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Center for History and New Media wins international award for website examining 17th-century court case

September 29, 2017   /   by Jamie Rogers

An image from the exhibits section of the Amboyna Conspiracy Trial website.

George Mason University’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media won an international prize for its creation of a website that teaches students to think critically about legal torture within the context of an intriguing court case involving the first documented use of waterboarding.

The Amboyna Conspiracy Trial website, amboyna.org, received Australia’s State Library New South Wales Premiers History Award in September.

The website is based on research by Adam Clulow, a professor at Monash University in Australia, who collaborated with the center on the project, said Kelly Schrum, director of educational projects for the center.

“He said, ‘I want to engage students in this. I really envision a digital piece,’” Schrum said.

The website educates students about a polarizing 17th-century case involving the island of Amboyna, a key location in the East Indian spice trade of the time.

The Dutch hired Japanese mercenaries to protect their fortified castle on the island.  

In 1623, the Dutch suspected those hired mercenaries were plotting with the Dutch’s English rivals to overrun the castle, she said.

The Dutch subsequently tortured, tried and executed the Japanese and English defendants, resulting in the first recorded case of “torture by water,” known today as waterboarding.

The website includes an interactive “What’s your verdict?” section for students, which asks users a series of questions about the trial and then, based on their answers, issues their “verdict” at the end of the sequence. Try “What’s Your Verdict?” here.

“It gives students the chance to be the historian,” Schrum said, adding that it shows them that historical events can be complicated and there isn’t always one right answer.

This award highlights the international work of the center, Schrum said. Educators and researchers around the world use the center’s digital projects and tools and reach out to the center to collaborate in creating innovative, engaging digital content.

The team put much effort into making sure the art on the site captures the aesthetics of the 1600s, she said, while still being engaging for modern students.

“The clean and modern design of the project makes it as visually appealing as it is historically interesting. This project stands as a model for what can be achieved by combining the talents of historians, educators and web designers,” said Mason history professor Mills Kelly, the new president of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

The Center for History and New Media’s Chris Preperato served as project manager and senior multimedia developer for the site along with developers James McCartney and Joo Ah Lee.