“Big Waves for a Small Ship and a Sea Full of Pirates”: The 1605 Flight from Ambon to Cebu

On March 21st of last year, the Netherlands’ Malukan community commemorated the 70th anniversary of the arrival in the port of Rotterdam of the Kota Inten, the first of a series of ships carrying Malukan soldiers who served in the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (KNIL) and their families to the Netherlands. Television programs, news articles, academic panels, and other presentations were organized across the Netherlands in recognition of this anniversary. And, last year, as I was following those commemoration events from the University of Hawaiʻi campus, I thought about not only the 1951 evacuation of those Malukan soldiers from the newly independent Republic of Indonesia to the Netherlands, but also to other instances of migration from the region. Soon after, I was reviewing my notes and some historical documents, when a few seventeenth century letters from Cebu in the Philippines caught my attention. They concerned the arrival of over two hundred refugees from Ambon in Maluku to Cebu in the summer of 1605. 

Before jumping back over four centuries, I should provide a brief overview of the significance of March 21, 1951, to those readers who are unfamiliar with the subject. The Kota Inten was the first of several ships bringing Malukan soldiers and their families to the Netherlands in 1951. These Malukan soldiers had served under the Dutch flag during the Indonesian National Revolution (1945-1949), a war of independence from the Netherlands. And, as a result of their service, these soldiers found themselves in a very precarious position once the Netherlands recognized the independence of Indonesia in the Autumn of 1949. Moreover, these soldiers’ homelands in the islands of Maluku had been included in the territory of Indonesia. An uprising in Central Maluku in 1950, centered in the island of Ambon, against the Republic of Indonesia only further solidified the suspicion on the part of the new government towards these colonial soldiers. Thus, in 1951, the Netherlands evacuated many of the Malukan soldiers who had been stationed in hostile locations across Indonesia as well as their wives and children to the Netherlands in what was supposed to be a temporary arrangement. In total, roughly 12,500 Malukans arrived in the Netherlands in 1951. 

(For those looking to learn more about this event, Nos op 3 published a good 10-minute video on the subject. And, it has English captions!)

Scholars and other members from the Malukan community discuss the 70th anniversary at the National Archives of the Netherlands. (*No English captions.)

The story of the Netherlands’ Malukan community is incredible and I highly recommend that anyone reading this post learns more about their experiences. There are a number of great scholars in the Netherlands, many of whom are the children and grandchildren of those Malukan soldiers. Again, however, this post is not about the evacuation of Malukans to the Netherlands in the 20th century. Instead, I want to look further back in history at another story in which many Malukans were forced to flee their homelands due to international geopolitical rivalries and conflicts largely beyond their control. 

On February 21, 1605, a Netherlands East India Company (VOC) fleet under the command of Steven van der Haghen arrived in Ambon Bay. For the people living in and around the Portuguese fort Nossa Senhora da Anunciada on the bay’s south shore, this event was a long time coming. Dutch fleets had first visited Ambon in March 1599 and quickly established relations with Portugal’s enemies in the region. Throughout the following years, the Portuguese fortress withstood repeated attacks by Dutch, Javanese, Hituese (from northern Ambon), and Ternatean fleets. By the time Van der Haghen’s fleet appeared in Ambon Bay, the fort’s defenders had become disillusioned and exhausted. Within two days, on February 23, the Portuguese defenders surrendered the fort to Steven van der Hagen without a single shot fired. In honor of this seemingly pre-ordained victory, the fort was renamed Fort Victoria. 

Illustration of the Ambon Bay in the Early 17th century
(Image: Rijksmuseum)

By the time that VOC fleet arrived, the Portuguese had been in Ambon for nearly a century. They first arrived in Ambon in 1512 and, after decades of alternating between peace and conflict with some of the peoples in the region, settled on the southern shore of Ambon Bay. (If you like to read more on this, check out my previous blog post.) In the 1570s, they constructed a fort and, by the end of the century, had built four churches and a small hospital. Outside the fort’s walls, recent Ambonese converts to Christianity established their own communities. Some Portuguese, known as casados (literally “married ones”), even started families with these neighbors. Their children were known as mestiços. There also existed communities of enslaved people from other parts of Asia and freed slaves, known as Mardicas (Mardijkers in Dutch). The Jesuits, who were the primary order of Catholic priests in the settlement, had their own residence on the edge of town, where they also operated a school. 

A 1617 sketch of Ambon by David de Meyne with a portrait of Dutch governor Frederik de Houtman. The Netherlands East India Company’s newly acquired Fort Victoria is drawn rather disproportionately.
(Image: Rijksmuseum)

This is not to give the impression that things in the Portuguese settlement were anywhere near perfect. The relationship between the Portuguese and surrounding communities could be tense and warfare was common in the region. Specifically, Portuguese efforts towards Christianization in the area put them at odds with the emerging Islamic polities in Hitu (northern Ambon) and Ternate, who themselves sought to expand their influence and Islamize the region. Furthermore, the primary reason the Portuguese were even in this part of the world was to gain control of the clove and nutmeg trade, as those two spices were only cultivated in these islands. And, in order to secure their own position in the spice trade, the Portuguese interfered in commerce and dynastic disputes, causing them to have numerous enemies. All of these factors were noticed and taken advantage of by the VOC in their own quest to dominate the spice trade.  

