Trial by Water: Two Examples From Early Modern Netherlands

Article by Matt Goodman. Edited by Ellie Veryard. Additional Research by Ellie Veryard.


Rasphius, Reinier Vinkeles (1741-1816)- courtesy of the Amsterdam Municipal Department for the Preservation of Historic Buildings and Sites

In many respects the fledgling Dutch nation of the early seventeenth century was something to be admired. From its initial struggle to be free from the foreign rule of Habsburg Spain, its citizens and leaders espoused liberty and freedom, and attempted, with remarkable success for the time, to integrate these virtues into everyday life. In some respects this also applied to their penal system. At the Amsterdam Houses of Correction (Tugthuis, Spinhuis and the Rasphuis) there was a real attempt, in theory at least, to promote rehabilitation over simple punishment. In the true Christian spirit, they wished to show the inmates the error of their ways (through hard labour) in order to become functioning members of society. On the face of it this was a venerable and extremely modern concept. Inmates could, though, be as young as ten years old, and were admitted to prison for anything from begging to murder. Regardless of the offence, all prisoners were expected to labour, and often only for the paltry reward of a loaf of white bread. For those who refused to work for their salvation however, there was a much darker fate in store inside the dank, dark, underbelly of these ‘Houses of Correction’.

For these special people, special measures were required. According to several eyewitness accounts from foreign ‘tourists’ during the middle to late seventeenth century, those who would not work were ‘tethered like asses and are put in a cellar that is filled with water so that they must partly empty it by pumping if they do not wish to drown.’ Essentially they worked the pump or they watched the water consume them; a very brutal rehabilitation indeed! Although the second hand accounts cannot be completely verified by documentary evidence from the prisons (as so little evidence survives), it is not unreasonable to believe that such a torture technique did exist. At a time when life was often so brutal, and violence and warfare almost endemic, such a practice being allowed is not too difficult to believe in. Moreover, although the Netherlands was probably the most religiously tolerant and diverse nation in Europe in the seventeenth century, the largest religious group were the Calvinists: the most hard-line and puritanical of Protestants. They worked themselves hard in order to live ‘correctly’ and it is easy to believe they would have expected the same from the inmates of the Rasphuis.


Labour in Rasphius 1662

Water was a symbolically important element in the Dutch psyche. Being such a low lying country, it had always been both susceptible to ruinous floods, and reliant on the waterways for the defence of its borders. To emerge, fighting, struggling, against the water was to be reborn as a truly Dutch citizen. The drowning cell, in this context, was a crash course for the idle criminal in what it truly meant to be Dutch; its symbolism is inescapable. This sense of trial and salvation by water may also have been on the mind of the members of the Dutch East Indies Company, who partook in the ‘barbarous proceedings against the English at Amboyna in the Indies’, in 1623. This is more popularly remembered as the ‘Amboyna Massacre’.

At the beginning of the year 1623, at the Dutch East Indies garrison on Amboyna, ten Englishmen, ten Japanese and one Portuguese were tortured and killed after being implicated in a treasonous plot to overthrow the garrison and kill the island’s Dutch governor, Herman Van Speult. The Englishmen were members of the competing English East Indies Company and had become mixed up in the incident after a Japanese mercenary had been caught spying on the defences of the garrison. Under torture, the mercenary had implicated the Englishmen in the conspiracy. The Dutch accusations were weak; their reaction was wholeheartedly not so. One unfortunate man, John Clarke, was first bound, upright and spread-eagled, to a wall, before:

Woodcut taken from a pamphlet c.1700 on the Amboyna Massacre

‘they bound a cloth about his necke so close, that little or no water could go by. That done, they poured the water softly upon his head until the cloth was full, upto the mouth and nostrils, and somewhat higher; so that he could not draw breath, but he must withall suck-in the water; which being full continued to bee poured in softly, forced all his inward parts, came out of his nose, eares, and eyes, and often as it were stifling and choking him, at length took away his breath, and brought him to a swoune or fainting. Then they took him quickly downe, and made him vomit up the water.’

It is difficult to place this episode in the same sort of ‘moral geography’ category that Simon Schama attributes the drowning cell example to, and as has been less concisely explained above. To make such parallels with water as a symbolically important element to the Dutch interrogators in this tortuous example would be bordering on the contentious (as it is also alleged that they used fire to burn the soles of their captives’ feet and so on). However, it is certainly true that the emergent Dutch character at this time had deep parallels with the water that so dramatically influenced its rise to prominence, and that in these two examples that link spilled over into its ideas of crime and punishment.

  • Houses of Correction were used across Europe as means to punish unsavoury elements in society. Admittance could be as a lesser punishment for a more severe crime, and often involved whipping, or simply for being a vagrant or someone with a particularly bad reputation for idleness and causing disturbances. Apprentices would frequently be admitted by their masters to punish their ill behaviour, though they were often released shortly after.
  • Hard work was believed to be the cure to such social ills, with idleness often seen as one of the prime causes of sin and crime; thus forced labour was believed to instill discipline, industriousness and humility in a person, moulding them into a model citizen.
  • Punishments in the Houses of Correction could often be severe, and were meted out either as part of a criminal sentence, or due to misbehaviour in the house.

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