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Dutch Ascendancy - The Height of Power

Nathaniel Courthope and the island of Pula Run

Setting an ambush in broad daylight is challenging enough; springing one in the dead of night, on the open sea, is doubly difficult.  Yet that was the mission given a party of Dutch soldiers and sailors in October 1620 off the island of Pula (Pulau) Run.  Still, the Dutch took steps to reduce the risk of failure.  Over 50 soldiers were assigned to the party and the location of the attack was to be in a part of the channel where current and tides would work in their favor.

The target of the assassination was Nathaniel Courthope, the commander of the small English force on Run who had managed to withstand a three-year naval blockade.  The Dutch governor-general at Neira, Jan Coen, saw the death of Courthope as the quickest means of ending the standoff.

If Courthope's defiance was a military setback for the Dutch, it was creating governance problems for Coen.  The native Bandanese did not like Dutch rule and word reached Courthope on October 18, 1620 that Great Banda was in revolt.  Hoping to rally the Bandanese he left on October 20 in a small boat for the island of Lonthor.  A Dutch spy, masquerading as a deserter, managed to send a message to Coen that the English commander was not at Run and Coen put his plan in motion.  Whether the Dutch knew exactly when he was returning, their party put to sea at sunset one evening to wait.

There were twenty-one men crowded unto the prahu for Courthope's return journey to Run.  Perhaps rocks or dangerous eddies made a lantern a necessity, but it alerted the waiting Dutch, who spotted it about two or three in the morning.  Courthope was clearly prepared for some kind of attack.  When the first Dutch boat opened fire, he returned fire.  He kept firing until his gun jammed, then he was hit in the chest by one of the Dutch volleys.  Momentarily he sat down, then leapt or rolled over the side and began swimming.  According to some reports, his body was later recovered by the Dutch, who gave him a state burial.

The Defence of Run

When Nathaniel Courthope had arrived on Run Island in December 1616, the Dutch controlled five of the six Banda islands, the world's only source of nutmeg.  The islands of Ai, Gunung, Api, Neira, Lonthor, and Rozenjin had been subjugated.  Run was the only exception.  Resistance had proved unexpectedly strong on both Run and the neighboring island of Ai.  The Bandanese had not always worked alone.  The English had done their part to impede Dutch territorial expansion, helping the natives with fortress design and construction and training them in the use of muskets and cannon.

The English had established a factory, or trading settlement, on Ai Island in August 1609, in the face of a strong Dutch military presence.  What may have given the English any bargaining leverage was the unpredictable, yet fierce resistance of the Bandanese. In May 1609, the Dutch fleet commander Peter Verhoef, had been invited to a meeting with local headmen on the Neira, who objected to the construction of a fort.  Lured, unarmed, into a grove on the eastern end of the island, forty-two Dutchmen, including Verhoef, were killed, then beheaded. Following the massacre, William Keeting, an English captain, not only defied a demand by Simon Hoen, the Dutch commander, that he leave the islands in five days, but also let him know that there would be a permanent English factory on Ai.

The implied threat of some form of joint Bandanese and English military activity may have helped to maintain an uneasy truce in the islands, despite the dominance of the Dutch.  They at least tolerated an English presence on Ai and Run until 1615.

On May 14, 1615, a Dutch force of nearly 1,000 Dutch and Japanese soldiers landed on Ai.  They found the resistance, relying on English fortifications and Bandanese marksmanship, more difficult to overcome than expected.  By nightfall however, they had captured most of the island, with the exception of a small fort.  With the expectation of capturing it in the morning, they went to sleep.  The Bandanese, early in the morning, launched an attack which caught the Dutch by surprise.  Demoralized, they began to retreat, only to find that they were forced to fight their way back their boats.  Rather than renew the attack, which had cost them thirty-six dead and 200 wounded, they sailed for Neira.  Orders would come from Amsterdam in the following year to take the island, and a new admiral, Jan Dirz Lam, would be assigned to carry out the order.

The Seventeen (Heren XVII), as the seventeen members of the board of directors of the United East India Company (VOC) were known, saw control of Ai and the Banda Islands as important.  However, it may have been conflict between the two ambitious individuals on the scene, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, Dutch governor-general after 1619, and John Jourdain, chief factor of the English East India Company, which would lead to open warfare.

