me leave the first, and make this fatal choice.  I’m justly punish’d, for her sake I dye; the Fiscal to enjoy her has accused me. (5.1.439-45)

    The details of Perez’s bigamy and Julia’s native status are found in the True Relation (Dearing 317 n. 439-445), but they are dramatically a rather bizarre insertion and raise the issue of just how Julia is “ill” or whether she is indeed desirable. That Julia is desired is not at issue, but that she is desirable is called into question in the remarks the Dutch Fiscal and English Beamont whisper between themselves, comparing Julia to a “little kind of venture,” a “drudgery,” and a carrier of venereal disease (2.1.291-299).  And since these remarks appear to satirize Julia as a Spaniard (301-10), they further problematize any clear equation between Julia and a valuable, contested colonial space.  The character of Julia, her value to the various colonizers, and her valuation of them is also complicated by Julia’s insisting that her condemned husband is her “dear sweet Man” (5.1.29), that she only consents to marry the Fiscal on the condition that he spare Beamont’s life, and that she parts with Perez saying “Farewel, my dearest, I may have many Husbands, but never one like thee” (5.1.437-38).    Orr sees in Beamont and the Fiscal’s remarks at Julia’s expense evidence of miscegenation:
    This contempt for miscegenation, repressed in the Towerson-Ysabinda alliance (in which the heroine, though an Amboyner, is emphatically aristocratic, and hence superior to the boorish Dutch), resurfaces in the casual bonding of the North European rivals over a Spanish woman [sic] whose “easy virtue” they read as a function of her tainted blood.  (159)
  13. The issue of how to assess Julia’s value (as a representative of the colonies) in the play is indicative, perhaps, of European ambivalence toward colonial Others–simultaneous desire for and contempt for colonial persons and spaces is commonplace in texts of the period. England’s expansion into “exotic or savage” cultures for profit carried with it the threat of colonists’ degeneration.[8] My point is that the character of Julia and her contested status is anything but clear cut along propagandistic, pro-colonial lines and this suggests that Dryden was at least conflicted about such lines. At the very least, Amboyna “qualifies [. . .]as an attempt to register the costs and imagine the responsibities of a trade empire” (Hoxby 190).

  14. More evidence of such conflict on the playwright’s part may be found in relation to the genuine representative of Spain–Perez–whose portrayal by Dryden is relatively flattering.  True, Perez agrees to assassinate Towerson, and his “moral reformation” upon learning of the Englishman’s intended reward might thus be seen as  “a function of his sudden wealth” (Markley 14), but this is too simple. Perez, though attempting to convince himself that his “revenge” is “noble” (3.27), honorable (2.1.205), and fair (208), admits to himself that it is “Satan[ic]” before discovering Towerson’s intentions and readily repents.  He says of himself:
    [. . .] hadst thou done it, thou hadst been worse then damn’d; Heav’n took more care of me, then I of him, to expose this paper to my timely view.  Sleep on thou Honourable Englishman, I’ll sooner now, pierce my own breast then thine [. . . .] (3.2.4-7)
    He then returns the blood money, and the Fiscal says Perez “had too much of honesty” for the murder (3.2.45).  To list of positives this may be added Perez’s intervention in the Fiscal-Harman Jr. attempt to kill Towerson, and his heroic farewell to his English “partners” in death, already cited.

