400th anniversary of the Banda Massacre Part II: The role of Jan Pieterszoon Coen and the VOC

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Petrus Plancius map of the Spice Islands of 1592. Van Neck brought the first expedition to Indonesia following written directions from Placius. Photo credit: Plancius/Claesz., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

IO – Many Indonesians are not aware that the Dutch were colonized once too. They were ruled by the Spanish branch of the Habsburgs from 1556 to 1714. However, after the Spanish executed the Counts of Egmont and Horne for rebellion in 1568, the Dutch rose in revolt against the Spanish and the Eighty Years War (1568-1648) began in Europe. This was to have an indirect effect upon Indonesia, in particular the Banda Islands.

From 1580 till 1640 Portugal and Spain were united as one kingdom. So, to punish the Dutch for their rebellion, in 1598 Dutch merchants were forbidden from obtaining spices from the East through Lisbon. Consequently, the Dutch merchants who were the middlemen in the spice trade in Europe began looking for a way of sailing directly to the East, themselves. By then several Dutchmen in the service of the Portuguese, the most famous being Jan Huighen van Linschoten had secretly already brought back information about the route to the Indian Ocean regions. The first Dutch fleet sailed to what is now Indonesia in 1595.

It was however, the second Dutch expedition to Indonesia under Jacob Corneliszoon van Neck that first reached the Banda Islands. He followed written directions provided by the Dutch cartographer, Petrus Plancius. At first glance, it would seem a poor choice as Van Neck was not a skilled navigator. However, he came from a very good family, was well-educated and had a merchant’s background which was perhaps more important as the purpose of the expedition was to obtain a direct foothold in the spice trade. As a merchant, he would have had the enthusiasm needed to embark on such a dangerous expedition. So, he was given extra lessons in navigation and equipped with several men who did have the navigational experience needed namely, the famous north pole explorer, Jacob van Heemskerk and Vice-Admiral Wybrand van Warwyck.

The mapmaker and artist, Johannes Vingboons (1616–1670)’s bird’s eye view of Neira with Fort Nassau. Fort Belgica was only built after Coen’s expedition of conquest. Photo credit: Johannes Vingboons, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Their expedition reached Indonesia in November 1598. It was not sent by the VOC but by what was known as a voorcompagnie. These were the 12 smaller trading companies that existed before the creation of the VOC which sailed to trade in Asia, as of 1594. They later joined together in 1602 to form the United East India Company or Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (usually abbreviated to VOC) which was given a monopoly of Dutch trade and navigation east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Straits of Magellan. This included the right to build forts and to wage war.

Van Neck was not on the voyage to Banda as he returned earlier to the Netherlands after reaching Banten and loading 4 of his ships with spices. In 1599, the first Dutch ship arrived in Banda under the command of Vice Admiral Jacob van Heemskerk with the remaining 4 ships of the second Dutch expedition and 200 men.

It was the VOC policy to try to establish a monopoly on Banda nutmeg. Numerous VOC ships arrived in Banda through the coming years and the VOC commanders entered into various agreements with the Bandanese chieftains whereby they were pressured to grant the Dutch exclusive rights to the purchase of nutmeg. The Bandanese were very unhappy with these contracts as they held that the Dutch did not have the right to force them to sell their nutmeg exclusively to the VOC. Centuries before the arrival of the Dutch, Banda nutmeg had not only been a part of inter-island trade but also of Asian trade. When the Portuguese and Spanish arrived in the early sixteenth century, they did not disturb the Bandanese nutmeg trade either with the rest of the Archipelago, or with Asian traders. Myristica fragrans only grew and was traded in the Banda Islands, so in effect the Bandanese held a monopoly on it and they deeply resented VOC efforts to take over that monopoly.

Engraving of Fort Nassau and Fort Belgica (not yet built during Coen’s conquest) in 1655. Photo credit: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?Curid =798763

The Bandanese were not only dissatisfied with the price the VOC set for nutmeg but also that the VOC forbade any other traders from trading with them in the very lucrative nutmeg trade, despite being themselves unable to provide sufficient amounts of the merchandize that the Bandanese sought and needed, such as food and textiles. Those that the VOC did supply were also frequently of poor quality and more expensive than those brought by traders from Java, India or China.

