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Netherlands East Indies. This group of items has received very little scholarly attention, but holds important information about the domestic lives of the Dutch in the country’s former trading posts and colonies. The collection is an important historical document of a scarcely detailed period of Dutch interior decoration in an alien environment. The Tropenmuseum initiated a four-year conservation project that led to important discoveries about the original appearance of these items – discoveries that forced us to alter our current views. This publication discusses important aspects of social and domestic life in the former Netherlands East Indies, and also gives a technical survey of the museum’s significant collection of ebony furniture. A short catalogue details highlights from the Tropenmuseum collection.

dave van gompel | joost hoving | reinier klusener

and most important collections of furniture from the former

Furniture from the Netherlands East Indies 1600 - 1900 dave van gompel | joost hoving | reinier klusener

The Tropenmuseum of Amsterdam houses one of the largest

Furniture from the Netherlands East Indies 1600-1900 a historical perspective based on the collection of the tropenmuseum

ISBN 978-94-6022-225-2

9 789460 222252

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Furniture from the Netherlands East Indies 1600-1900 a historical perspective based on the collection of the tropenmuseum

Dave van Gompel in cooperation with Joost Hoving and Reinier Klusener

KIT Publishers

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4 Foreword – Koos van Brakel 5 ‘Of very questionable artistic value’ 13 16th century: Upon arrival of the Dutch in East India 25 17th century: The age of expansion and settlement 47 18th century: The age of disaster and extravagance 65 19th century: The colonial era 75 The many colours of ebony. A technical survey of the ebony furniture collection of the Tropenmuseum – Joost Hoving and Reinier Klusener 101 Highlights from the furniture collection of the Tropenmuseum 133 Notes 139 Literature 143 About the authors

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Foreword Over the last ten years, the Tropenmuseum has substantially improved the way it manages its collection, thanks to the ‘Heritage Extra’ funds, received from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Development Cooperation. Its storage facilities have been upgraded, it has carried out conservation treatment on several of its subcollections, and made its entire collection of items and photographs accessible to the public via internet. This publication too, on furniture from the Netherlands East Indies in the collection of the Tropenmuseum, was realized through funding from the same project. The Tropenmuseum possesses a substantial and important collection of furniture from the former Netherlands East Indies. Over 60 items belong to the so-called category of ‘ebony furniture’, named after their commonly black appearance. It is somewhat surprising that this group of items has received very little scholarly attention through archival research or hands-on research on the items themselves. The modest amount of available literature leans heavily on a great number of assumptions and suspicions for which little historic evidence can be found. Many of these assumptions were already posed by the earliest works on the subject, and were later adapted by several new generations of researchers. It is therefore with great pride that the Tropenmuseum presents this publication, which is the result of a fouryear conservation and research project. The conservation project provided a unique opportunity for research on subjects such as timber species, lacquers and finishes, construction methods and the often debatable authenticity of many such items. We are convinced that the data that has been collected will be of great importance for future research on this unique group of furniture. Already, a number of remarkable conclusions can be drawn from these results; conclusions that force us to alter our current views on furniture from the Netherlands East Indies. The research by Dave van Gompel traces the history and assessment of furniture from the Netherlands East Indies, drawing on contemporary sources from the 16th through to the early 20th century. Highlights from the collection of the Tropenmuseum are discussed in a short catalogue. Joost Hoving and Reinier Klusener report the technical findings that resulted from conservation project carried out in their workshop. The Tropenmuseum would also like to express its gratitude to Iep Wiselius (Wiselius Raadgevend Adviesbureau) for his timber analysis, Henk van Keulen of the Dutch Institute of Cultural Heritage (RCE) for his analysis of finishing layers, and conservator Martijn de Ruijter of the Tropenmuseum, for his continued support during the project. Koos van Brakel – Head of Collections, Tropenmuseum


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indonesian furniture scrutinized

‘Of very questionable artistic value’

‘The exhibition on Indonesian textile art features a large amount of furniture (...), of which the majority is of a very questionable artistic value, and as such essentially does not belong in this environment of beautiful native art (...)’1 These opening lines to a review of an exhibition of Indonesian crafts held at The Hague in 1901, is typical of the general view held on ebony furniture from the East Indies by the Dutch during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Even the official catalogue of that same exhibition openly qualifies the furniture on display as being of ‘most diverging in beauty, that which everyone who has eyes shall see at our exhibition for themselves’.2 The exhibition focussed mainly on textiles, and the addition of furniture seems to have been more of an afterthought. Several pieces from the private collection of Dr. W. J. Oosterhoff Neys and his wife were on show; they collected a rather impressive number of mostly ebony chairs and benches during their stay in Batavia in the last quarter of the 19th century. Oosterhoff was also the first Dutch author to devote an article to these remarkable pieces of Eastern craft – in 1898. Such furniture had been generally overlooked by Dutch critics and historians alike. After the death of her husband, Ms. GijblandOosterhoff Neys left their impressive collection to several Dutch museums; the Colonial Museum in Haarlem became one of the main beneficiaries. Under its new name and location, Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum still houses one of the largest collections of Indonesian furniture in the Netherlands. Although he clearly emphasizes its lack of artistic value at the start, the reviewer continues by illustrating the apparent appeal that such furniture held for the general public: ‘For both categories [of visitors, being repatriates and the general Dutch audience] this furniture forms the main attraction! A great deal of ornament, deeply cut, many curls and foliage superfluously covering every area, slithering turning work, whilst the chic ebony black promotes a hint of distinction. Now that’s furniture!’ Despite his earlier warning, the author succeeds in describing the European audience’s first impression of such furniture, which probably holds true to


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this day. Having been called many names in the past, from ‘Tudor furniture’ to ‘Portuguese colonial’ and ‘Dutch colonial baroque’, this very distinct type of furniture is better known simply as ‘ebony furniture’ for its commonly black appearance.3 Another term that has been used more recently in an attempt to avoid colonial connotations, is the somewhat more general term ‘Company furniture’.4 Whatever name one may prefer to use, the common features of these pieces of furniture are so universally recognisable, that there can be little doubt as to the group it concerns. Featuring mostly chairs, settees and benches, and on somewhat more rare occasions tables and cabinets, practically all these pieces are in the aforementioned black and feature rattan webbed seats, as well as being decorated with spiral turning and carved foliage. After three centuries of Dutch presence in the East Indies, ebony furniture appears to have been the first type of Indonesian furniture to reach the Netherlands as curious antiques of a long forgotten era. And even though general interest seems to have remained low in the Netherlands, this group still received far more attention than the European- and Chinese-style furniture that dominated the 18th century interiors in the colonial trading posts of the East.