  15. Political readings of  the Julia-Fiscal-Beamont-Perez plot are also complicated by the issue of how we are to value its English representative. In demonstrating Dryden’s vilification of the Dutch, Orr misattributes a line cited above--exposing the sexual/colonial possession trope (“Y’ave the Indies in your arms”)–to the Dutch villain Harman Junior, when it is in fact spoken by  the English “hero” Beamont.   In that exchange, the Dutch Fiscal voices the principles of “an idealized mercantile vision of an unencumbered ‘Traffick’”(Raman 204) in stores of inexhaustible bounty, while the Englishman seems anxious to secure his share in a limited supply.  It seems to me that this suggests Dryden’s reservations about the legitimacy of valorizing one nation’s mercantile aspirations while demonizing another’s.  And there are other ways in which the characterization of Beamont is not unilaterally flattering to English identity or ambitions.   Beamont apparently is drunk at the wedding celebration, which accounts for his fomenting bad blood on that occasion; and his besottedness, Julia believes, makes him incapable of sexual possession (4.2.35).  Dearing argues that Beamont’s drunkenness may have been suggested by that of Abel Price (301.n.27-35).  Price was “a drunken debauched sot,” according to Digges’ Answer to the Dutch Pamphlet, an English surgeon who drank and gambled with the Japanese and “other Blacks” and threatened to burn down a Dutch home, poisoning relations between the English and the Dutch.  Markley claims that “Price is absent from Dryden’s tragedy [. . .] because he threatens to complicate the play’s binary logic of demonizing the other as a strategy of self-definition [. . . .] The construction of national identity in Dryden’s play [. . .] thus discloses itself as an act of idealization designed to banish [. . .] the Abel Prices of the world [. . . .]” (10).  However, insofar as Beamont is, at the very least, unimpressive in relation to the low plot, his characterization suggests that Dryden’s project is not so unilaterally “an act of idealization” of the English—not simply “a stoic hero in the tradition of Hercules” (Hoxby 186).  The “low” plot does not unproblematically heroicize colonialism or the English role in it; a critical attitude toward the colonial project may be fostered in the play not despite Dryden’s (unsuccessful) attempts to whitewash it, but because of Dryden’s own ambivalence toward it.

  16. By contrast to his character in the low plot, however, Beamont’s behavior in the high plot appears so different as to be nearly schizophrenic, and Dryden’s handling of this plot–the Ysabinda-Towerson-Harman triangle and the “massacre” itself–seems to aim at entirely different effects.  Let me now turn, then, to examine these sections of the play.


  17. Raman identifies a “buried tension” in the high plot: “Gabriel Towerson, who bears the burden of English honor and the English colonial cause, is as much a merchant as any of the Dutch against whom he contends” (218); Towerson is thus “inappropriate for heroic representation” (Orr 157).[9]   Canfield notes that Towerson “was at best a ship’s purser” (111). Yet, Markley argues,  in order to portray a “manichean politics of Dutch vice and English virtue,”  to stage the essential clash between “gentlemanly virtue and lower-class money-grubbing,” Dryden “conflates the values of absolute honor and mercantile compromise in the person of a hero dedicated to the gentlemanly extension of English power.  This hybrid, the heroic merchant, both constitutes and is constituted by the discourse of nationalism” (10-11).

  18. Looked at this way, Beamont would be essential to Dryden’s project of elevating Towerson.  In the high plot, and according to convention, Beamont becomes the hero’s friend and panegyricist–Dollabella to Towerson’s Antony, Cleanthes to Towerson’s Cleomenes.  We first hear of Towerson from Beamont–in quite a different rhetoric than that Beamont is given in the Julia-Fiscal scenes:
    Were I to chuse of all mankind, a Man, on whom I would relie for Faith and Counsel, or more, whose personal aid I wou’d invite, in any worthy cause to second me, it shou’d be only Gabriel Towerson; daring he is, and thereto fortunate: yet soft and apt to pitty the distress’d; and liberal to relieve ‘em: I have seen him not alone to pardon Foes, but by his bounty win ‘em to his love: if he has any fault, ‘tis only that to which great minds can only subject be, he thinks all honest, ‘cause himself is so , and therefore none suspects. (1.1.129-134)
    Beamont is also available to support the testimony of the abused Englishwoman, to protest Towerson’s innocence from the charge of murdering Harman, to suffer torture stoicially (until he begs to die at the very end [370-73]), and, upon being freed, to hear Towerson’s heroic leave-taking: “A long and last farewel; I take my death with the more chearfulness because thou livst behind me [. . . .] Last, there’s my heart, I give it in this kiss–[Kisses him.] Do not answer me; Friendship’s a tender thing, and it would ill become me now to weep” (5.1.396-406). Beamont, then, is a hinge that links the low to the high plot, and his drastic inconsistency may be an index of the deeply ambivalent stance Dryden takes toward his material. 