Coen suspected that the English had been involved in the Bandanese resistance, and may have even planned the 1609 massacre of Admiral Verhoef.  Their involvement in the defense of Ai was undisputed.  They had trained the Bandanese in the use of muskets and had designed the fortifications which the Dutch encountered.  Jourdain had been a persistent presence in the Spice Islands after 1613.  While he did not enter Dutch waters with a war fleet, at least in his early ventures, he was continually sending ships into Dutch trading territories and, short of war, was willing to confront and provoke.  He had few qualms about exploiting native opposition to Dutch rule. Coen, for his part, was as determined as Jourdain, when it came to stopping English encroachment on Dutch trading privileges.  He routinely ignored instructions to stop attacks on English shipping.

Both Jourdain and Coen found encouragement from their respective headquarters.  While the Seventeen may have worried about war with England over Dutch actions in the Indies, they were willing to overlook Coen's faults for one reason.  So long as he was managing operations, Dutch ships were returning fully loaded with spices.

The failure of the Dutch at Ai may have reinforced Jourdain's dreams of an English takeover of the spice trade, for it revealed them as militarily vulnerable.  With all the advantages of a modern European power, they had been beaten by a native force half their size.  By January 1616, Jourdain had assembled a fleet of five ships at Bantam.  He instructed them to sail to the Banda Islands.  When the fleet arrived off Ai they began fortifying both Ai and Run.

Despite their audacity, the five ships seemed hardly a match for the twelve Dutch ships and 1,000 soldiers newly arrived from the Netherlands, augmented by a second fleet.  The Dutch found that the English ships were in a position to block their entry into the channel.

The new admiral, Jan Lam, probably had sufficient firepower to force the issue, but was saved the effort.  The English commander, Samuel Castleton, essentially offered to betray Ai, as repayment of a favor Lam had done him several years before.  Lam had attacked two Portuguese ships off St. Helena, at the behest of Castleton, in order to save the English crew which had been left behind on the island.  The attack had cost Lam one of his ships.  That, at least, was the excuse offered for Castleton's actions. Castleton, in return for withdrawing his fleet and providing intelligence about Ai's defenses, would be allowed trading rights with the island, once captured.  Richard Hunt, the English factor on Ai, was left on the island with instructions from Castleton not to participate in the battle.  The English fleet sailed away.

With the departure of the English vessels, the tribal elders panicked and made a formal surrender of both Ai and Run to Hunt and the English Crown.  The new Dutch invasion force, slowed again by the stubbornness of the resistance and a heavy rainstorm, took three days to subjugate Ai.  Most of the Bandanese escaped to Run Island, along with Richard Hunt, who ultimately found passage to Bantam, where he delivered the Bandanese surrender document to John Jourdain.

Having captured Ai, their main objective. the Dutch were content to blockade Run, in hopes of starving the defenders into surrender.  Since it lacked water reserves and grew little food of its own, the prospects of success were high.  In addition, it posed no strategic threat to their position on the other Banda islands.  At 700 acres in size, it was a puny piece of geography.  The nutmeg trees, which took up much of the island's soil, represented a fortune, but only if they could reach markets in Europe or Asia.

For John Jourdain, an insignificant 700-acre island was all he needed to maintain a foothold in the spice trade.  So, in October 1616, he appointed Nathaniel Courthope commander of two ships, the 'Swan' and 'Defence,' and ordered him to sail to Run.  He arrived there on December 23 and soon achieved his first objective, a re-affirmation of the surrender agreement with Richard Hunt.  Eleven of the orang-kayas, or headmen, signed a new treaty aboard the Swan, acknowledging their allegiance to the Crown.

Courthope's second objective was to ready the island for an expected Dutch attack. He could partially rely on the island's natural defenses, a line of cliffs on her southern coastline overlooking a low-lying reef.  On the eastern atoll of Nailika however, he constructed Fort Defence, with a battery of three cannon.  On the western side of the island he built Fort Swan, with three more cannon.  Plans to move additional cannon ashore were frustrated when the 'Swan' was captured returning with provisions and renegade crew members sailed off with the 'Defence.' Augmenting the heavy armament were the Bandanese warriors, recently trained as musketeers. The Dutch discovered the effectiveness of the island's defences when they tried to land an invasion force on the island following their capture of the 'Solomon,' an English relief ship which arrived in 1618.  The Bandanese defeated the invaders.

