Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five



Torture by water only causes great oppression and difficulty of breathing, but does not fill the body (with water), as the English have so abusively asserted.

—Dutch remonstrance, pertaining to the events of February 1623

Bloody acts feared on Amboyna to our west, following base accusations, viz., conspiracy to overthrow Government, dominate trade. Citing their great capacity for mercy, Hollanders hold Chief Factor Towerson at home, while the mass of English settlers—merchants, servants, even the tailor—are subject to unspoke tyrannies at the Dutch fortress castle.

Have labored to contact our Factory Steward there, but he too is feared taken. We find comfort in our trust that the strength of God will overmatch the weakness in men.

—Dispatch from Banda Island, English East India Company


John Fardo had dreamed big things, as children of immigrants will. But when he’d sought employment with the vaunted English East India Company, his Romish name and heritage preempted a merchant assistantship.

Before this, his difference had been just a gnawing detail. It invited schoolyard conflict, but others fought on account of misshapen noses, or names that began with a zed. And when he’d taken to romance, pure British intendeds explained they could not rightly troth to him. But then other suitors were banished for other reasons, and he was still young.

The company’s blow felt more final, and fractured young John’s stoic mien. This in turn frightened his grandmother, who succored him hard with religion smuggled from the Basque country, and brandished her scars of the auto-da-fé. Then he felt sinful and petty, ungrateful for what life allowed.

He yielded ambition to fate.

The company trained him to be a steward—above the servants, but well below the meanest tradesmen. He’d since grown accustomed to the notion that stewardship of Amboyna’s main factory marked his furthermost station.

A decided pessimist, Fardo wasn’t surprised when the Dutch soldiers took him. Nor did he shock to their hard use, or the squalor of his cell. What most affected him about his new circumstance was the absence of nutmeg and cloves. At the spice factory, he’d come to consider their fragrances as one with his existence. He realized now how well they covered the odor of too many male bodies, and longed for the sweet smells again. After his examination, the thought of them would terrify him.

Now he is up against the door, fighting for breath against fear and the clench at his throat.

In his panic he has missed the question the fiscal’s lackey put to him. The fiscal (this is what the Hollanders call their prosecutor) speaks from a tall-backed chair with such venom that it is difficult to mind the small-voiced interpreter standing beside him.

Two Malay servants, the ones who have wrenched his arms and legs apart to truss him up high on the doorposts, and tied the muslin cloth around his neck—the ones who smell so of nutmeg and cloves—begin filling their jars from a low, wide-mouthed basin. The receptacle is much like an oversize chamber pot. Something laps over the sides.

From the moment a guard dragged him through the arched doorway, and the servants began binding him with heavy rope, he’s searched here for pikes, wrenches, vises, bludgeons. But he sees only part of this oblong chamber, finds just the basin and the jars.

Again the fiscal spits a length of words, and at last the survival instinct drives John Fardo to heed the interpreter’s monotone.

“Where were you sir, on New Year’s Day?”

“At-at my post, in the factory.” The muslin bites into Fardo’s throat. He’d expected they’d use the cloth for a blindfold, but they’ve tied it so tightly about his neck.

The fiscal grunts an order, and the servants stop immersing their jars. The interpreter continues.

“Right. In the factory at Amboyna. Where you are steward.”

Fardo hears a pen scratch and notices the other men, four or five of them, listening from the shadows. One hunches over a tiny desk, entering everything the captive says into a large book.

The interpreter confers with the fiscal, then resumes.

“Who was with you that day, that New Year’s Day, in the factory at Amboyna?”

“Why, most everyone.” His voice seizes. His arm sockets throb.

“Names please.”

Fardo lists the factory employees.

“That is all?”

“All I remember.”

“No visitors?”

“No . . . ”

“Not John Clarke?”

“No, I don’t believe so.” Fardo barely knows Clarke, an assistant in a factory at the far end of the island.

“I repeat. Not John Clarke, of the factory at Hitto?”

“No—Clarke was surely not there!” Fardo’s distress broadens. But he has told the truth. And John Clarke isn’t important enough to figure in conspiracy.

“Once more only, Mr. Fardo. John Clarke visited the factory at Amboyna, where you are steward, this New Year’s past. Correct?”

Fardo considers the nature of truth a moment, then answers. “No. Not correct.” He tries to soften his tone. “I mean, there were none of the Hitto agents there—verily, none of the oth—”

“Silence!” The fiscal’s English startles John Fardo, and he jerks in his bonds. The fiscal passes a new signal, and one servant steps atop a small table and draws the muslin up around Fardo’s mouth and nose, leaving it close around the neck, but with a wedge-like gap for breath. Fardo gags from the scent in the servant’s coarse skin.

The first servant steps down. The other steps up and, holding his jar high, begins pouring the liquid slowly onto the crown of Fardo’s head, so it trickles down his face. It feels—cool—it’s water? The muslin becomes at first damp, then gradually wetter and wetter, then saturated. Water pools in the gap in the cloth.