  19. To elaborate, let me return to the “woman as land” trope, here in relation to Ysabinda.  In relation  to the “high” love plot, Raman explains:
    [. . .] the “Indian woman” becomes a site of a direct struggle between the two European powers who have taken over the mantle once worn by Spain/Portugal.  The struggle between Towerson and Harman for Ysabinda aims, first, to make explicit the qualitative difference between their respective desires, and, second, to establish the ethical superiority of the English position. (212)
    Raman cites the East India Company’s claims that the natives of two Moluccan islands had surrendered their lands to England “entirely [by] their own motion” and outlines the process’ three principal components: “first, the [temporal] priority of England’s colonial rights; second, the voluntary surrender on the parts of the natives; and finally, symbolic confirmation [. . .].” All three are satisfied in regard to Towerson’s contract with Ysabinda, which was established three years before, has included Ysabinda’s voluntary conversion to Christianity, and is confirmed by their marriage ceremony (212-213). 

  20. The analogy of woman and land is made explicit in readings of lines like those in which the Dutch Harman Junior rationalizes his rape:
    You are a Woman; have enough of Love for him [Towerson] and me; I know the plenteous Harvest all is his: he has so much of joy, that he must labor under it.  In charity you may allow some gleanings to a Friend. (4.3.31-34)
    But several commentators have argued that–despite Dryden’s intentions--such lines rebound upon the English colonizer hero as well as the Dutch villain.  Canfield feels that Harman’s speech “sounds eerily like Towerson’s rationale for shared trade” (112):
    [. . .] what mean these endless jars of Trading Nations? ‘tis true, the World was never large enough for Avarice or Ambition; but those who can be please’d with moderate gain, may have the ends of Nature, not to want: nay, even its Luxuries may be supply’d from her o’erflowing bounties in these parts; from whence she yearly sends Spices, and Gums, the food of Heaven in Sacrifice: And besides these, her Gems of richest value, for Ornament, more than necessity. (1.1.220-27)
    Orr adds that Dryden’s hero Towerson tries to
    deny the synecdochical relation Harman Jr. identifies between Ysabinda and the island (“You’ve the Indies in your arms” [2.1.325]) by disclaiming any pecuniary motives for his marriage [. . . .] Nevertheless [. . .] after the rape he reassures Ysabinda that she is still “Paradise,” “still as fragrant as your Eastern Groves” [. . . .] (158)
    Raman elaborates on what he sees as Dryden’s failure to distinguish adequately between Towerson and Harman Jr.–between “England’s legitimate marriage with the (Christianized and assimilated) Eastern other and her brutal rape at the hands of the Dutch colonialist” (230)--by focusing on the epithalamium sung at the wedding, which utilizes the marriage-as-rape trope, and the depiction of Ysabinda’s actual rape by Harmon: “[T]he epithalamium conceals the implicit English rape of the colonized by explicitly assigning it elsewhere” (233).  In short, such arguments suggest that  Dryden tries to construct a “manichean politics of English virtue and Dutch vice” (Markley 9), but his attempts are, at least to modern readers, unsuccessful. 

  21. I have already suggested that, at least in relation to the English Beamont (who calls Julia “the Indies”), an uncomplicated “manichean politics” does not seem to be precisely what Dryden is after, and I would like to adjust readings like those above.  First, as regards the epithalamium, Dearing notes that Dryden based it “On the Latin of Joannes Secundus (Jan Everaerts, a Dutchman), first as appropriate to a celebration provided by Harman [Senior], and second, in its picture of the groom raping the bride, as appropriate to Harman Junior’s character and foreshadowing what he will do” (300 n. 1-24).[10]  Secondly, the impropriety and brutality of the Dutch song is underscored by Beamont, who says “Come let me have The Sea Fight, I like that better than a thousand of your [my emphasis] wanton Epithalamiums” (3.3.27-28).  Towerson worries that the song celebrating an English naval victory will “breed ill blood,” and in fact it does.  Harman Junior grumbles, “See the insolence of these English, they cannot do a brave Action in an Age, but presently they must put it into Meter, to upbraid us with their benefits” (3.3.60-83).  The scene, then, seems intended to underscore the difference between the two nations through these samples of their art.  However, as I have already pointed out, Beamont’s request is a drunken and antagonizing one, and I might add that the difference is only between sexual and martial lustiness, and after all, lust is lust–a truism, by now, of postcolonial studies, and one Dryden seems to have recognized in relation to his low plot.