A strategic withdrawal from Jakarta

Notwithstanding an occasional military success, the blockade was having an effect on the defenders, forced to survive on rice, fish and a porridge made from the sago plant. The Dutch found themselves at a distinctive disadvantage however when a large English fleet reached Jakarta in December 1618. At the time Coen was constructing a fortress, in anticipation of moving his headquarters there from Bantam.  He had only seven ships and seventy men available.  The English had eleven, with another four assigned to watch Bantam.

The English commander, Sir Thomas Dale, seemed reluctant to fight, hoping instead to intimidate Coen into surrendering.  On January 2, 1619 the fleets fought.  Coen withdrew the next day and sailed toward Ambon, where the main Dutch fleet was anchored.  Dale probably could have destroyed the Dutch ships, but chose to attack the fort at Jakarta.  The attack was unsuccessful and the English fleet resorted to a blockade.  When it proved ineffective after several months, Dale ordered his fleet to sail for India. He would die a month after arriving at Masulipatam, on the Coromandel Coast of India, on July 19, 1619.

If Dale's fleet had failed to take Jakarta, destroy Coen's warships, or relieve Courthope on Run, the English nevertheless seemed to have adopted an attitude of complacency, almost overconfidence.  From their perspective the undeclared war was over and any danger was past. (Unbeknownst to them at the time, a peace agreement had been signed in Europe in July 1619, ending hostilities between the warring companies.  Word would not reach the region until the spring of 1620.) For Coen, the naval battle at Jakarta required refitting and a tactical rethinking, but it did not signal the end of the fighting.  Dutch ships began patrolling, not singly, but in packs.

On July 17, 1619 three Dutch ships attacked two English vessels at anchor in a harbor on the Malay Peninsula.  One of the ships raised a flag of truce, after a fierce action, to surrender.  When the commander showed himself, a Dutch marksman killed him with a shot to the chest. The dead man was John Jourdain. Although it was considered a serious violation of the code of conduct, Coen was said to have personally ordered the attack. Coen, at any rate, presented the Dutch captain, Hendrike Jansen, with a gold chain worth 1,400 guilders and gave the shooter 100 reals.  Dutch patrols captured the English 'Star,' in August when it was sailing the Straits of Sunda.  In October another patrol captured four English ships, the 'Red Dragon,' the 'Bear,' the 'Expedition,' and the 'Rose,'  in the Sumatran port of Tecu, as they were loading pepper.

By the time Coen organized an invasion force to finally subdue the Banda Islands in 1621, the English could only come up with three vessels to accompany the expedition.  (The fighting companies were required to join forces under the Anglo-Dutch treaty signed in July of 1619.)  The Dutch had thirteen large ships, some smaller reconnaissance craft, and almost forty junks and barges.  The landing force had been increased to 1,600 Europeans, 250 additional men from the Banda garrison, 300 Japanese convicts from Jakarta, and 100 Japanese mercenaries.

On March 11th the force landed on Lonthor and by March 12th had gained total control.  They had only lost six dead and twenty-seven wounded.  When they began constructing Fort Hollandia on the island, guerilla attacks resulted in an additional nine dead and twenty-five wounded.

The depopulation of the Banda Islands

Whatever his losses, Coen had no intention of retreating.  His solution to the continuing threat of a native revolt was to deport, execute, or starve the Bandanese.  One estimate of the eventual impact of his efforts, at the time, was that the original population of 15,000 had been reduced to 1,000.  Coen's own calculation was that 2,500 had died, either from starvation or in military action, while only 300 had escaped.

The pretext for the actions by the Dutch was a violation of the peace agreement signed by the orang kaya when they surrendered Lonthor.  For his purposes, he needed a flagrant violation, although the actions of his troops were provocatively aimed at goading the islanders into providing him with one.  The troops were ordered to destroy unprotected villages and force the inhabitants into work parties.

Coen established a headquarters at one of the villages on Lonthor.  The Dutch commander, a 't Sionck, used the village meeting pavilion as a command post and billeted troops in the mosque, defiling both places, in the eyes of the villagers.  Troops, who took to looting on their patrols, were also billeted in the best native dwellings.  The boats and houses of those who refused to work harvesting the now-rotting nutmeg fruit were burned, along with the looted local treasures.

