For a play called by its author “scarcely [worth] a serious perusal”
and once deemed by its editors
“beneath criticism” and “utterly worthless” (by Sir Walter Scott and George
Saintsbury, respectively), 
Dryden’s Amboyna, or The Cruelties of the Dutch to the English Merchants:
(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
ambivalence toward unalloyed jingoism and imperialism.
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.
- 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) 
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.
- 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.
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
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).
- 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).
- 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.
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?
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.
- 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.
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) ;
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
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.
Jul. My Husbands Plantation’s like to thrive well betwixt you. (2.1.281-88)
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,
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:
[. . .] 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)
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)
- 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.
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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
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).
- 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.
- 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
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).
- 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.
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.
- 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).
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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?
–more forcefully Dryden wishes to call attention to issues of divine justice,
when, for instance, Towerson frees Ysabinda:
Harm. No, I hope to find one in you. (4.3.55-56)
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!
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).
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)
- 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.
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
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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.
 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.
 See 5:3. Scott goes on to say,
“I can hardly hesitate to term it the worst production Dryden ever wrote”
 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).
 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)
 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)
 Dearing calls Digges’ A True
Relation Dryden’s “principal and almost sole source” (265).
 "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).
 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)
 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)
 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.
 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.
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