Shifts in interest It is somewhat surprising that ebony furniture has escaped the interest of academics in the Netherlands for so long, with much of the literature on the subject being written by avid collectors and eager connoisseurs. Many questions around the origins of ebony furniture – or, indeed, East Indian furniture in general – remain difficult to answer to this day, so it is not surprising that the subject has always been somewhat shrouded in mystery. Indeed, this may explain a large part of its appeal; there are no specific names, dates or places that can be confidently linked to such furniture. Historic reference material is scarce, to say the least. This aspect is also clearly underlined by our anonymous reviewer, who writes: ‘Although as historical pieces they are not devoid of importance, their origin is entirely shrouded in darkness, and nothing can positively be said about their makers; the very absence of such details is what makes this cabinetwork so stimulating.’ While the above quote may have been true for the Netherlands at that time, general and scholarly interest in ebony furniture actually appears to have originated in England at a much earlier time. This is clearly illustrated in the work of Jaffer, who describes several noteworthy British collectors who possessed ebony furniture during the 19th century. He also illustrates how ebony furniture made its way to Britain as early as the mid-18th century, where it was noticed by Horace Walpole and would later feature prominently in the Holbein Chamber of his Strawberry Hill estate, even though it was then considered to date from the Tudor


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era.5 During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, ebony furniture was already decorating British interiors as part of the prevalent Gothic revival at that time, so it makes sense that the country would be the breeding ground for interest in the subject.6 As intriguing as ebony furniture may have been to the British, the Dutch showed little interest in the subject – not even in collecting it to adorn their interiors – until the late 19th century. Although one cannot exclude the possibility that such furniture made its way to the Netherlands at an earlier time, it clearly did not spark enough interest to inspire any writing on the subject. In fact, the first documented presence of ebony furniture in the Netherlands, which was exhibited at the 1883 World Exhibition in Amsterdam, seems to have been met with indifference by visitors and critics alike. Several pieces of ebony furniture, including a settee, chairs and a cabinet, were exhibited in the so-called ‘Retrospective exhibition of ancient art’ that formed a separate section of the World Exhibition.7 These pieces were housed in one of the wings of Amsterdam’s still unfinished Rijksmuseum, effectively making the museum’s very first public exhibition one on colonial art, featuring ebony furniture.

Ebony furniture at the 1883 World Exhibition in Amsterdam. Also included is the well-known Raffles chair. Photographed by P. Oosterhuis, 1883. City archive of Amsterdam: 010005000940


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It is not clear whether the origin of ebony furniture was fully understood by the World Exhibition’s organizing committee. According to Terwen-de Loos, this collection of ebony furniture was put together by Dr. E. Van Rijckevorsel and was merely intended to be an example of how Europeans lived in Indonesia, not to be presented as a valuable antique collection.8 This would suggest that unlike in the Netherlands such furniture was fashionable in the Netherlands East Indies during the late 19th century – this will be discussed in the following paragraph. Ebony furniture, however, was not the only type of furniture on display at the exhibition. Also exhibited, but not included in the wing of ‘retrospective art’, were several more commonly seen pieces of East Asian furniture that were made after European examples, most notably a set of the well-known Raffles chairs, as well as common teak furniture. Most of the examples on show were actually for sale, effectively combining the artistic and economic goals that had been set out by the committee.9 The exhibited collection of ebony furniture was eventually left to the Museum Boymans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, in 1936, having failed to attract any notable attention. By the late 19th century, the British had abandoned their Tudor attribution in favour of one of Asian origin. Oosterhoff reached a similar conclusion in 1898, marking it as furniture from an ‘Indo-European society’.10 Oosterhoff was also the first to notice the slowly emerging presence of such furniture in the collections of Dutch museums and likewise the lack of knowledge on the subject in his homeland. The slew of articles that is summed up in his paper illustrates how debate on the origins of ebony furniture was quite vivid abroad, particularly in Britain, but received little or no attention in the Netherlands. He points out that an ebony chair could be seen at Haarlem’s Ethnographisch Museum in 1898, without any form of description regarding its possible origin, as well as there being a similar chair on show at Heeswijk Castle, in the south of the Netherlands, that is noted as being ‘East Indian’. Even though a link to the history of the Dutch Company (the VOC) may have been suspected at the time, it seems that this was yet to be publicly discussed. The suspicion though, is most strongly expressed by the Haarlem craft museum during the same year. In an announcement for an upcoming exhibition, the press release reads: ‘Currently at the museum of crafts, an important collection of antique furniture can be observed. This furniture has been made for two to three centuries in the Dutch East Indies out of ebony and ironwood. Their style is most peculiar and shows similarities to the old Dutch, Portuguese and even Hindu style. (...) They provide a faithful representation of the art and artistic skills of the natives of Java during the early days of the Company. (...) Most rare, even in the large museums of Europe. For the Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies, these pieces of furniture genuinely represent a national meaning.’11 Collections of ebony furniture in Dutch museums started to take shape at a relatively late date. This is probably largely due to the unfamiliarity with the origins of such objects, but also to the rather dual position with which these objects have


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long been burdened. The warning lines from the reviewer quoted at the beginning of this chapter are typical of the prevailing attitude in the Netherlands during the late 19th and early 20th century, which can be found in several other reflections from this period. It seems that ebony furniture was initially observed primarily as an effort by native Indonesian craftsmen to imitate European furniture styles; an effort at which they failed miserably according to the critics. As such, they were not seen as objects that belonged to ethnographic collections, nor were they considered to be of sufficient quality to be collected as objects of art. There was a general disdain for the imitation of European arts and crafts by Asians, who, it was felt, could never hope to achieve the same level of craftsmanship. Such items started flooding the European markets as part of export art during the late 19th century. Whereas orientalism promoted the appreciation of traditional, native (read ‘Hindu���) forms and decorations, objects that showed obvious European influences were often regarded as mere shadows of their examples. Thus, the artisans of the Netherlands East Indies were never regarded as being capable of understanding the subtleties of Western form.12 Perhaps this is the main reason why ebony furniture was long disregarded and only started to attract interest when suspicions arose that it might be part of a long-forgotten page in the history of Dutch Company history. Oosterhoff played an important role in this shift in interest by dedicating the first Dutch article on the subject – often quoted – and offering his personal collection for exhibition, to the general public in Batavia and later in the Netherlands, after repatriation. Their objects had been ‘saved’ from the Batavian kampongs during several years of avid collecting. Oosterhoff even complains about the attitude of his fellow countrymen, who showed little interest in his collection and mocked it, calling it a ‘pile of old timber’.13 Several museums in the Netherlands currently posses minor collections of South East Asian furniture, such as the Museum Boymans Van Beuningen and the Wereldmuseum – both in Rotterdam, the Museum Nusantara in Delft, Palace Het Loo in Apeldoorn and the Amsterdam Museum. However, the most substantial and representative collections can be found in the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden, the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum. Most of the records in these museums reveal that furniture from the Netherlands East Indies was rarely part of a deliberate collecting strategy. In fact, the majority of such items was left to the museums by private collectors, most of whom had brought them to the Netherlands after repatriation. As such, the body of these collections was gathered during the first half of the 20th century, most notably during the 1930s and 1940s and such collections often also included European- and Chinese-style furniture. Some museums even own pieces – mostly chairs – that are said to have been owned by well-known Indonesian rajas, although evidence for such attributions is often very thin. It is quite rare to find objects that have actually been acquired at auctions, although some examples can be found at the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde and particularly Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum where many objects


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were actively acquired after the 1960s, mostly through donations and acquisitions from Dutch foundations such as the Vereniging Vrienden der Aziatische Kunst (VVAK) and Stichting Cultuurgeschiedenis van de Nederlanders Overzee (CNO).14 Since the Rijksmuseum, in particular the former curator of its sculpture and crafts department Th. H. Lunsingh Scheurleer, helped found the CNO, the museum has always been the main beneficiary. According to Lunsingh Scheurleer, East Indian furniture was still met with a great deal of indifference during the 1960s,15 and we must acknowledge that the situation has probably only moderately improved since then. To this day, the Rijksmuseum is the only Dutch museum to actively expand its collection of furniture from these regions and is the only museum to have an example of ebony furniture on permanent display.16

