Trials exert a powerful hold over our imagination. Major cases generate huge amounts of attention while past trials have become the focus of forensic investigation, drawing huge numbers of viewers interested in working through mounds of evidence in search of an answer. This was perhaps most clearly visible in the remarkable public reaction to the Serial podcast which explored the intricacies of a 2000 Baltimore trial.
Trials fascinate us because the individual stakes are so high and because the answer as to guilt and innocence seems available if we spend enough time weighing up the evidence. But equally important, trials tell us something not only about the participants involved in one particular case but also about society at that time. Court cases provide a window into life at a particular moment in history and for this reason they can be used as a basis for teaching.
This site represents a Collaboration between Dr. Adam Clulow at the University of Texas at Austin and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. The goal was to build a website capable of taking high school and university students into the heart of a famous and still controversial seventeenth century conspiracy trial. The site went live in 2016 and has since been visited by thousands of students across the world. Although largely complete, it is being continually added to and updated in response to feedback. If you have any comments or suggestions on the site or if you have used or plan to use it in class, please let us know using the Contact link at the bottom of the page. We are always delighted to hear back from teachers and can suggest additional sources and lesson plans.
Guide for Teachers
The site has been used successfully in high school and university classes across the world.
We suggest using the site as a way to introduce students to the early modern period and what has been called the first age of globalization. One good way to start is by asking students if a case like this, involving Dutch, English and Japanese participants on a remote island in Southeast Asia, would have been possible in an an earlier period. If not, what had changed by 1623 when the case broke out? Some questions to start discussion with include:
- Why were the Companies in Asia? What were they looking for? What drove the lust for spices? What were they prepared to do to get hold of this commodity?
- How did Japanese mercenaries end up on a remote island in Southeast Asia? Why do they think Japanese recruits signed up to fight on behalf of the Dutch East India Company? What does this tell us about Japan in this period?
- Why has this been called the first age of globalization? How does this look like the world today?
The heart of the site is the trial engine. When introducing the case to students, we find it important to emphasize that the trial remains controversial today and that we simply do not know what happened on this remote island in 1623. Historians have been debating the case for close to four hundred years but an answer has so far eluded us. This site is intended for educational purposes but also to harness the power of the crowd to develop new approaches that take us closer to solving the case. In the years since it went live, questions and feedback from students has already generated new angles for us to explore and changed our interpretation of the case.
In our experience and as can be seen in the video below, students split when it comes to the case. A majority of students seem to come down on the side of the defense, that there was no plot, but in every class we have trialed the site in a significant fraction of students sided with the prosecution. Discussion can become heated especially over questions of waterboarding and torture. Throughout this, it is important for students to keep in mind both the law regarding torture in this period but also the fragile nature of the European presence in Asia. The Amboyna trial was in many ways the product of European weakness and the following questions can be used to prompt discussion: How powerful were Europeans really in Asia? How does this look different from a later age of imperialism in which Europeans were able to dictate terms?
Mock Trial Exercise
We have found the greatest success in staging a mock trial exercise centered on the Amboyna case in which two sides, the Prosecution and the Defense face off against each other. For this exercise, we assign individual roles to each of the students: three were judges, two were witnesses for the Prosecution, two were witnesses for the Defense, three were barristers for the Prosecution, three were barristers for the Defense and the remaining students were assigned as Researchers to the two sides. The roles, allocations and responsibilities were as follows:
Attorney/Barrister - 3 for prosecution, 3 for defense. Responsibilities: Prepare a briefing on key exhibits, Interview witnesses during pre-trial preparation, Opening statements, Examination and cross-examination of witnesses, Closing statements
Researcher - 3 for prosecution, 3 for defense. Responsibilities: Review and analyze evidence, Prepare briefing papers for Barristers, Develop overall strategy, Provide additional evidence and suggestions through the trial via notes
Witness - 2 for prosecution 2 for defense. Responsibilities: Research a specific historical character, Work with either the Prosecution or Defense, Deliver testimony before the court and undergo questioningJudge - 3-4 total. Responsibilities: Prepare for the trial, develop familiarity with the legal system of the period, Keep order in the court, oversee barristers, Ask questions of barristers and witnesses, Deliver a verdict, Prepare a written justification
The mock trial exercise runs across three weeks. The trial itself was divided into five stages: Opening Statements, Witnesses for the Prosecution, Witnesses for the Defense, Closing Statement and Verdict. When the trial concluded, the Judges prepared a written statement explaining their verdict.
The Amboyna conspiracy trial produced powerful images of torture which are featured throughout this site. Students should realize that these are not first hand drawings of what happened. Rather these were pieces of propaganda produced on the English side as part of a wider effort to discredit the Dutch. The first images of torture were produced in 1624 one year after the case but some of the other images featured such as object no. RP-P-OB-68.279, cat. no. FMH 2328-7 were produced many decades after the case. They are useful therefore to draw students into the case but we should not assume they are objective representations of what happened. For more on some of these images see Anthony Milton's article below
If you wish to learn more about the companies, the trial and how it has been assessed by scholars, take a look at the following:
This site is intended as a companion to Amboina, 1623: Conspiracy and Fear on the Edge of Empire, Adam Clulow's recent monograph focused on the Amboina case. It can be ordered here
For an excellent new book on the Amboyna case by a leading scholar, Alison Games, see here.
For a good introduction to the Dutch East India Company and its organization by a leading scholar see here.
For a superb collection of resources related to the Dutch East India Company see here.
To search the archives of the Dutch East India Company click here.
For an invaluable gateway to Dutch legal resources see here.
For a superb collection of maps, drawing and other images related to the Dutch East India Company see here.
W. Ph. Coolhaas, “Notes and Comments on the so-called Amboina,” in M.A.P. Meilink-Roelofsz, M.E. van opstall, and G.J. Schutte, eds. Dutch Authors on Asian History: A Selection of Dutch Historiography on the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (Dordrecht: Foris, 1988), 198-240
Perhaps the best article ever written on the case by one of the giants of Dutch empire scholarship. Concludes that there was a plot but is critical of the way the case was handled.
Anthony Milton, ‘Marketing a Massacre: Amboyna, the East India Company and the Public Sphere in Early Stuart England’, in Steve Pincus and Peter Lake (eds), The Politics of the Public Sphere in Early Modern England (Manchester/New York, NY: Manchester University Press, 2007), 168–90.
A brilliant examination of how the English East India Company attempted to mobilize public and elite opinion around the case.
Alison Games, "Violence on the Fringes: The Virginia (1622) and Amboyna (1623) Massacres," History 99.336 (2014), 505-529
A superb examination of two connected 'massacres' in the Americas and Asia.
Martine Van Ittersum, Profit and principle: Hugo Grotius, natural rights theories and the rise of Dutch power in the East Indies, 1595-1615 (Leiden: Brill, 2006)
The definitive account of Hugo Grotius and his involvement in the Company's project to control the spice trade.
Giles Milton, Nathaniel’s Nutmeg (Hodder & Stoughton, 1999)
A popular account detailing the English push into Asia.
Marijke van de Vrugt, De criminele ordonnantie van 1570 (Zutphen 1978)
An excellent examination of the criminal ordinance of 1570, which provided (at least in theory) the basis for the use of torture.