The arrival of that VOC fleet under Steven van der Haghen in February 1605 is one of the better documented episodes in this period of Ambon’s history. There exist first-hand accounts from Dutch, Portuguese, and, even, English witnesses. And, among the most extensive accounts are those documents from Cebu, which are based on the testimony of the Jesuit priests who fled from Ambon. However, what interests me more about the contents of those documents is the story of how those Jesuit priests and others arrived in Cebu from Ambon. 

Early 17th century view of Fort Victoria in Ambon
(Image: Nationaal Archief)

Lorenzo Masonio, a Jesuit priest originally from Naples (present-day Italy), had been in Ambon since 1588. As a witness to the VOC takeover of the Portuguese fort and the primary author of two of the letters from Cebu, Fr. Masonio provides valuable information on the conquest in February 1605 and the months that followed. The fellow witness and co-author of one of these letters, Jesuit Gabriel da Cruz, also contributed the account of these events for the annual Jesuit letter from Cebu to their superiors in Rome. Originally from Toledo (present-day Spain), Fr. da Cruz was the rector of the Jesuit school in Ambon. 

As in accounts from other witnesses, Masonio and da Cruz describe rather tolerable conditions for the Portuguese and other residents near the fort during the first few weeks of VOC occupation. In his negotiations with the Portuguese captain of the fort, Steven van der Haghen promised not to harm the people in and around the fort or their homes. The Portuguese could continue to sell cloves at a reasonable price to the VOC. And, the Portuguese and Ambonese Catholics would be allowed to continue practicing Roman Catholicism, despite the VOC’s preference towards Protestant Christianity. (As a side note, there had long been rumors that Steven van der Haghen was Catholic or, at least, had a Catholic background.) Unfortunately, for the Portuguese and their allies, Steven van der Haghen did not stay long in Ambon and, by March, Frederick de Houtman had been appointed governor of Ambon. 

The departure of Van der Haghen left the Portuguese community and their allies in an uncertain position and the situation soon deteriorated. According to Masonio and da Cruz, the VOC officers broke their promises, tore down religious imagery, and even physically assaulted a Catholic priest, tearing his cassock. On May 9th, the VOC authorities in Ambon determined that the settlement was too crowded and ordered the Portuguese, the Jesuits, the mestiços, and others to leave. The Portuguese captain and his soldiers boarded two boats bound for Melaka, although one headed towards the island of Solor between Flores and Timor. The Melaka-bound boat was later attacked by a passing VOC ship unaware of the arrangement. Meanwhile, the Jesuit priests were imprisoned.

The three letters, written by Masonio and da Cruz from Cebu, largely relate the following story which I will synthesize:

After three days, the Jesuit priests were released and sold a small boat with no pilot and little provisions for the purpose of leaving Ambon. It is not stated how many people were expected to leave Ambon with the Jesuit priests, but the letters mention that either two hundred fifty or two hundred eighty people took part in this journey. And, because Portugal and the kingdoms of Spain were all under the same Habsburg monarchy during this period, those fleeing set out for the Spanish-occupied Philippines. The letters mention both Manila and Cebu as possible destinations. 

Possible route from Ambon to Cebu

So, with no pilot and little equipment, they set out from Ambon. The Jesuits and their companions sailed northwards “with great danger of the seas and pirates.” After weeks at sea, they pulled into Sangihe, an island roughly halfway between Sulawesi and the Philippines’ Mindanao, in order to resupply water. While there, some local fishermen warned them of an ambush that was being planned by other locals who had seen their ship sail through. With the assistance of those fishermen, the migrants from Ambon remained hidden nearby until they were able to make an escape and continue their journey to the Philippines.  

Although they avoided an alleged ambush, the migrants from Ambon quickly found themselves lost at sea after departing Sangihe. Fortunately, they were discovered by a passing ship whose sailors sold them a goat, a rooster, some fish, and some sago. The sailors also gave them directions to Cebu and they were again on their way. 

In June 1605, after thirty-nine days at sea, those people who fled Ambon finally arrived in Cebu. Many were taken into the local hospital and charitable Cebuanos attended to the new guests with help and supplies. The following month, more refugees arrived in Cebu, this time from the Portuguese fort on Tidore in Maluku which was occupied by the VOC in April of that year. 

In reading through these accounts, I was left wondering who exactly these migrants from Ambon were and what happened after they arrived in Cebu. Neither of these questions have been particularly easy to answer and I am still looking through the archives trying to find some clues. Still, there are some things we can infer from a few later documents.