Batavian antiques Whereas the Dutch in the Netherlands seemed almost completely unaware of the existence of ebony furniture in general, those who had lived in the Indies certainly were not. By the mid-19th century, ebony furniture started to appear at Batavian auctions and attracted the interest of a select group of collectors.17 Among them were many members of the Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences, most of whom were substantially wealthy and had a keen interest in the history of Dutch colonialism. The society was then housed in the building that is currently the Museum Nasional of Indonesia and was already partially furnished as a museum during the early 20th century. One of its foremost members and former director of the Ethnographisch Museum in Leiden (which later became the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde), Dr. Lindor Serrurier, was also an avid collector of these historical pieces. After his early death, his wife decorated one of the rooms of the society as a Company period room. Similar period rooms were later installed in the Netherlands, but were based on little to no historical evidence on what these rooms may have actually looked like during the 17th century. Dr. Thomassen á Thuessink van der Hoop was another key figure in the formation of a collection of ebony furniture in Batavia. From 1936 to 1950 he continued to expand the society’s collection and completed that of the current Museum Nasional. Many of the society’s members left pieces from their private collections to Dutch museums after repatriation. In fact, it is thanks to their efforts and those of their contemporaries that Dutch museum collections started to take form during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.18 Although most collections focus on ebony furniture, some rare pieces of furniture dating from the 18th and 19th centuries can also be found, and they often paint a far more interesting picture than their precursors. Unfortunately, these have received even less interest than the mysteriously appealing ebony collections. It is most important to note that the collecting of ebony antiques did not go unnoticed amongst the craftsmen of the major Indonesian cities, particularly Batavia and Semarang. As ebony furniture gained popularity, craftsmen started


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making copies in what must have been substantial numbers. In fact, one of the most important outcomes of the Tropenmuseum’s conservation project, is the strong suspicion that a large number of ebony objects was actually made in the late 19th or even early 20th century, while most are currently noted to date from the 17th century. Two other important outcomes were that they were not all made out of ebony, and had nearly all been tampered with, (see Hoving en Klusener). Many of these objects appear to be (partially) comprised of older furniture parts, but some of them are altogether ‘new’. According to the aforementioned reviewer of the 1901 exhibition, an entire set of ebony furniture from the collection of Oosterhoff was newly made by Chinese craftsmen in Batavia and is appreciatively referred to as being ‘technically better made’ than earlier examples.19 A similar observation was made during conservation. This is supported by Catenius-van der Meijden, who writes in 1908 that such furniture can be bought mostly from the workshops of Chinese cabinet makers in Semarang.20 Newspaper advertisements from the Netherlands East Indies during the late 19th and early 20th centuries also suggest the existence of a large market in the copying of antiques. ‘Antique wooden benches and chairs with carving’ are offered by antique shops and cabinet makers alike,21 whilst certain contributors to newspapers complain about the number of fake antiques that flood the Indonesian market.22 There is even a bold advertisement in one newspaper, in which an ‘imitation-antiquary’ seeks ‘a wealthy companion’ to invest in a company that ‘completely copies all antique art objects in all materials. Most suited for antique dealers’.23 Although it is uncertain whether most copies were actually sold as genuine antiques, one is tempted to think that a number of them were. In fact, some of the antique markets and shops in Jakarta are still notorious for their highly questionable stock to this very day. As De Haan fittingly sums up in 1922: ‘[many ebony furniture items] were in need of repairs, had to be restored out of a wreck or be put together out of many separate parts. Because of the rising prices (…) small native, Chinese and Arabic industries emerged that repaired broken furniture, adjoined pieces and eventually ended up imitating and forging such pieces’.24 Similar observations have been made by Jaffer about ebony furniture from Ceylon.25 Seeing that many of these ‘copies’ were brought to the Netherlands in the early 20th century, this would suggest that a large portion of the Dutch museum collections is not as ancient as it is thought. And pieces that are composed of older parts sometimes represent furniture types that never actually existed during the 17th century, but have sometimes been lauded in publications as unique examples. Some of these peculiar hybrids are discussed in more detail by Hoving and Klusener.

Key publications and exhibitions After the publication by Oosterhoff, several small articles started to appear up to the early 1930s that mention furniture from the Netherlands East Indies. Most of


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these are part of larger publications on Indonesian arts and crafts and usually only mention furniture in the margins. The first major publication that focuses solely on the subject of ebony furniture was by Van de Wall in 1939. Although in many ways flawed and wrought with strongly romanticized colonial connotations, Van de Wall’s work firmly consolidated the position of ebony furniture as part of Dutch Company history by referring to it as ‘Dutch baroque furniture from the Indies’. The first major English work on the subject, by Brohier, focuses on Dutch colonial furniture from Ceylon and was published in 1969. In a similar way to the articles, exhibitions of East Indian furniture were generally part of larger Indonesian craft exhibitions, often held at ethnographical museums rather than museums of art. The most notable exhibition to feature furniture from this region was ‘Wonen in de wijde wereld’, held at the Tropenmuseum in 1963 and 1964. Long after Van de Wall’s publication, which continued to be the standard reference work on the subject for nearly 40 years, two books appeared almost simultaneously that shed new light on the subject of furniture from the Netherlands East Indies. The first was by Veenendaal, conveniently published in English, the second by Terwen-de Loos. Veenendaal provides more insights into early Dutch colonial society than Van de Wall and takes a somewhat more technical approach to categorizing the ornamentation on ebony furniture to form the basis for dating such objects. He successfully identifies several distinct types of carving, although the historical dating derived from these archetypes is certainly debatable. The work by Terwen-de Loos is more reserved and scholarly, very fitting for a subject that has so very few historic sources to draw from. Both authors also go beyond the scope of Van de Wall’s work by covering the 18th and 19th centuries in more detail and looking at European-style furniture as well. The last major revival of the subject was in 2002 with the publication of ‘Domestic interiors at the Cape and in Batavia: 1602-1795’, by Van de Geijn-Verhoeven. The catalogue that accompanied the exhibition, held at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, discussed domestic interiors from Indonesia and Cape Town, and the section on East Indian furniture was written by Veenendaal. Since 2002 though, furniture from the Netherlands East Indies has only occasionally been on show in small exhibitions, the most recent being ‘Indië thuis’ at the Museum Geelvinck-Hinlopen Huis in Amsterdam.26 However, exhibitions and publications have not improved the popularity of such furniture substantially. General interest in the subject in the Netherlands is still remarkably low, as can also be seen in auction results for such items. And as all Company period rooms have disappeared from Dutch museums, we must conclude that there is little chance that popularity will rise during the coming years.


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16 th century

Upon arrival of the Dutch in East India

Actual physical remnants dating back to before the 17th century trading posts in South East Asia are very rare. Apart from several ruined Portuguese forts1 that tell us little to nothing about their occupants’ domestic lives, there is little to be found in the now larger cities of the Indonesian archipelago that reminds us of the earliest century of maritime Eurasian trade. The only documents that prove to be a valuable source of information for this scarcely detailed period are the fairly large amount of travel journals that have survived. Particularly valuable are the earliest Dutch journals from the late 16th century that sometimes give surprisingly detailed descriptions of the earliest trading posts, including insights into the daily lives of their inhabitants. One can often detect in these writings a sincere curiosity for this alien environment as well as a sometimes genuine appreciation for the cultural differences that are witnessed. Although one has to be prudent concerning certain details within these texts – sometimes descriptions seem to be based on hearsay rather than actual observation – comparing different records can lead to a fairly reliable reconstruction of what early Indonesian cities such as Bantam looked like when the Dutch arrived. It has been generally assumed that most Indonesian societies were unfamiliar with the Western concept of furniture before the arrival of European settlers. In fact, the distinct ebony chairs and benches are commonly thought to have been the first pieces of furniture made under Dutch patronage, due to there being a general lack of seating furniture on the Indonesian archipelago until well into the 17th century. Whereas this assumption seems fairly logical and straightforward, the studying of early travel journals allows us a more nuanced view on the existence of furniture in this particular part of Asia. Although there appears to have been no tradition in South East Asia of furniture in the Western sense of the word, its native inhabitants were certainly not unfamiliar with the concept of elevated seating, as we shall see later. The first Dutchman to record a description of the islands in South East Asia was Jan Huygensz. van Linschoten, who departed to the East from Lisbon as a member of a Portuguese fleet in 1583. Although focusing mostly on Southern Asia rather than the Indonesian archipelago, his elaborate report gives us a detailed account of ship travel, intercontinental trade and city life in some of the most