  22. To pursue what Orr calls “the linkage between love and acquisition, love and location” (158), I would note that in his defense against Harman’s second attempted assault, Towerson claims, “[. . .] this Sword Heaven draws against thee, and here has plac’d me like a fiery Cherub, to guard this Paradice from any second Violation” (4.5.99-101).  Whereas Harman Junior depicts Ysabinda as a “Harvest,” Towerson names her a “Paradice”–an attempt on Dryden’s part, some argue,  to distinguish between the rapacious commercial nature of Dutch colonialism and the (supposedly) pious stewardship of the English.  If that were his strategy–which I question–it would be no great success since depictions of colonized lands and peoples as Edenic, accompanied by admissions of willingness to exploit these “Edens” are common in colonial literature.  One thinks, for instance, of Aphra Behn’s description of the Indians of Surinam in Oroonoko as “like our first Parents before the Fall” (76), and a few paragraphs later, remarking that these same Indians “supply the parts of Hounds” to the English colonizers (78).

  23. More obviously, however, Towerson’s claim is just one instance of Dryden’s characteristic interest in religious matters, an interest that manifests itself in this play in the action surrounding Ysabinda’s rape. 


  24. The  theme of the role of Providence in the fates of individuals and of nations is first announced when Ysabinda greets Towerson after their three year separation: “Now I shall love your God, because I see that he takes care of Lovers [. . .]” (2.1.277-78).  Her reliance on Providence is emphasized in the rape scene, when she calls on assistance from Heaven four times in thirty lines and urges Harman to “tremble at a power above, who sees, and surely will revenge it” (4.3.62-63).  Granting that a possible parallel between the villain and the hero may lurk in this exchange--
    Ysab.  Does thou not fear a Heaven?

    Harm.  No, I hope to find one in you. (4.3.55-56)
    –more forcefully Dryden wishes to call attention to issues of divine justice, when, for instance, Towerson frees Ysabinda:
    Ysab. [Harman] forc’d me to an Act, so base and Brutall, Heaven knows my Innocence:but, Why do I call that to Witness?  Heaven saw, stood silent: Not one flash of Lightning shot from the Conscious Firmament to shew its Justice: Oh had it struck us both, it had sav’d me!

    Towers.  Heaven suffer’d more in that then you, or I: Where-fore have I been faithful to my trust, true to my Love, and tender to th’opprest?  Am I condemn’d to be the second man, who e’er complain’d, he vertue serv’d in vain? (4.5.24-32)
    Of Towerson’s lines, Dearing remarks, “Exactly what Towerson has in mind is not clear; perhaps he feels that God’s reputation has suffered, or perhaps he means that a loving God feels the sorrows of his world even more than it does” and “Apparently ‘the second’ means ‘another’ (OED), though the normal meaning of ‘who e’r’ goes awkwardly with such an interpretation” (307 n. 29-31).  On the points Dearing raises, I am equally puzzled, but more interesting to me in this exchange is Dryden’s clear interest in a higher court of “justice” than those man-made ones, inevitably tainted by extra-legal private agendas, that come into conflict in the play’s denouement, when Towerson insists to the Dutch governor “you have no right to judge me” (5.1.255).  Dearing calls this “a major theme of the play” (308.n.227), one also sounded in 4.1.227, 5.1.56-57, and 5.1.132-33, and adds that the matter of which nation’s law should govern in Amboyna was very much at issue historically, with each side claiming its law should govern (310 n.63-67).  This scene raises that theme to a metaphysical level, as Towerson and Ysabinda debate the intention and judgement of “th’Eternal Mind” (4.5.46). 

