Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Towerson, Gabriel (d.1623)

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TOWERSON, GABRIEL (d. 1623), captain and agent for the East India Company, may have been the son of William Towerson, an influential member of the Muscovy company in 1576, and an adventurer in Fenton's voyage in 1582, who seems to be distinct from William Towerson, the merchant and navigator [q. v.] His brother William is repeatedly mentioned in the East India papers. Gabriel appears to have gone out in the Company's second voyage in 1604 [see Middleton, Sir Henry] and to have been left as factor at Bantam, together with John Saris [q. v.] In 1609 he and Saris returned to England; and in 1611 he went out again as captain of the Hector, under the command of Saris. On 15 Jan. 1612–13, still in the Hector, he sailed from Bantam in company with Nicholas Downton [q. v.] and William Hawkins (fl. 1595) [q. v.] He arrived at Waterford in September. In the following January he applied for a ‘gratification’ for good service in bringing home the Hector. In considering the matter, the court found charges of private trading made against him, rendering him liable to the forfeiture of his bond for 1,000l. They resolved to remit the punishment, but to make him pay freight for the goods, 18 Jan. 1613–14. In 1617 he was again in India, apparently with some mission; Sir Thomas Roe [q. v.], from Ahmedabad, complained that Towerson had arrived with ‘many servants, a trumpet, and more show’ than he himself used.

In 1618 Towerson returned to England, leaving his wife at Agra. On 24 Jan. 1619–1620 he was ordered to go out as principal factor in the Moluccas, with pay of 10l. per month, the same as when he was captain of the Hector. He applied to go out in command of one of the company's ships; but this was refused, and, together with some other factors, he was ordered a passage ‘in the great cabin of the Anne, of which Swanley is commander.’ The sailing of the Anne appears to have been delayed; for she was still on the way out on 30 May 1621, when a consultation of the principal officers of the fleet was held on board her. The committee of officers appointed Towerson to command the Lesser James, on account of the differences between her pilot and master ever since they left England. In November he was at Batavia, whence he and the other factors wrote on the 6th that, ‘seeing the Netherlanders are so contentious, false, and impudent in all their proceedings, not shaming to affirm or write anything that makes for their purposes, we have thought fit not to answer their protest fraught with untruths.’ Such a declaration seems to have a very direct bearing on the tragedy which followed. In May he went to Amboyna, to succeed the agent who was going home.

On 11 Feb. following (1622–3) a Japanese soldier in the Dutch service was apprehended on suspicion of treachery, and forced by torture to confess that he had been bribed by the English to take part in a plot to seize the fort. On the 15th Price, a drunken surgeon, was arrested, tortured, and made to admit the conspiracy. Then Towerson was arrested and all the other Englishmen. Many of them—including Towerson (A True Relation, 1624, p. 23; India Office MSS.)—were subjected to the most diabolical tortures, and compelled to admit the existence of the plot and their own and Towerson's complicity in it. Towerson himself, together with nine Englishmen, one Portuguese, and nine Japanese, was put to death on 27 Feb. All died declaring their innocence; and considering that there were only twenty Englishmen all told on the island, and they unarmed civilians, while of the Dutch there were from four to five hundred, and half of them soldiers in garrison, besides eight large ships in the roadstead, their truth may be considered established. ‘It is true,’ says the official narration, ‘that stories do record sundry valiant and hardy enterprises of the English nation, and Holland is witness of some of them; yet no story nor legend reporteth any such hardiness either of the English or others that so few persons, so naked of all provisions and supplies, should undertake such an adventure upon such a counter party so well and abundantly fitted at all points.’ On the other hand, it must be remembered that torture was then and for many years later, in England as on the continent, considered a good and useful means of compelling an unwilling witness to give evidence, and the evidence was considered none the worse for being so obtained. The idea in England was that the Dutch were aiming at a monopoly of the trade, and prepared to stick at no measures which might secure it for them. It is perhaps more probable that on this occasion they were the victims of a blind panic, which rendered them incapable of reason or reflection.

It does not appear whether Towerson's Armenian wife was at Amboyna or not. She was probably with her own people at Agra. A son Robert is mentioned, but whether by the Armenian or an earlier marriage is doubtful.

[Cal. State Papers, East Indies. The volume 1622–4 is largely devoted to the detailed history of the Amboyna Massacre; see Index, s.n. ‘Towerson’ and ‘Amboyna.’ Note supplied by Sir William W. Hunter.]

J. K. L.