This was made clear in 1609 when Admiral Pieter Willemszoon Verhoeff arrived in Banda with 14 ships and instructions from the VOC to win the islands for the VOC ‘either by treaty or by force’. The Admiral came with a force of a thousand soldiers. He informed the orang kaya that he wished to build a fort on Neira. The orang kaya did not want the Dutch to do this and kept making excuses and delays in granting permission. Verhoeff lost patience and landed in Neira with 750 men and eventually began to build a fort on the foundations of the fort that the Portuguese had once begun but never finished. The orang kaya then began negotiations and convinced Verhoeff to meet with them unarmed together with his council and without his soldiers. When he did so, the Bandanese attacked and killed them. Many of the Dutch were decapitated with their heads placed on bamboos or lances. A few escaped. Verhoeff’s soldiers were too late to be able to save their compatriots. Altogether, forty-six Dutchmen were killed.

One of those on board Verhoeff’s ships was a junior merchant named Jan Pieterszoon Coen who was a witness to the events and never forgot what happened. The killing of Verhoeff and his compatriots was thereafter used by the VOC as the casus belli to justify their subjugation and occupation of Banda. In the following years the VOC conducted several punitive expeditions against the Bandanese under Piet Hein, Gerard Reynst and Jan Dirkszoon Lam.

Coen and Sionck’s signatures on a letter to the Heeren VII describing events in the conquest of Banda. Photo credit: J.P. Coen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The use of violence towards the Bandanese was a premeditated part of VOC strategy. By 1614 the Heeren XVII or board of directors of the VOC had already resolved to use force to secure the monopoly of nutmeg in Banda. Coen’s thinking was completely aligned with this as can be seen in his famous letter known as the Appeal of Coen to the Heeren XVII stating ‘Despair not, spare not your enemies, there is nothing in the world that can hinder or harm us, for God is with us… in the Indies, something grand can be accomplished.”

In 1618 Coen was appointed governor general and it was part of his grand plan to create a VOC monopoly by capturing both the town of Jacatra as well as the Banda Islands. In December of that year the small VOC fortification in Batavia was besieged by forces from Banten. Coen set sail for Banda to obtain reinforcements. He reached Jacatra again on the 30th of May 1619 and defeated the forces of Prince Jayakarta.

In 1620 Coen wrote to the VOC’s Gentlemen Seventeen again, “To see to it that Banda belongs to us it is necessary to subjugate Banda once and for all and then populate it with other peoples” and they concurred with him.

Coen returned to Banda determined to subjugate the Bandanese and arrived on the island of Neira on the 27th of February 1621 where he collected a fleet of thirteen ships, 3 small messenger boats, thirty-six junks and barges. These brought one thousand six hundred and fifty-five European troops, about 100 Japanese mercenaries and two hundred and eighty-six Javanese as rowers and porters. Beside that there was the 250 men strong garrison at Fort Nassau which became his headquarters.

Jan Pieterszoon Coen. Photo credit: Jacques Waben, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

On the 11th of March 1621 Coen’s men attacked the largest island of the Banda group known as Banda Besar or Lontor. They alighted at several different places near the main Bandanese defenses on Lontor. By the 12th of March 1621 Coen’s forces had captured Lontor where he began the construction of another fort, later known as Fort Hollandia. The orang kaya of Lontor were forced to accept the VOC sovereignty and their monopoly of the nutmeg trade. Ostensibly, to ensure that they would cause no further trouble against the VOC the chieftains of Lontor had to surrender their weapons as well as hand over several hostages and dismantle their fortifications.

Coen fully expected the Bandanese to breach the terms of the contract as usual and was merely waiting for a reason to attack the orang kaya, raze their villages and repopulate Banda with Dutch plantation owners and slaves from other islands. An orang kaya who strangely had a Dutch name went to see Coen. He may have been the offspring of a Dutch father and a Bandanese mother for his name was Joncker Dirck Callenbacker. He visited Coen on his ship and argued with Coen for many hours about the rights of the Bandanese to protect their property, lives and traditions. Coen however, was not to be persuaded.