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important Portuguese trading posts. Of particular interest is his description of the craftsmen who resided in Goa, but even more importantly Ceylon – a region that seems to have been one of the sources for the remarkable appearance of ebony furniture. The first Dutch fleet to reach East India from the Cape of Good Hope was led by Cornelis de Houtman, who had received detailed instructions to ‘pertinently keep a day-to-day journal of everything you will experience, and take good notions of all the secrets of the countries and their manner of trade, to be handed over to us upon your return, including pictures, situations and [trade] opportunities of the aforementioned countries, cities, rivers and harbours that you may visit, and let them be depicted by the painter who you shall take with you’.2 The unnamed painter would most likely have been specialised in cartography. The members of De Houtman’s crew have indeed left us with a remarkably detailed report, particularly for the city of Bantam, on which they first set foot on 1st July 1595. A similarly detailed report was delivered by the admiral of the second Asia-bound fleet, Jacob Cornelisz. van Neck, by the turn of the century. Although the works of De Houtman and Van Neck contain the most significant details regarding the cultural life of the Indonesians, there were many writing members amongst their staff. Several other – albeit generally more brief – diaries were kept by senior staff members and helmsmen that sometimes contain valuable accounts of their journey to East Asia. Gathering the observations by these pioneering explorers – as well as seeing many observations be confirmed by later travellers – gives us some insights into the early Indonesian trading posts, revealing details of their layout, architecture, interiors and the culture and customs of their inhabitants. This can all lead to a better understanding of the earliest domestic lives of the Dutch settlers.

European influence through the Portuguese Although it is well-documented that the Portuguese erected forts throughout most of Indonesia and enjoyed a monopoly as the only European traders in the region for nearly a century, questions about their actual influence on different Asian nations remain difficult to answer. This is particularly true for the Indonesian archipelago, where their presence was fairly limited when compared to Southern Asia. After their conquest of Malacca in 1511, the Portuguese struggled to gain foothold throughout the many smaller kingdoms of Indonesia, often failing to obtain trade monopolies and being on hostile terms with most Indonesian rulers due to their often aggressive approach. This continuing trouble to secure their position on the archipelago led the Portuguese to shift their interests towards China and Japan during the second half of the 16th century. The areas under major Portuguese influence were probably limited to the island of Timor and Malacca, the latter being also surrendered to the Dutch in 1641.


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While it is perhaps tempting to think that large numbers of Portuguese resided at the Indonesian trading posts, the actual number of semi-permanent settlers appears to have been surprisingly small. They are generally described in Dutch travel journals as being around a mere dozen or so, although such numbers probably refer to the number of merchants rather than the entire staff of soldiers and sailors. Also, the fact that they were in almost constant conflict with local Indonesian rulers and had continued difficulties in obtaining trade agreements, certainly did not help to improve their cultural influence in this region. Whereas the profound lingual influences through trade contacts and the intermarriage of Portuguese men and Asian women have been widely discussed, artistic influences have had little attention and are difficult to scrutinize.3 Regarding both interior decoration and elevated seating, it is doubtful whether the Portuguese had any profound influence on the region’s different societies. They were generally only very small groups of temporary visitors, focusing their activities on trade rather than housing, as the Dutch did for many years afterwards. This was certainly not the case in Goa, the foremost Portuguese trading post in India and one that grew into their largest centre commercial centre and seat of power in Asia. Similar to Batavia in the later Netherlands East Indies, Goa became the centre of European culture in India, where the Portuguese influence was most profound. The dominating influence of the Portuguese in this western Indian city is elaborately described by Van Linschoten, who calls it ‘capital of all of India’ around 1584.4 According to Van Linschoten, most of the wealthy Portuguese in Goa actually carry out very little work themselves, instead having their slaves and servants run their businesses; an observation also made by De Houtman about the wealthy merchants of Bantam.5 He also makes specific mention of the use of furniture – particularly chairs, which appear to have been strictly limited amongst the Portuguese population. Inside their homes, the Portuguese had a large number of chairs which he calls ‘reclining chairs’. These were offered to guests upon their arrival and carried to church by their servants whenever in service.6 Servants would also carry with them leather or velvet pillows for their master to sit on.7 This form of service was also common in the formerly predominantly Hindu society of Indonesia, as we shall discuss later. Van Linschoten offers a brief description of the chairs inside the Portuguese church as ‘reclining chairs, executed with velvet and golden nails’ and also describes the presence of what appear to be prie-dieux as ‘small chairs, bench-wise with a velvet pillow upon to lay one’s arms’.8 Even the lower classes of soldiers are mentioned to each possess ‘a chair, four or five, with a table and a bed’.9 There can be little doubt that the Portuguese brought their custom of elevated seating with them to Goa. This becomes all the more clear when Van Linschoten describes the interiors of Goa’s native inhabitants, who were most probably lower class. These are ‘very empty and small, covered with straw, without any windows, with small low and narrow doors, through which one almost has to crawl on his knees to enter and exit. Their furniture consists of straw mats upon the earth [that


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serve] as their beds and sitting places; their tables, linen, table mats and napkins are made of big Indian fig leaves, which serve them not only as tables, linen and table mats, but also as dishes in which they bring their foods and conserves, which are also used in the shops of their grocers and pharmacists to wrap up all that they sell’.10 Research by Jaffer on the traditional Indian interior confirms that most native interiors continued to look very similar to Van Linschoten’s description throughout the following centuries.11 The demand for Western-style furniture in Goa – presumably mostly for the large number of Portuguese settlers – had even resulted in a small industry springing up amongst the native inhabitants. Describing the ‘black’ neighbourhoods of Goa, Van Linschoten mentions certain streets where ‘there live none other than heathens,12 who turn all sorts of bedsteads, chairs and such, and cover it very elegantly with lacquer of every colour, which is very beautiful to see’. There also appear to have been streets that harboured a variety of native craftsmen, including coppersmiths, carpenters and wood merchants.13 Van Linschoten seems genuinely impressed with the skills of these craftsmen. However, he puts the Singhalese above all other nations in terms of quality of their craftsmanship: ‘The natives of Ceylon are very crafty and grand artists in the working of gold, silver, ivory, iron and all metals, which is a marvel to see, and which is held in very high esteem through all of India, and carries a price above that of all [the work of] other Indians’.14 Although not specifically mentioned by Van Linschoten, the Singhalese were also renowned for their level of craftsmanship in wood, particularly carving. Similar observations on the skill of Singhalese craftsmen can already be found in the work of Tomé Pires at the beginning of the century: ‘Ceylon has good craftsmen – jewellers, blacksmiths, carpenters, and turners chiefly. The people of Ceylon are serious, well-educated’.15 The valuable testimony by Van Linschoten suggests that certain regions of India and Ceylon were already esteemed centres of wood craftsmanship during Portuguese times, even producing furniture for which there appears to have been no or little precedent before the arrival of its Western settlers. However, there are several indications to make one wonder whether this was also the case for the Portuguese trading posts in other regions of Asia, particularly those of the Indonesian archipelago. As mentioned before, the number of semi-permanent settlers at these trading posts was much smaller, making demand relatively low. The Portuguese were also by no means the dominant foreign trading nation in this region; a position that had long been claimed by the Chinese who had been trading in South East Asia centuries before the arrival of the Europeans and had a strong cultural influence that lasted well into the 20th century. The Chinese were also among the few Asian nations that had a long standing tradition in elevated seating and quality cabinet making. Furthermore, studying early travel journals reveals no signs of there being any form of interior decoration or furniture, in a Western sense, in the description of the houses and palaces of the wealthier Indonesians. Neither do the several remarks about local crafts make any mention


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of a trade bearing close relation to cabinet making, perhaps also due to the fact that bamboo had a long-standing tradition as the primary building material, instead of wood, in this region. Loebèr already indicated that this tradition could have been a likely cause for the continued low quality of constructional woodworking by the Indonesians, which could still be seen in the early 20th century.16 If this is indeed true, it would explain why the earliest domestic inventories from Batavia mention the presence of ‘coastal furniture’, which was probably imported from the Coromandel coast due to the initial dearth of qualified craftsmen within the Indonesian archipelago to fulfil the need for furniture. As we shall discuss later, the Indonesians were rarely appreciated by the Dutch for the quality of their woodworking skills; the only exception being their purely decorative carving.