On April 21, 1621, 't Sionck was sleeping in the mosque when a hanging lamp came crashing to the floor.  Whether it fell on its own or was some sort of signal, the Dutch suspected an ambush.  They tortured a child into confessing that the falling lamb was to be the signal for an attack.  The headmen were then arrested and tortured until they confessed to a conspiracy.  Coen finally had the justification needed to implement his plan.

Military patrols systematically moved through the islands, burning villages and taking the inhabitants prisoner.  As quickly as they could be rounded up, they were transported off the islands to Batavia (the newly re-named Jakarta), where those who survived the voyage were sold into slavery.  The first group transported numbered 883 men, women, and children.  Many who refused to surrender escaped by boat, killed themselves by jumping off Lonthor's cliffs, or starved to death in the bush. Forty-five of the headmen, among those deported, would later be executed for a conspiracy supposedly entered into at Batavia.

On the islands, Coen ordered another series of arrests.  Those arrested were tortured aboard the 'Dragon,' Coen's flagship, and confessed to the supposed massacre plot of April 21st. On May 8th, forty-four men, among them eight orang kaya, were taken to an enclosure within Fort Nassau. A death sentence was read and six Japanese samurai swordsmen then beheaded and quartered them.  Their relatives, assembled as witnesses, were forced to watch. Coen was later officially rebuked by the Seventeen for the execution, although that did not prevent them from awarding him three thousand guilders for subjugating the islands.

Soon after, the Dutch sent a force of twenty-five ships and 500 soldiers to Run.  Fort Swan was dismantled and the Bandanese there deported.  The English were allowed to remain on the small atoll of Nailaka, where Fort Defence had been constructed, but unable to trade, abandoned the island after a few years.

In 1623 Coen was replaced as governor-general by Pieter de Carpentier.  He would return in 1627 and serve again as governor-general until 1629. In his absence, the Dutch uncovered another conspiracy, this time at Ambon.  In February 1623, a Japanese mercenary was arrested after questioning one of the night sentries about Dutch defenses.  He confessed to a conspiracy with the English.  The fifteen English factors residing there were then arrested and tortured, until they confessed to involvement.  They were then executed.  The incident became known as the Amboyna (Ambon) Massacre.  While it outraged the English, and led to talk of war, the war never materialized. Coen himself would die in 1630 in Batavia.  He was forty-two.

With the conquest of the Banda Islands, the Dutch had secured their hold on the spice trade. English mistakes, combined with luck and Dutch perseverance, had given them the victory.  If the English had been the immediate enemy in the recent contest, both nations were battling to inherit the spice realm from the Portuguese.

In January 1641, Malacca, the Malay city captured by Albuquerque in 1511, was attacked by the Dutch, who had enlisted the support of Johore, the kingdom on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula.  The city would fall in June 1641 after heavy fighting.

Sri Lanka and India

In July 1601 two Dutch ships commanded by Joris van Spilbergen had stopped at Sri Lanka and been entertained by the Sinhalese ruler Wimala Dharma Suriya, who was seeking Dutch support against the Portuguese.  A year-and-a-half later, in November 1602, a second Dutch commander, Sebald de Weert, called at the port of Batticaloa.  He was also entertained by the Sinhalese king, at the highland city of Senkadagala.  The king was willing to provide over 20,000 pounds of cinnamon a year in return for Dutch help. The promising alliance was destroyed several months later by de Weert's actions.  Returning from Sumatra, he was refused a request to slaughter some sacred cows to feed his men. He then had his soldiers kill the animals anyway.  It was a sacrilege which could not be easily overlooked.  Invited to a banquet, de Weert became drunk and got into an argument with the king. The Sinhalese then draw their swords and killed all the Dutch attending the banquet.  Another 300 Sinhalese attacked a shore party.  In all, forty-seven Dutch were killed.

Raja Sinha II came to power at Kandy in 1628.  In 1636, he desperately wanted help against the Portuguese, and putting the events of 1603 behind, began negotiations with the Dutch for a military alliance.  They offered military assistance, with the proviso that they would be reimbursed for any costs they incurred.  In addition, the Dutch were granted a monopoly on major trading goods.