  25. Concerning suicide, Dryden’s handling of it throughout his career–in Aureng Zebe (1676), All for Love (1678), Don Sebastian (1690) and Cleomenes (1692), for instance--seems to suggest that his view is the one voiced by Towerson: “Self-homicide, which was in Heathens honour, in us is onely sin” (44-45).  In this play, though,  the Christians finally decide that in their case, too, suicide is “honorable” and no sin.[11]  Ysabinda argues that as God has “given us will to choose, and reason to direct us in our choice [. . .] why should he tie us up from dying, when death’s the greater good” (47-48).  Towerson counters with the “greatest Law” of nature, “to preserve our beings” (52).  Then Dryden has Ysabinda say something rather remarkable:
    I grant, it is its great and general Law: But as Kings, who are, or should be above Laws, dispence with ‘em when levell’d at themselves; Even so may man, without offence to Heaven, dispense with what concerns himself alone [. . . .] (53-56).
    This is noteworthy since Dryden’s habitual position seems to be that the monarchy itself is bound by law and that this principle underlines monarchical right and the rights of those governed.  As he puts it in Absalom and Achitophel,  “Laws are vain, by which we Right enjoy, / If Kings unquestiond can those laws destroy” (763-64).  Just as remarkable is Towerson’s reply.  After weakly suggesting that “Heaven may give [Ysabinda] succour yet,” he points to himself, and Ysabinda dismisses this (“‘Tis too late, you shou’d have come before”).  Towerson then concedes that suicide, even for Christians, is justified:
    You have convinc’d my reason, nor am I asham’d to learn from you.  To Heavens Tribunal my appeal I make; if as a Governor he sets me here, to guard this weak built Cittadel of Life, when ‘tis no longer to be held, I may with honour quit the Fort.  But first I’ll both revenge my self and you. (64-73)
    The term “quit the Fort” calls attention to itself as “the fort” is the site of dispute in Amboyna and since Towerson’s status as a “Publick Person, intrusted by my King and my Employers” (2.1.111-12) was earlier produced by him as justification for refusing to hazard his life in a duel with Harman.  His speech upon being condemned by the Dutch likewise focuses on the obligations incurred by one “set” in a position of national trust:  “give to my brave Employers of the East India Company, the last remembrance of my faithful service; tell ‘em I Seal that Service with my Blood [. . .]” (5.1.399-401).  One might add that Towerson takes leave of Ysabinda “in haste” since “time [. . .] would divide my Love ‘twixt Heaven and you” (5.1.411-13) and that he urges Ysabinda to survive him; she resolves on death not by active means but by starvation.  As with Ysabinda’s speech above, the metaphysical questing has occasioned secular theorizing at odds with Dryden’s apparent positions elsewhere.  It is surely curious that in this play our merchant hero should provide, couched in religious terms, a rationale to “quit the fort.” But religious and political issues (here, especially in relation to trade) are inevitably intertwined in Dryden’s work–in this instance in a way that links the relatively inconsequential Amboyna to three of Dryden’s more famous poems, and to his religious development in the context of Restoration history.


  26. Dryden’s Amboyna, linked to the Third Dutch War, was, on some level, meant to serve as a piece of topical and royalist anti-Dutch propaganda (undercut, I believe, by Dryden’s inability to wholeheartedly prostitute himself); to a lesser extent, so was the more ambitious Annus Mirabilis, The Year of Wonders, 1666 (1667), linked to the Second Dutch War.  Edward Niles Hooker and H. T. Swedenberg, Jr. describe the latter as “a piece of inspired journalism, written to sway public opinion in favor of the royal government, which dreaded a revolution [. . . .] Dryden suggested at every point through the poem that heaven and Providence had favored the King’s party” (258-59).  In  Annus Mirabilis, Dryden suggests a theory of the “mercantile state” which Hooker and Swedenberg sum up thus:
    A healthy state seeks power and wealth; wealth flows in from the expansion of foreign trade; trade is the means of enriching the public treasury, and the nation’s treasury alone has the resources to wage modern war; a strong king is needed to foster and protect trade, and to lead his people in war; and by victory in war the expansion of wealth and power is guaranteed. (257)
    In other words, whether synergy, a vicious cycle, or both, Dryden’s theory of the mercantile state is an extension of his staunch royalism and allegiance to the Stuarts, the same allegiance that likely led him to compose Amboyna.