Trade interests and the dealing with foreign cultures It would not be an overstatement to suggest that the primary or perhaps only incentive for the Dutch – or in fact any other nation – to travel the risky and lengthy journey to the East was their economic interest in foreign products. The average eight-month journey was harsh and hazardous; the promise of high profits the only incentive. Finding the sea route to the Sunda Strait and negotiating trade agreements with Eastern rulers played an essential part in the rise of the Dutch republic to become one of the most prosperous and powerful nations in Europe during the 17th century. Nearly all early travel journals – as well as official Company records – revolve around subjects that could in some way benefit or impair trade interests. These include highly detailed descriptions and maps of the route to the East, dangers for which one had to prepare during the trip, the presence of refreshment stations, descriptions of all the available products in each regions, weights, currencies and of course the subject of foreign merchants. Most early travels journals allow readers ample insight into the physical appearance, language and trading customs of the many foreign merchants that their readers might encounter during their travels. These descriptions are usually of a very general nature. For example, the Portuguese were typically considered to be sly and hypocritical, the Chinese often marked as frauds and forgers, whereas the Javanese were almost without exception seen to be thievish, unreliable, murderous and downright lazy. Similar descriptions continue to appear even well into the 20th century. Although portraying an altogether negative image of nearly all foreigners, these apparent generalisations are obviously meant to help future explorers and merchants in their dealing with the cultural diversity that one may expect to encounter upon arrival at cities such as Aceh or Bantam. They also served to prepare them for the many pitfalls of trade with foreign merchants. One could conclude that these descriptions would lead Dutch merchants to become highly xenophobic and suspicious in their contact with foreigners. Such feelings continued to exist during the following centuries, creating an often tense


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atmosphere in early colonial societies such as Batavia. Racism was commonplace, but certainly not just amongst the Europeans.17 This atmosphere of distrust – which appears to have been mutual in many cases – was often reflected in the layout of major trading posts, which even in their earliest days showed strong signs of cultural segregation. This was also true for cities such as Bantam and Tuban, where a great number of nationalities resided in separate quarters of the city, often being appointed specific locations by the local ruler. These typically included a warehouse near the harbour to store merchandise, but also a location for them to build living quarters for the more permanent settlers of the trading post. The resulting areas were usually located outside the initial city walls to form separate quarters, which would remain a distinctive feature for most of the larger cities of Indonesia, the most obvious example being the later city of Batavia.18 De Houtman provides us with one of the earliest maps of the city of Bantam, in which the formation of several separate quarters can already be identified. He accompanies the map with a description: ‘All around, both on the mainland and along the beach are many houses,19 most of which belong to foreign nations, such as Malayans, Bengals, Gujaratans, Abexinusians, of whom there are a great many. The Chinese have a place at the west side of the city, where the Portuguese have also resided and where we [the Dutch] were also appointed to build our homes’.20 After negotiating trade agreements with the local ruler, merchants would be able to trade freely at the city centre’s daily markets, known in Java as the Pasar. The first step in the negotiation process typically consisted of an audience with the governor or ruler of the respective city or region, during which the host would be laden with precious gifts, of which the merchants held a large stock on their ships. Popular gifts included textiles, glassware and silverware, but sometimes, more specifically, clocks and looking glasses. Seeing such objects described in the homes of Javanese rulers usually instantly marks them as gifts. The city of Bantam held a market three times a day. An undoubtedly romanticised depiction of such a market, as seen through Western eyes, is printed in the report by De Houtman, (see page 19). Among the goods sold are groceries, spices, bamboo, weapons, textiles, ironwork and jewellery.21 More interesting products mentioned by De Houtman are ‘fair baskets with lacquer, fair boxes (...) and mirrors’ that are sold by Chinese merchants, as well as the ‘mat market’ where one could buy woven bamboo and rattan and presumably also the traditional Indonesian sitting mats.22 Aside from the mention of mats and Chinese boxes, which are probably small and valuable lacquered boxes, there is no specific mention of any sort of furniture being traded at the Pasar. However, when describing his visit to the Chinese quarters of Bantam, De Houtman praises the Chinese for the quality of their homes and their apparent level of native craftsmanship. This is not uncommon, as the Chinese and especially the Japanese always receive praise for their manual skills. He specifically mentions ‘fair chests [made] of tortoiseshell’ and ‘fair chairs’ out of ivory, which are ‘more esteemed than silver[ware]’.23 Chairs like these were probably part of the interiors of wealthy Chinese merchants, not to be used for trade.


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Engraving of a typical market scene in Bantam, showing merchants of different nationalities. The city’s mosque can be seen in the background. Rouffaer en IJzerman, 1915

Early descriptions of Indonesian homes and palaces When Cornelis de Houtman first set foot on the shore of Bantam in 1595, the city was known as one of the most important centres of commerce for the Indonesian archipelago. Other major trading posts included Tuban, Malacca, Aceh, Ambon and of course its neighbouring city Jacatra (later Batavia), which would soon overtake Bantam’s position after the Dutch chose to make it their new centre of economic activity. During his stay of several months in Bantam, De Houtman recorded an elaborate description of nearly all major aspects of the city. After the Dutch had, with some difficulty, negotiated a trade agreement with the governor of Bantam, the Portuguese accused them of being pirates – the Dutch were now free to exert their trade within the city walls.24 Image 2 shows a detailed map of the city at the turn of the century. De Houtman’s first impression of the city appears not to have been a very positive one: ‘They have in the city only three actual streets, which all lead to the court or Pacebam (...) The city is not paved, but very sandy (...), very swampy, being very dirty and smelly’.25 Van Neck is likewise unimpressed with Bantam some years later: ‘Concerning the city, it is very crudely built (...) I could not write about its actual size, for it is built in such a confusing manner (...), and full of stench and filth’.26 Both explorers describe nearly all houses in Bantam to be made out of ‘reed’ or bamboo. What they are actually describing are the traditional Indonesian homes or rumah, that still exist to this day. Being part of an ancient building tradition that can be found in different forms throughout nearly all of Indonesia, their initial impression may come closest to we might call a gazebo or beach house. Homes such as these generally rest upon a number of wooden poles or bamboo stakes that lift the house several feet above the ground. Upon these poles lies a very simple