On the 21st of April 1621 there was an incident at the village of Selamon on Banda Besar in a mosque-billet where the newly appointed Governor of Banda ‘t Sionck was sleeping when a lamp crashed to the floor. There was panic among the VOC troops and Bandanese who had surrendered as well as Selamon villagers ran into the forest to escape. Through the use of torture, the VOC obtained a confession from a child who was the nephew of Callenbacker that the crashing lamp was a signal for an attack on the Dutch.

On the 8th of May 1621 Coen captured forty-four of the orang kaya of Banda and brought them to Fort Nassau. Included amongst those captured was Callenbacker. A perimeter in the form of a circle encircled by bamboo was built beside Fort Nassau where eight of the most important orang kaya were taken. An eye witness, one of Coen’s officers, Nicolas van Waert (who was later identified by the Dutch scholar H.T. Colenbrander) recorded in his notes, “The condemned prisoners stood in the perk where six Japanese mercenaries had been ordered who then with their sharp swords first sliced in half through their middles the eight most important and strongest orang kayas; after which they beheaded them and quartered their bodies. The remaining thirty-six orang kayas were then beheaded and quartered as were the first; the executions were extremely cruel to behold. They died in complete silence without protest except for one who asked in our Dutch language, ‘Gentlemen have you no compassion?’ but it was to no avail.”

The orang kaya who asked whether the Dutch had no mercy was most likely Callenbacker who was fluent in Dutch and knew something of Western culture. The others probably simply followed a warrior code of silence. After the beheadings and quarterings, the remains of the 44 orang kayas were impaled on bamboos by six of the Japanese mercenaries.

Fort Nassau in 1646. Photo credit: http://voc-kenniscentrum.nl/gewest-banda.html, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The VOC burnt and demolished villages and pursued their fleeing inhabitants not only on the island of Lontor but on the other islands of Banda as well. It was declared at a meeting of Coen’s council that within seven days all villages and fortified places of Banda had by God’s grace been taken, erased, burnt down and about 1200 Bandanese captured.

The Bandanese that the Dutch captured or who surrendered were sent to Batavia where they were sold as slaves. Thousands of Bandanese died of starvation, exposure and sickness. Some in their desperation to escape the VOC troops leaped to their deaths from cliffs. Coen blockaded the islands so that food could not get in and so that the Bandanese could also not escape to other islands. A few of the Bandanese managed to escape to Seram, the Kei Islands and even to the Aru islands. From an original population of 15000 people only about a 1000 appear to have survived in Banda. The survivors were mainly on the islands of Hatta and Run from where the VOC sent them to Neira, Ai and Banda Besar.

Amongst the survivors there would have been a disproportionate amount of women and children as is the case in most wars where the men are often killed in the fighting. When the VOC was trying to drive 2000 Bandanese out of the hills on Banda Besar, Coen calculated that only about 600 of them were men. Later the VOC also sent back Bandanese women and children who had been sent as slaves to Batavia to work as slaves in the Banda plantations. It is these women who were later to play an important role in the survival of their people and their culture and in healing the trauma created by the killing and destruction of the VOC which will be described in Part III of this article.  (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Sources:
-Indonesian Banda by Willard Hanna
-Pioneers and Perkeniers: The Banda Islands in the 17th Century by Vincent C. Lot
– De Verovering der Banda-Eilanden by P.A. Leupe

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Part I: https://observerid.com/400th-anniversary-of-the-banda-massacre-part-i-the-bandanese-and-meaning-of-nutmeg-for-europe/

Part III: https://observerid.com/400th-anniversary-of-the-banda-massacre-part-iii-the-cakalele-becomes-a-dance-of-healing-2/

Part IV: https://observerid.com/400th-anniversary-of-the-banda-massacre-part-iv-the-healing-and-survival-of-a-society-and-culture-after-the-massacre/