  27. Securing support for the Third Dutch War was important to Charles II.  In June 1672 Louis XIV’s army had invaded Holland, resisted by Prince William of Orange; also in that month was published a pamphlet revealing the true contents of the secret Treaty of Dover (1670) negotiated between Charles and Louis, which “withdrew England from the Triple Alliance [with Holland and Sweden against France] and was intended to prepare the way for its Catholicization [. . .]” (Dearing 263).  When Amboyna and other attempts to secure support failed, Charles was forced by Parliament, in exchange for financial war supplies, to withdraw the Declaration of Indulgence which he had issued earlier that year and which had suspended all laws previously enforced against Dissenters and Catholics.  Encouraged by success, the Parliamentary majority passed the Test Act, for which Shaftesbury argued, and which led to Clifford’s resignation and, soon after, to his suicide.  As Winn explains, “On Easter Sunday, the day after Parliament recessed, the Duke of York [later James II] failed to take Anglican communion, in effect officially declaring his Catholicism; since he remained the heir apparent, the Anglican interests now victorious in the Parliament had to face the prospect that a Papist would eventually inherit the throne” (241).  It is this prospect, of course, that led to the Exclusion Crisis and to Absalom and Achitophel.

  28. The Test Act is also integral to the occasion of Dryden’s equally famous and longest poem, The Hind and the Panther (1687).  Earl Miner calls that poem, published “more or less under James [II]’s aegis,” a “salvo in the controversy of the day” (327).  James had “vainly expected the Anglican bishops to nullify” the Test Act, and began to seek the support of Dissenters with his own Declaration of Indulgence in 1687; “[t]he question became one of whether the King or the bishops could persuade the Sects that they shared common interests, and on whose side James’s son-in-law, William of Orange, would come down” (327-28).  History tells us, of course, on whose side–Dutch William of Orange became William III of England; and Dryden, Catholic since 1685, lost his public posts, putting him, as Winn believes Dryden was acutely aware, in the position of Clifford fifteen years earlier.  Dryden’s response, in Don Sebastian, Amphitryon, and Cleomenes, was to continue writing plays that radically explore the role of Providence in human history. 

  29. It is interesting, then, that in The Hind and the Panther, Dryden returns to a charge against the Dutch and the English leveled in Amboyna.  In the prologue, and the epilogue of the play, Dryden “specifically refutes the arguments of those reluctant to attack the Dutch on the grounds of a common religion [. . .]” (Winn 316), but he does it by accusing both the Dutch and the English of irreligiousity; he says to his English audiences that the Dutch “have no more Religion, faith–than you [. . .]” (prologue 18).  In the later poem, he says the Dutch “on gain, their onely God, rely: / And set a publick price on piety” (II.569-70), but just as Dryden’s charge in the prologue to Amboyna rebounds upon his own countrymen, so he savages British colonialism in The Hind and the Panther:
    Our sayling ships like common shoars we use,
    And through our distant colonies diffuse
    The draughts of Dungeons, and the stench of stews;
    Whom, when their home-bred honesty is lost,
    We disembogue on some far Indian coast:
    Thieves, Pandars, Palliards, sins of ev’ry sort,
    Those are the manufactures we export;
    And these the Missionaires our zeal has made:
    For, with my country’s pardon be it said,
    Religion is the least of all our trade. (II.558-67)
  30. I have argued that Dryden’s stance toward colonialism in Amboyna is not as unilaterally–if wrongheadedly–pro-English as recent commentators have presented it to be.  I would close with an observation by Canfield that does, I think, come close to representing the effect of the play–with this crucial difference: Canfield sees Amboyna as a “paean to Brittania” and what he regards as a single exceptional moment he believes to be unintentional; I see Dryden’s attitudes as expressed in the entire play as considerably more ambivalent.  Canfield remarks that
    [. . .] sticking out like a sore thumb is Ysabinda’s plea to Towerson after her rape:  “[F]or my sake, fly this detested Isle, where horrid Ills so black and fatal dwell, as Indians cou’d not guess, till Europe taught (IV.v.15-17).  “Europe” includes not only the cruel Spanish and Dutch but the English as well.  A minor note, surely not intended by Dryden to undercut his paean.  Yet it as surely sounds, however diminished, in the ear of the attentive spectator. (113)
    The difference amounts to this: as an “attentive spectator,” I believe that in Amboyna, Dryden once again demonstrates–however intentionally--his characteristic complexity of  mind, here, in relation to the propagandistic purposes he was under pressure to serve.


[1] In his dedication, page 5.  All citations of act, scenes, and lines in Amboyna are taken from Dearing’s edition.  Since Dryden published the work in prose, though he composed some of it in blank verse, I have reproduced Dearing’s line breaks, of both verse and prose, exactly for ease of reference.  Citations of the dedication and to Dearing’s “Commentary” are to page number.