Now Fardo realizes—he can no longer breathe without taking in water. When he tries to breathe through his nose, he feels sharp pressure between his eyes. So he tries drawing air through his mouth, but the water is there too, forcing him to breathe a massive gulp. He coughs it out, but then must take in even more and the real panic begins.

His next instinct is to hold his breath. But panic makes this impossible. He feels the water surge up his nostrils and spill into the back of his throat. The servants have accelerated their pace, are walking back and forth now between the door and the basin, replenishing their jars, submerging them again and again in the basin, as if bailing a leaky boat. The fiscal’s shouts goad them, so that one is always back by the table, ready to take his partner’s place. Fardo tries again to cough out the water, or to blow it out his nose, but it is always there, a steady stream now; exertion only depletes his reservoir of air, so he gasps and gulps mouthfuls of water.

Water rushes up through his nose and down the air passages past his throat. In its confusion his body heaves. He strains his feet, his hands, frantically against the rope.

For an instant, he wonders what he is worth to them dead. They can’t want that. But do they know what they are doing? How can he be sure?

Water breaches his core, assaulting passageways that rebel helplessly against alien intrusion, as the small bit of air left in his lungs escapes in the opposite direction and meets the flood. There is no pain, exactly, but he feels his body being crushed, the life coaxed and then forced from him.

Darkness begins to overtake him, and a weight drives him deeper and deeper, as if they are pressing his head into the bottomless basin across the room on the floor. As if he is sinking. He doesn’t recognize the rattle resonating from his body until suddenly the heat of pulsing veins meets the cooling air’s caress—they’ve peeled back the cloth! He regains consciousness, awed by the sound of his lungs convulsing.

“Again now, Mr. Fardo. John Clarke was in the factory at Amboyna this New Year’s Day past, correct?”

Despite himself, Fardo is nodding.


“Yes!” The word leaves his mouth in a gush of water as someone yanks the muslin free. He sobs as he answers three more questions in the affirmative so the man with the book can hear, then has a few moments to steady his breath before the interpreter’s drone recommences.

“Explain for us, please, what your chief factor Gabriel Towerson was about during these events.”

Maybe the memory of sinking has faded, or maybe John Fardo’s instinct for truth abides. He refuses to implicate Captain Towerson.

As the Fiscal shouts his command, Fardo is unsure whether he should try to survive. He hardly sees the point in it. Better to take control, to will himself gone, as the spice-steeped Malays draw near again, the torrent courses into him and the last pockets of air escape through his mouth and nose, and there is only pressure. He senses skin sloughing off his wrists and ankles where he struggles against rope, but can’t feel the pain of it; they might beat him with a fence post now and he would remain focused upon the darkness that falls blacker than night and again closes around him.

Soon the fiscal has his evidence against Towerson, as well as everything he needs to convict John Fardo. Still, he orders the procedure repeated four, maybe five times. Between times, the servants bear down upon Fardo’s chest and abdomen, clearing him out for enhanced affliction.

At length, someone offers that perhaps the captive has had enough. Perhaps he has related his entire tale. So, the fiscal castigates the servants like a stern tutor, and they cut Fardo from the door. He falls in a heap, groping at the cloth to free himself, and water flows from his mouth and nose onto the stone floor.

As his coughing subsides, he looks up. The fiscal and interpreter are readying to leave. The shadows are empty. The servants too have gone, and in their places stand a pair of guards, ready to drag him back to his cell.

In the stunned silence of the cell, Fardo remembered his arrest. He’d been rebellious then. As soon as he’d determined that the soldiers meant only to strike him with fists, he’d ridiculed them, refused to walk forward when told. His was the stubbornness of a child: The more you restrict, the more I will offend. The harder you strike me, the guiltier will be the back of your hand. But while this ability to absorb abuse had impressed him, like every childish tantrum his defiance had its endpoint.

The fiscal had taught him its endpoint. The water treatment, as prisoners called it, was simply too much. He knew its mere mention by the interpreter would drive him to denounce a brother.

Some new prisoners arrived after their examinations, and the cell was a less quiet place. Their captain had been tortured twice, by water and also by fire. A theory developed amongst them, that those who were burned were marked for death, as the Dutch would never allow burnt men to be seen back in England. That is the convenience of the water treatment, the new men whispered. As vehemently as its victims proclaim their ill use, they have nothing to show for it, so the torturers may easily deny it.

And Fardo wondered: When would he be brought again for the treatment?

He knew he would. The basin, jar and cloth were too closely wed to every fear in his universe.

“The Hollanders begin quarreling amongst themselves. I tell you, we near the end of this outrage!”

John Fardo had always liked this man Powle, appreciated the merchant assistant’s lack of pretension. He was different from the others. The two had spoken, several times, about a shared Basque heritage. Fardo’s parents hailed from Viscaya, Powle’s far kin from Basse-Navarre. According to the others, they were practically cousins.

In fact, Fardo hardly begrudged Powle his freedom. Already, four Englishmen had been released. The servants, because they were uselessly cast as masters of conspiracy. But Powle, too, and one other, after proving their friendship with a prominent Dutchman who could no longer stomach this affair.