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framework to support the walls and rooftop. Walls are made up of large sheets of split and woven bamboo, known as kepang, a technique that is still used today and is known in the West mostly by its application in garden windscreens. The gabled rooftops are generally very steep to allow for a rapid fall-off of the strong monsoon rains and are covered with palm leaves or grasses. Houses such as these typically comprise a large, single space, but allow the use of moveable bamboo screens to create separate rooms and sections in the house. However, houses belonging to upper classes may have fitted rooms and sometimes feature several extensions beyond the main building. The height of the rooftop and the fact that the building is lifted several feet above the ground both allow for optimal ventilation in the region’s sometimes blistering heat. Their somewhat unstable impression is confirmed by the English crew member of De Houtman’s fleet, John Davis, on visiting Sumatra: ‘The houses are built eight foote or better from the ground upon posts of wood, with free passage under, the walls and coverings of [bamboo] mats, the poorest and weakest things in the world’.27 Up until the 20th century, contemporary descriptions of Indonesian homes by travellers remain virtually identical.28

Map of Bantam. Rouffaer en IJzerman, 1915

Distinctive for traditional upper class Javanese houses is a roofed pavilion in front of the house, called the pendapa, where the owner would receive guests. The pendapa and living quarters (dalem ageng) were connected through a narrow passageway, called the pringgitan.29 Both De Houtman and Van Neck documented


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their visit to the royal court of Bantam, for which De Houtman describes the typical aforementioned layout of the Javanese home. He also describes how the rulers’ servants and guards reside on either side of the long pringgitan to allow for a barrier of protection before entering the royal quarters.30 The court buildings are described as being made out of a combination of wood, bamboo and palm leaves. However, Van Neck describes several door portals and pillars within the royal court that are ‘neatly carved with foliage’.31 Davis adds to this that the palace of the ruler of Aceh is decorated with ‘cloth of gold, sometime with velvet and sometime damaske’.32 These textiles were most likely to have been gifts received from foreign trading nations. On the subject of storage, De Houtman informs us of the presence of so-called ‘godongs’ in close proximity to the bamboo houses, a term later adopted by the English language as ‘godowns’. The densely built bamboo houses of Bantam and other larger cities were highly susceptible to fires, which occurred frequently. However, De Houtman notes that he was amazed to see that most houses that were destroyed during a roaring fire in the centre of Bantam, were completely rebuilt in a matter of three or four days.33 In order to protect their valuables as well as their precious merchandise from this constant threat, the godowns were made to be fire retardant. They are described by De Houtman as small, brick and often windowless sheds with a wooden beam roof that was covered with a thick layer of sand. The godowns of Bantam are depicted in the background of an etching of the city’s governor.34 Another city that enjoyed the interest of early Dutch explorers was Tuban on the north-east coast of Java. It appears to be specifically mentioned for its apparent wealth and the splendour of the royal palace. Van Neck calls it the ‘fairest city on all of the island of Java’.35 Several explorers mention how they were welcomed to shore by the king, who would commonly be seated on an elephant and would graciously invite them to visit his extravagant – and somewhat curious – court, which was also home to a large number of horses and wild animals. However prosperous Tuban may have been during the 16th century, the city lost its importance as a major port of Java during the following centuries.

The existence of furniture during the 16th century When meeting with the juvenile ruler of Bantam, Van Neck describes being requested to sit down on a mat opposite his host, similarly seated on a mat, surrounded by several servants and councillors.36 Mentions of this common form of courtesy in Indonesia can be found in nearly all early travel journals, particularly when meeting with rulers or governors. When receiving guests, the ruler would typically sit cross-legged on his own mat, which is often described by Western observers to be nothing but a regular mat or rug. As John Davis describes: ‘Hee [the ruler of Atjeh] sitteth upon the ground crosse legges like a taylor, and so must all


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those do that be in his presence’.37 The same mats were used to sleep on as well. And although all Dutch authors on the subject of Indonesian furniture claim that the use of seating furniture was a well-known prerogative of Indonesian noblemen, early travel journals from Java do not report any sightings of chair-seated rulers.38 There are no mentions of any form of elevated seating amongst the higher ranking Indonesians, the only exception being a remarkable description given by Jacob van Heemskerck when visiting the island of Ambon. His company was given a surprisingly warm welcome by the senior military captain of Ambon and his staff. ‘[The captain] led me towards the shadow of a large tree, where there were two chairs, he had me sit on one while he sat down on the other, and all his councillors [would sit] according to their rank; some on benches, others on mats upon the ground.’ He also mentions how a third chair is offered to the son of the ruler of Ternate, who would arrive at a later point during the meeting.39 This remarkable exception to the general rule of high-ranking Indonesians sitting on mats can probably be explained by the purpose of the meeting. Whereas the Dutch were merely interested in acquiring a warehouse for their trading activities on Ambon, the welcoming committee was particularly keen on obtaining the military support of the Dutch in their battle to expel the Portuguese from the island. Although declining the offer at this meeting, fort Ambon would later be conquered by the Dutch in 1605 and served as the Company’s headquarters for several years before the Dutch moved their centre of power to Batavia. Unfortunately, the unique description of the Ambonese meeting by Van Heemskerck contains no details about the appearance of the chairs and benches. It is most likely that these pieces of furniture were obtained during their battle with the Portuguese rather than being made by native craftsmen for the purpose of such meetings. One may assume that the Ambonese actually attempted to create a familiar setting for their Dutch visitors by using furniture to gain their support. One finds similar descriptions throughout the following centuries, where chairs would be drawn up to appease Western visitors. Jaffer describes a similar development for India, where natives remained faithful to their country’s customs when social circumstances allowed, only using Western-style furniture for official occasions that required interaction with Europeans.40 In fact, the use of chairs and the wearing of hats – the latter strictly limited in several Indonesian societies to those of noble rank – were probably seen as Europeans’ main distinguishing features, and as an expression of social status. A common tradition throughout most of Indonesia was to honour small, carved, wooden statues that represented their makers’ ancestors. Those who were of European or Christian descent or were otherwise linked to Europeans, would portray their ancestors as sitting on a chair and wearing a pontifical hat. Several figurines of this type are now part of the collections of the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam and the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden (page 23).


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European figurine. Yamdena. Exact dating unknown (prior to 1901). Collection Museum Volkenkunde: 1296-59


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As well as there being a lack of chairs in Indonesia, mentions of other types of furniture are uncommon to the point of being almost non-existent. The use of high tables was probably deemed unnecessary, since the domestic lives of the Indonesians took place at ground level. But even a mention of lower tables in the form of large dishes or serving plates are nowhere to be found. As Davis describes, following a banquet with the king of Aceh: ‘Hee eateth upon the ground, without table, napkins and other linen’.41 Meals and beverages are described as simply being served in coconut shells by servants or folded in palm leaves.42 The only type of regularly described furniture is storage furniture. There are several mentions of small chests inside houses or those carried around by servants, usually containing betel. Surprisingly, the wealthy ruler of Tuban is mentioned as possessing several ‘chests and cupboards’,43 although the lack of more detailed descriptions makes it hard to imagine what these objects looked like and whether they were made locally or brought as gifts by foreign nations. Descriptions of predominantly unfurnished homes continue to appear well into the late 19th century, and the currently common use of furniture in native Indonesian homes seems to be a development that was only slowly introduced in the late 19th century. The apparently complete dearth in Indonesia of any form of furniture in the Western sense, must have led the initial settlers to being wholly dependent on their own supply of ship furniture when they arrived in the East; this was indeed the case with the Dutch. In a passage from Jolinck’s journal, we can read how the Dutch had been offered a warehouse on Ternate, and how they brought ashore their ‘tables, chairs and other furnishings’.44 Being a somewhat lower ranking Company servant, Jolinck sometimes describes the daily activities of the ship’s crew, which are mostly overlooked by his higher ranking contemporaries. He makes a similar remark regarding their temporary settlement in Bantam, during which he and other members of the crew brought ‘pots, pans and other furnishings ashore to make a household’.45 Unfortunately, none of this furniture is known to have survived or can be recognized as part of this specific period in history. We can only guess at how it would have looked; it would probably have been inexpensive European stools and chairs.