[2] See 5:3.  Scott goes on to say, “I can hardly hesitate to term it the worst production Dryden ever wrote” (3).

[3] In making this argument, I am in agreement with Monica Fludernik’s views in “Noble Savages and Calibans: Dryden and Colonial Discourse.” Though Fludernik remarks on the “nationalistic cant” (273-4) and “political opportunism”(276) of Amboyna–a position I am trying to qualify–she argues that, in addressing colonialism overall throughout his career,  Dryden characteristically “voice[s] his dissent” and “complicate[s] issues even where stereotypes are deployed” (274).

[4] In response to this passage, Dearing defends the playwright against himself, arguing that

[. . .] critics have been too prone to take Dryden at his word.  In fact, the play arouses pity and terror without any dilution or dispersion of its emotional effect.  All its humor is black.  Its semihistorical elements of piracy and wholly imagined elements of infidelity and rape are also intensifying metaphors for the events that actually occurred at Amboyna and that are directly represented.  Dryden displays great sensitivity to physical and mental sufferings and great the power in expressing them.  The man and the poet stand forth in full humanity, and call upon us to give up our indifference to sorrowful events that still take place around us.  (276)

[5] Concerning the dedication and Clifford’s death, Dearing writes: 

[S]uch were his feelings in retirement that he committed suicide in August.  His death came before publication of the play, but Dryden chose to make no reference to it. Another of his patrons, the fourth Earl of Salisbury, who like Dryden became a Catholic in 1685, died before the publication of Love Triumphant, which Dryden dedicated to him, and once again Dryden let the dedication stand. Winn (p. 473) speculates that Dryden was ashamed to withdraw the dedication or had already been paid for it.  The same may be true of Amboyna. (277)

Winn notes that there is somedoubt regarding Evelyn’s “circumstantial account” of the suicide” but insists that “[most] critics, however, have accepted Evelyn’s account” (581 n. 91).  He also remarks that “Fifteen years later, Dryden would face a similar choice; his decision then to remain a Catholic and lose his public posts owed much to the example of Clifford” (241)

[6] Dearing calls Digges’ A True Relation Dryden’s “principal and almost sole source” (265).

[7] "As a Spaniard, Julia is clearly identified with the colonizer, but as a woman, her body–whose current ‘master’ is the Spanish soldier Perez–functions as a metaphor for Iberian colonial possessions in general” (Raman 201).

[8] Orr explains,

England’s expansion into the Caribbean, North America, and the East Indies brought wealth but also a host of constitutional and cultural problems [. . . .] The external threat presented by exotic or savage cultures to English colonies insecure both legally and materially was matched in metropolitan eyes by the colonials’ tendency to degenerate, far from the centres of civility and in dangerous proximity to unbridled savagery. (190)

[9] Orr links this “difficulty” to the play’s structure:

The play’s failure is precisely a function of the difficulty Dryden faced in attempting to dramatize a sordid and brutal story of colonial commercial competition: the actors in the tragedy were merchants, not soldiers, and as such inappropriate for heroic representation.  The formal index of this problem is the play’s tragicomic structure, oscillating between farce and the blank-verse seriousness of the scenes between Captain Towerson, the English East India Company “general” and his Indian Princess, Ysabinda. (157)

[10] I would add that the final two lines of the epithalamium have no parallel in Dryden’s source: “Now out aloud for help she cryes, / And now despairing shuts her Eyes” (3.2.23-24).  These additions may well be intended to underscore the brutality of the “Dutch” song and its Dutch admirers.  See Dearing, 300 n.1-24.

[11] As I have noted above, Clifford’s supposed suicide–coming after the premier of Amboyna but before its publication–may be relevant to Dryden’s handling of the moral justification of self-murder here.  One might also speculate that Dryden was anticipating circumstances like those that would prevail during the Popish Plot hysteria, when suicide might well have seemed tempting to those who faced torture and execution “on the flimsiest of evidence or no evidence at all” (Dearing, “Commentary to Absalom and Achitophel", 216-17)–the very position in which Towerson finds himself.  For Dryden’s personal vulnerability during the period (from 1673), see Winn 315.


Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).