On the question of who these migrants from Ambon were, there are some points of confusion. Namely, in some documents written from the Philippines after 1605, there is mention of migrants from Ambon, but they are sometimes referred to as “Portuguese” and sometimes referred to as “Ambonese” [Ambuenos]. It is clear that these terms are referring to the same group of arrivals in Cebu, but the terms may seem incompatible on the surface. Here, we have to consider what types of people may have left Ambon with the Jesuits and how they would be perceived by the Spanish authorities in the Philippines.

As mentioned above, a few communities occupied the area surrounding the former Portuguese fort in Ambon. It appears that the Portuguese soldiers in Ambon largely left before the Jesuits bought their boat and departed for the Philippines. It is therefore likely that the two hundred-plus companions of the Jesuits included the Portuguese casados and their local wives and families, mestiços, some Ambonese Christians (probably including some of the students of the Jesuit school), and some Mardicas. As these people were residents of Ambon, they could have been called “Ambonese”.  And, because they likely spoke Portuguese (and Malay) amongst each other, were perceived to be culturally somewhat Portuguese, and were residents of a Portuguese fort, they could have been called “Portuguese”. Unfortunately, I have not found nor believe there is a precise breakdown of this group.

Still, if we know that this group of migrants from Ambon arrived in Cebu, we are left wondering what happened to them. Well, there are references to them in the first few decades after their arrival in Cebu. In one letter from Manila dated to May 1st, 1619, the Ambonese residents of Cebu are reported to “spend much time in prayers and perform other pious works.”  

In a July 1622 letter from the Archbishop of Manila to the king in Madrid, it is said of the bishopric of Santisimo Nombre de Jesus in Cebu that there is one secular priest who “ministers to one hundred Spaniards (fifty of whom are soldiers, and twenty are women), and to two hundred and fifty Malucans, Ambuenos, and those of other nations.” 

The Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral, or historically the Church of St. Vitalis, only dates back to the 19th century and much had to be rebuilt after the Second World War. The location is likely where the Ambonese and Tidorese attended mass after arriving in Cebu.
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately, I have so far been unable to find many more references later in the seventeenth century, but there are some things that we know. It is unlikely that any of these migrants ever returned to Ambon. This is due to the fact that the Spanish and Portuguese were ultimately unable to dislodge the VOC from that island, despite frequent calls from the Jesuits and others to do so. Lorenzo Masonio, one of the most vocal proponents of such an action, was able to return to the islands of North Maluku, but never again to Ambon. 

Without further documentation, although I am sure that some exist deep in the archives, I must presume that the Ambonese migrants to Cebu eventually settled into their new home. I imagine that they longed for their old neighborhoods in Ambon, but eventually made lives for themselves in Cebu. Given that there is little documentation towards the end of the seventeenth century, they may have become integrated into Cebuano or colonial society. I do not yet have firm answers. Here, I wonder if we can again draw parallels to the experiences of those later Ambonese/Malukan diasporas.


de Agurto, Pedro. “Fray Pedro de Agurto, Bishop of Cebu, to King D. Philip III of Spain, Cebu, June 30, 1605” in Documenta Malucensia (vol. II), edited by Hubert Jacobs, 693-699. Rome: Institutum Historicum Societatis Iesu, 1980.

de Ledesma, Valerio. “Fr. Valerio de Ledesma, Provincial, to Fr. General, Annual Letter, Manila, May 1 1619” in Documenta Malucensia (vol. III), edited by Hubert Jacobs, 394-395. Rome: Institutum Historicum Societatis Iesu, 1984.

“Letter from Audencia to Felipe III on the Confraternity of La Misericordia 17 April 1606” in The Philippines Islands (vol. XIV) edited by Emma Helen Blair and James Alexander Robertson, 208-214. Cleveland, Ohio: The A. H. Clark company, 1903-09.

López, Gregorio. “Fr. Gregorio López, Provincial, to Roman Headquarters, Annual Letter, Manila, May 15 1606” in Documenta Malucensia (vol. III), edited by Hubert Jacobs, 31-40. Rome: Institutum Historicum Societatis Iesu, 1984.

Masonio, Lorenzo. “Fr. Lorenzo Masonio to Fr. General, Cebu, June 20 1605” in Documenta Malucensia (vol. II), edited by Hubert Jacobs, 678-682. Rome: Institutum Historicum Societatis Iesu, 1980.

Masonio, Lorenzo and Gabriel Renfigo/da Cruz “Report on the Fall of Ambon, Cebu. c. June 20 1605” in Documenta Malucensia (vol. II), edited by Hubert Jacobs, 689-692. Rome: Institutum Historicum Societatis Iesu, 1980.

Serrano, Miguel Garcia. “Letter from the Archbishop of Manila [Miguel Garcia Serrano] to the King 31July 1622” in The Philippines Islands (vol. XX) edited by Emma Helen Blair and James Alexander Robertson, 226-249. Cleveland, Ohio: The A. H. Clark company, 1903-09.

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