Friendship. This was also why Powle claimed he’d risked returning to the Dutch fortress castle, begging permission to call on his factory’s steward. But Fardo had his doubts.

Since before sunrise, he had suffered absolute, abject horror. A hirsute guard had shaken him awake; he’d hoped the beast would dash out his brains to spare him what he feared most, but the oaf dragged him to this rat’s hole off the castle hall, where he heard more accused men wail as he awaited reexamination.

He clung to the plan he’d concocted for this eventuality. After his first treatment, Fardo had invented all manner of intelligence in an attempt to discover just what would end the water torture. He had wracked his mind for the most ingenious schemes a conspirator might try.

Now Powle was suggesting that all these inventions were for naught. That the Dutch governor and council had amassed enough evidence against the English of Amboyna, and henceforth sought to widen their inquisition:

“They want Richard Welden. Our chief factor at Banda. You mustn’t implicate him.”

So that was it. If the Hollanders could cast Captain Welden in their sham conspiracy, and so expel the English from Banda, they would have the nutmeg trade to themselves. Without firing a shot.

The English company, after overlooking John Fardo for years, now asked of him hard silence indeed.

The interpreter sits now beside the fiscal, and fewer watch from the shadows. The fiscal looks tired. The ones who’ve bound Fardo are just boys. They handle him gingerly, apologetically. The Dutch are running out of torturers.

“A new testimony has surfaced amongst your accomplices. But we require more.”

Fardo stammers the schemes he’s devised to save himself. And, again, a shadow man inscribes it all in the book.

The interpreter glances at the fiscal, then continues. “We still require more.”

Tears stream down Fardo’s face. The recruits have not yet lifted the jars, but they are there beside the basin. A cloth dangles from one boy’s waist. The boys smell like nothing.

“I beg you—sir—believe me. I have already told all!”

Except he has not. By some effort of will, Captain Welden’s name remains unsaid.

“We shall continue with you here until all is corroborated.”

“What more have you been told?” In this moment, Fardo believes he may corroborate Banda’s involvement, if only they lead him to. “I will confess anything! Just tell me what you want!”

But the fiscal drops a hand onto the interpreter’s shoulder, and the interpreter halts his speech. The fiscal says something to the boys, and they begin filling their jars. Fardo seeks the fiscal’s eyes, ready for one last appeal. He opens his mouth to protest.

And, for the first time, really sees those eyes. Realizes this man is in earnest. Regardless of the machinations of the governor and council—of whether, as Powle says, they’ve invented an English conspiracy to serve Dutch interests—he knows now that the fiscal believes his captive has terrorized innocents. And that, given the chance, he will do it again. The fiscal is simply doing a job.

As the treatment begins, Fardo attemps to will himself unconscious. But sleep won’t come. His body needs its mind as the torrent again courses through his skull, needs it to trigger the hopelessly heaving gagging and retching spasms of his respiratory system as it struggles to complete the task nature assigned it, only to beat up against the cloth. Again the spine-rending sensation of air meeting water, water meeting air. The belief-shattering doubts about the intentions, the competence, the judiciousness of his captors. And the horrifying knowledge that to them he is just a dangerous thing.

When they revive John Fardo, he says nothing. He doesn’t scream, and he no longer cries. He chooses a black point suspended on his mind’s horizon beyond uncertainty, beyond terror, and fastens his attention to it, then keeps it there as they administer the treatment a full hour longer.

When the fiscal leaves to consult the governor, Fardo remains trussed upon the door. His mind drifts, as if the flood inside has unmoored him. His psyche bumps against rocks and shoals of memory.

Much of this thought involves his soul’s rest. Prayer comes to him, as his grandmother promised. But only in bits and pieces. Indistinct images emerge from sacred text. He sees himself walk beside Abraham as the loyal Jew ascends Mount Moriah with the babe on his back. He gapes as Christ walks upon water. Now the Savior sits at the final table, tolerant even of the enemy in his midst. The images scatter, then quiver, like forms glimpsed through heat.

After a while, the images retreat, and he sees his situation with something approaching clarity.

If he survives, he will be useless to the company, to his country. Serving either requires a certain spirit. But from now forward he will choke on bold thought. The specter of his torturer will appear before him, and he will fold like a chained, beaten dog.

Others will see him fold, and he will be a warning to them.

But he isn’t completely broken. He hasn’t betrayed Richard Welden. Part of it is bound up with faith. The more he lies, the harsher will be his punishment in the next world. But he has lied against too many others. He can’t expect God’s mercy now. So there is something else.

He begins again to drift.

When his torturers return, he feels Banda’s destiny in his bound hands. They ready their torches in the chamber’s coal fires; he knows now why he hasn’t broken. The truth, though silent, is real. His sword and his shield.

As the boys advance, he sees that one has been crying.

Steven Roiphe studied creative writing, literature, and history at Harvard University, and was a winner in the Summer Literary Seminars 2011 nonfiction contest. He lives in Downeast Maine, where he is writing a novel about a gay patriot spy’s hunt for Benedict Arnold in British-occupied New York. “Amboyna” is his first published work.