The Dutch began military operations with attacks on the eastern port cities of Trincomalee and Batticaloa in 1639.  Trincomalee surrendered to Antonio Caen without a struggle.  Following their capture they were turned over to Kandy.  In 1640 Negombo, on the western side of the island, fell, but only after fierce fighting.  It would be recaptured by the Portuguese the same year, and would hold out against the Dutch until 1643.  Galle, the western port city which Lourenço de Almeida had first visited in 1505, was well fortified, but was defended by a small garrison and was short of ammunition.  On March 9, 1640, the Dutch were able to land a force of 700 soldiers along the shore below.  Colombo sent a relief force under Captain-Major Francisco de Mendonca.  After he was killed the Dutch made an assault which captured the fort on March 13th.  Both sides agreed to a truce in 1645. The Dutch, despite their agreement with Raja Sinha, kept Negombo and Galle, claiming that Kandy had not reimbursed them for military expenditures.

The truce broke down in 1652. A retired Portuguese general, Gaspar Figueria de Sepa, returned to command and successfully resisted the Dutch.  In October 1655, he was killed, and his army defeated at the battle of Kalutara.  The remnants of the army retreated to Colombo, the Portuguese fort built in 1554, which was defended by a garrison of only 600 European and 200 native troops. Despite an artillery bombardment which destroyed the outer walls, the Dutch lost one ship and 300 dead in their first assault  A Dutch blockade prevented Goa from relieving the city. The defenders would hold out until May 10, 1656, when they surrendered. When the fortress was evacuated on May 12th, only seventy-three of the Portuguese soldiers had survived.  The Tamil kingdom of Jaffna, in the north, would fall in 1658.

Following the conquest of Sri Lanka, the Dutch, under the command of Rijklof van Goens, began a campaign against Portuguese holdings in India.  Tuticorin, on the southern tip of India, fell in 1658. Negapatnam, on the Coromandel Coast, fell in 1660.  Cannanore, on the Malabar Coast, fell in 1662, followed by Cranganoree and Cochin in 1663.

Cornelis Speelman would conquer Macassar, on the island of Celebes, in 1667.  The sultanate of Bantam, on Java, would be annexed in 1682, the last of their string of expansionist conquests.  They would capture Pondicherry, the French settlement on the Coromandel Coast in 1693, but would lose it in 1699.

Suggestions for further reading.

Daniel Boorstin, "The Discovers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself," Random House, (New York, NY 1983).

Charles Corn, "The Scents of Eden: A Narrative of the Spice Trade," Kodansha America, Inc., (New York, NY 1998).

"The Encyclopedia Americana, International Edition," Grolier, (Danbury, CT 2002).

Richard Humble, "The Seafarers: The Explorers," Time-Life Books, Inc. (Alexandria, VA 1978).

Jonathan I. Israel, "The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477-1806," Clarendon Press, (Oxford 1995).

Jonathan I. Israel, "The Emerging Empire: The Continental Perspective, 1650-1713" from "The Oxford History of the British Empire, (Volume I): The Origins of Empire: British Overseas Enterprise to the Close of the Seventeenth Century," Nicholas Canny, ed., Oxford University Press, (Oxford 1998).

John Keay, "The Honourable Company: A History of the English East India Company," Macmillan Publishing Company, (New York, NY 1991).

Angus Konstam, "Historical Atlas of Exploration: 1492-1600," Checkmark Books, (New York, 2000)

David S. Landes, "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some Are So Poor," W. W. Norton & Company, (New York, NY 1999).

Giles Milton, "Nathaniel's Nutmeg or, The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History," Farrar, Straus and  Giroux, (New York, NY 1999).

William Napier, "The Marshall Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of Discovery and Exploration. Volume 5: "Lands of Spice and Treasure," Marshall Cavendish, Ltd. (New York, NY 1990).

Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, eds., "Sri Lanka: A Country Study," Library of Congress (Washington, DC 1990).

Thomas Suárez, "Early Mapping of Southeast Asia," Periplus Editions Ltd., (Hong Kong 1999).

Antony Wild, "The East India Company: Trade and Conquest from 1600," The Lyons Press, (New York, NY 2000).