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17th century

The age of expansion and settlement

The first Indonesia-bound fleet under De Houtman, commonly known in the Netherlands as the ‘first ship journey’, could be considered unsuccessful in many ways. The profits from the earliest trade in the East were hardly sufficient to cover initial investments, largely due to bad leadership, high mortality rates and a rather blunt foreign policy towards Asian cultures.1 However, finding a sea route to the East autonomously seemed to open a window of opportunity for Dutch investors, who would soon unite themselves within the several smaller precursors of what would later become the VOC or Dutch East India Company. Their faith would soon be rewarded by a second journey under Van Neck, who returned with four ships laden with foreign merchandise; this would be a key motivator for initiating the sending of several more fleets within the following years. The willingness to invest large sums of money in the Dutch Company and the use of long-term contracts meant that the Company had a both stable and substantially wealthy point of departure, which gave it a significant upper hand in comparison to its European competitors.2 The following decades in the East are characterized by the Dutch efforts to gain foothold in Asia’s important ports, most of which already housed smaller or larger Portuguese populations. Through clever politics, the enforcing of trade monopolies and military offenses, the Dutch had managed to become the leading European presence in South East Asia in little more than 80 years. The resulting network of trading posts, scattered along the coastlines of several Asian countries, is commonly known as the Netherlands East Indies,3 ranging from the Indian Coromandel coast to the most remote eastern islands of the Indonesian archipelago. The initial focus on the spice trade meant that the earliest Dutch efforts were aimed at the many spice producing Indonesian islands, such as Ambon, the Moluccas and the Banda island group and later expanded westwards towards the eastern coast of India to include items such as textiles, tea, porcelain and even elephants. According to one of the leading historians on the subject, Femme Gaastra, the Dutch followed a deliberate, three-tiered strategy that was suggested by Cornelis Matelieff during the first decade of the 17th century, which aimed to crush the Portuguese dominance and strengthen the Dutch presence in the region.4 The first tier was the formation of a central government and rendezvous point similar to the city of Goa, as a stronghold of Dutch power.


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The second tier would be the creation a stable ow of income for the Company by setting up an intra-Asian trading network, governed by the aforementioned rendezvous point. Third was the continuous effort to obtain and uphold trade monopolies to increase dependence on the Company, which made the Dutch go as far as committing several humanitarian, economic and ecological crimes. The city of Bantam, which had been used as the administrative centre for the Dutch in South East Asia since the beginning of the century, proved to be unsuitable as a rendezvous point. Its neighbouring city of Jacatra or Jayakarta was considered a more strategic alternative, located as it was at the mouth of the Sunda Strait. The city was conquered by Jan Pieterszoon Coen in 1619 and would quickly grow to become the Dutch capital of South East Asia, despite being under continuous threat from both European and native cultures. Through military and political offenses, the Dutch slowly managed to increase their inuence throughout Asia, reaching an absolute peak towards the end of the 17th century, with the renamed city of Batavia as its undisputed stronghold, followed by the strategically located, cinnamon producing island of Ceylon, which the Portuguese surrendered to the Dutch in 1658. Many of the other trading posts were staffed by a fairly limited number of Company servants to run the factories; for that reason we shall focus on the culturally dominant Batavia as an example of a European society in Asia from this point on. As we shall discuss later, the continuously expanding city of Batavia became a showcase of excessive wealth, splendour and what were considered outrageously decadent lifestyles upheld by most of its successful Dutch inhabitants.

View of the city of Jacatra around 1608, before the Dutch conquest and erection of its distinctive fort Batavia. Rijksmuseum, inv. RP-P-OB-75.449


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The city of Batavia Work to convert the city’s existing warehouse into a fortification started one year before the conquest of Jacatra. The fort, or Castle Batavia as it was called, would later successfully protect the Dutch from several attacks on the city, which occurred frequently. The fort fronted the walled city that would be erected behind it during the following years and form the centre of Dutch activity in Asia. As it grew it added a city hall, several churches, a marketplace, orphanage and of course the seat of the Dutch High Council of India inside the castle. The wide canal that was dug around the walled city effectively created a fortified Dutch capital that was isolated from the surrounding areas; these remained an uninhabitable wilderness for several decades to come. The city could only be accessed through one of the four land gates, such as the Nieuwe Poort depicted below. For over a century, the cramped intramural city – measuring approximately 3.4 square kilometres – housed nearly all of the Dutch inhabitants who were not bound to the ships by their profession. Remaining on hostile terms with the Javanese until the third quarter of the century, the city was inhabited by Company servants, a limited number of free burghers, a large population of Chinese merchants, smaller groups of other foreign merchants and predominantly a significant population of slaves.5

Johan Nieuhof. The Nieuwe Poort of the city Batavia. 1682. Koninklijke Bibliotheek Den Haag: 1049B13-021


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The city was split in two by the river Ciliwung, which was diverted in to a network of bridged canals, flanked by canal houses that provided a familiar Dutch city setting. The city is generally described by contemporary travellers to be very fair, and is sometimes compared favourably to Amsterdam.6 The most prestigious houses were located along the Tijgersgracht (tiger’s canal), which connected to the city hall square and the protestant church. The south-eastern corner of the city featured the so-called ‘crafts quarters’, which housed the workshops of the Company’s craftsmen and the slaves that worked there under their supervision.7 Soldiers were mostly stationed at the fort and along the rampart at the coastline. The large number of shipwrights required for the maintenance of ships were mostly positioned at the wharfs on the coastal island of Onrust. During the first half of the 18th century, the Company employed a total of around 2,000 craftsmen, several hundred of whom worked in Batavia.8 As was noted in the previous chapter regarding the limited number of Portuguese present in the Indonesian archipelago, the number of Dutch Company servants is often similarly overestimated. Indications of staff numbers in 1625 and 1687 demonstrate a growing, but modest number of European inhabitants.9 Already the capital of the Netherlands East Indies in 1625, Batavia then housed a mere 665 Company servants, a large portion of whom always consisted of soldiers and sailors. Additionally, out of a total of 4,500 staff members scattered across the Asian trading posts, the majority of the personnel was most likely to be continuously on the move and could hardly be described as permanent settlers. Despite the fact that a number of Batavian directors propagated the founding of a large population of Dutch free burghers possessing civil rights, the directors in patria were reluctant to loosen their firm grip on Batavian society. As such, their population remained limited and essentially continued to fall under strict Company regulations.10 Having substantially grown in the years 1687 and1688, during the peak of the Company’s power, the total number of Company servants reached around 22,000, nearly half of whom were soldiers due to increased military activity. Regarding the city of Batavia during this period, around 2,600 staff were counted, only 205 of whom were directly related to political and Company trade activities and could be seen as the Batavian elite. Another category of 490, labelled ‘other staff members’, was probably made up largely of craftsmen, of whom an even smaller number was involved in wood-related crafts. If one were to deduct the number of mixed Eurasian citizens from the total of 2,600, the number of Europeans would be even lower – somewhere around 1,500. These ratios remained roughly the same throughout the 18th century.11 One may conclude that, although they were the undisputed rulers of the city, the Europeans were essentially a minority in Batavia, which had an estimated population of over 20,000, taking in its suburbs, half of whom were slaves.12


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The Netherlands East Indies were ruled by the central government in Batavia, known as the High Council of India. At the top of the hierarchy stood the governor general, surrounded by the six councillors of India. Below lay an intricate network of officers, divided up into several sectors, including trade, military, maritime, law, health, church and educational affairs, each headed by a responsible representative of the division. All the trading posts answered to Batavia, whereas Batavia answered only to the Directory of the Company in the Netherlands. The activities of nearly all divisions were painstakingly recorded in what is now a substantial archive of the Company. The fact that communication with the homeland was slow – missives sometimes taking up to a year to arrive – and that the Company’s Indian division possessed considerable political and military power, the Council of India was essentially a highly independent government in the East.13 And since Batavia was primarily seen as the Company’s headquarters and main centre for merchandise, citizens were denied many of the political privileges that were common for similar cities in the Netherlands.14

