A Batavian prison break: sodomy, execution and an East India Company ship

06 February 2018

Empire and Globalism | History

On the 1st April 1762, an employee of the English East India Company who was stationed in Batavia received a report that a prisoner named John Smith had escaped house confinement:

Smith had been detained for nearly two months after being accused of sodomy by an apprentice stationed on an English East India Company ship; the Earl Temple. In a letter to the Deputy Governor of Fort Marlborough, John Pettifer details how Smith tried to abuse his position as Chief Mate and use his powerful influence to force Pettifer into relations he did not want to have:

Smith vociferously denied the claims of Pettifer and willingly disembarked the Earl Temple to ‘vindicate his character’. He was placed under house arrest until he could be sent back to England to face the charges against him and the inevitable punishment it would bring if found guilty. Deemed to be a crime against nature and the word of God, the punishment for sodomy would usually be death from hanging or strangulation. Indeed, Smith’s trial reminds me of another (more famous) case in Batavia; that of a Dutch East India Company employee named Joost Schouten who was strangled to death and burnt on the 11 July 1644. Unlike Smith, Schouten accepted the charges of sodomy against him and suffered a swift downfall (he was convicted two days before his execution).

A parallel between the two cases also exists in relation to the prison break; Schouten’s relatives and friends plotted to liberate him but the governor-general threatened to execute members of Schouten’s family if they were successful. After Smith’s escape from house confinement, there is no mention of him in the rest of that diary from Adam Matthew’s recently launched Factory Records.

In a diary a few years later from the same collection, however, there is an entry for the 22nd September 1764 which mentions this:

It seems Smith was found by the authorities but, frustratingly, no indication is given about the cause of his death. Whether or not Smith was found guilty of sodomy is also a lingering question, but it seems doubtful because his trial was to be held in England. In any case, it does not seem that Smith was able to clear his name or that he suffered the fate of Schouten, whose execution and its ramifications reverberated throughout the Dutch East India Company just over a hundred years before the accusation against Smith.

East India Company, Module I: Trade, Governance and Empire, 1600-1947 and Module II: Factory Records for South Asia and South-East Asia are available now to purchase. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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About the Author

James Young

James Young

I joined the Adam Matthew Editorial team in the Summer of 2017 as an Editorial Assistant. Since then, I have been able to work on a number of projects which have taken me from eighteenth-century Surat to Parisian hospitals during the First World War. My personal interest lies in Early Modern religious and gender history.