J.W. Heydt. The meeting room of the High Council of India during the second quarter of the eighteenth century. Heydt, plate xiv, p. 37

During the course of the 17th century, Batavia continued to grow. This was not only due to an increased number of Company servants, but also, to a great extent, to a continuing migration of native Javanese, Arab, Indian, Chinese and other Asian trading nations who were drawn to Batavia’s economic climate. The cultural segregation we discussed during the previous chapter was also very much true


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for Batavia, which continued the layout of the city as being divided into more or less separate quarters as it expanded outside the city walls; several nations – mostly Indonesian – had started building quarters there known as kampongs, which were mostly segregated. As the wilderness in the surrounding ommelanden of Batavia was being cut down, and safety started to increase due to cultivation and the peace treaty with the king of Mataram, the Dutch authorities slowly started taking a governmental responsibility for the surrounding areas of the city.15 The most distinct quarters were those belonging to the Chinese, who already inhabited large areas inside the city walls and had also been hired as workmen during the founding years of the city.16 Smaller industries and crafts flourished in such suburbs, particularly under the entrepreneurial and skilled Chinese. According to the German soldier Saar, the Chinese ‘can imitate everything that the Dutch have made’.17 Valentijn adds that this included furniture and other household items.18 Several items that indicate strong signs of Chinese creation are discussed in the catalogue. Living alongside this already broad range of cultures, two population groups are worth special mention. The Mestiezen or Mestizos was a general term for those of mixed Eurasian descent who had been raised as Christians. Being the result of mixed marriages or extramarital affairs, the Mestiezen – although officially recorded as European – were publically not recognized as Europeans and suffered from discrimination from Europeans and Asians alike. However, due to a lack of European woman in the East, the female Mestizo culture became increasingly important through their marriages with Company servants and had an enormous cultural influence on the men whom they had married and the children they raised. Company servants were not allowed to bring their Asian or Mestizo wives and children to their homeland and would often leave them with a house and sufficient funding to support themselves, thus essentially creating a new middle class of wealthier Eurasians.19 Another notable group were the Mardijkers. These were the descendants of mostly Indian slaves who had been brought to the archipelago by the Portuguese and the Dutch, and had been freed and Christianised by their masters. Although they were also allowed to adopt European manners in public, Mardijkers were similarly looked down upon by the Europeans. Being the economic capital of South East Asia and holding daily markets along the shop-filled streets of Batavia, city life must have been quite bustling during the 17th century. Almost every Company servant would be directly involved in either official or private trade. The famous painting by Andries Beeckman shows us several easily distinguishable people of different nations strolling along a market on the Kali Besar. A rough etching by Cornelis de Bruyn from 1662 exhibits a similarly bustling scene in the city on a street level, which shows a Dutchman buying goods from a native woman on the right-hand side of the street. On the left, one can clearly see the crowded terrace of a café, with in the background what appears to be a stage with a violin player and female dancer. These bamboo kiosks and terraces were known as kaasjes at the time and served coffee, tea and arak and frequently allowed performances and an opportunity to dance.20


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Cornelis de Bruyn. ‘Market scene.’ 1662-1690. Rijksmuseum: RP-T-1964-354(R)

Personnel, disease and death Almost throughout its entire existence, the Company was hampered by a continued shortage of qualified staff. In order to run its affairs in the East, it not only needed sailors and merchants, but also an ever increasing number of soldiers, craftsmen, government officials and medical staff. Qualified craftsmen were of the utmost importance for the Company’s activities and the number of carpenters especially is always carefully recorded in the archives. The council of India would relentlessly ask for more staff to be sent to Asia, but more importantly staff with the required skills and experience.21 Potential staff were certainly not standing in line, particularly in the wealthier Dutch cities, and they had to be attracted from more remote areas, mostly from the economically less prosperous areas of Germany. The Netherlands struggled with a stagnating population growth and the prospect of travelling to the East had become increasingly unattractive, due largely to the high mortality rates and moderate payment.22 In fact, the number of non-Dutch staff would typically be higher than the number of Dutch servants, but most of these European neighbours never got the chance to occupy some of the higher positions


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in the Company’s hierarchy.23 The Company would sometimes even resort to hiring Asian staff to meet the continued shortage.24 The monthly wages of the lower ranking Company servants remained virtually unchanged during the two centuries of the Company’s existence, being as much as 9 to 11 guilders per month. Lower officers would earn around 18 to 24 guilders a month, whilst a high-ranking captain fetched around 60 to 80 guilders.25 Even amongst the highest ranking Company officials, wages varied between 300 and 400 guilders a month, which was quite modest for its day. For lower-ranking servants in particular, wages were barely sufficient to sustain them in the often very expensive trading posts, even though many expenses were covered by the Company. In fact, potential soldiers and sailors were often tempted to sign up for the Company by hired recruiters or zielverkopers (literally: ‘soul sellers’) in the Netherlands, who would lure naïve youngsters with wonderful stories of how one could simply pick up the diamonds along the side of the road in Java. As soon as these men were brought aboard the East Indiaman, they were severely shaken by the disciplinary regime that governed the ship and forced to face the harsh reality of their choice.26 The disillusion may have been even greater on arrival, where making money would not have been as simple as it seemed. Only through largescale private trade activities could one hope to obtain the wealth one had dreamed of when signing up, being most easily accessible of course to those of high rank. Even when leading a very thrifty life and not falling victim to illness, theft or swindle, a sailor could only hope to save several hundred guilders of his wage after a five-year contract.27 In fact, many of those who returned to the Netherlands did so empty-handed. Those who didn’t, whatever their rank, owed their wealth primarily to their private trade activities. Travel to the East posed serious health risks for nearly all of those sailing on the East Indiamen and the death of fellow countrymen was part of the daily routine for Company servants. As is extensively documented in several travel logs, the mortality rates of Company staff during travel or shortly after arrival, could be staggering. Between 1660 and 1730, an average of 9.3 percent of staff had already died before arrival in Batavia.28 An outbreak of scurvy due to severe malnutrition was one of the most common causes of death amongst the lower-ranking Company servants on board. Whenever a member of staff died during the journey, their body would be thrown overboard after a short ceremony and their personal belongings handed over through a will or otherwise be put under the hammer.29 Upon arrival in Batavia however, mortality rates continued to rise as many Company servants – high and low ranking alike – would fall victim to a number of tropical diseases, the most common being malaria. Although death rates ranged enormously from year to year, the percentage of deceased newcomers could be as high as 70 percent within the first year of arrival.30 This was particularly true for the second quarter of the 18th century. A major malaria outbreak in Batavia from 1733 to 1738 rapidly took the lives of an enormous number of Company staff; this shall be further discussed in the following chapter. Although a small number of


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servants opted to stay in the East after the expiration of their contract, death was the most likely reason that a shocking two-thirds of the Company’s staff never saw Europe again after their departure to the East.31 After the death of one of his two head merchants, Van Neck sighs in a surprisingly personal reflection: ‘I think that those who travel from our country towards East India well deserve their payments, for they have to face the dangers of the storms and sea (...), pirates (...), the harmful disease that is scurvy (...) and the dangers involved in obtaining the friendship of its barbaric inhabitants, whose land is so unhealthy for our nation, that the majority of staff falls ill to this terrible disease, through which many have passed away (...).’32 The fear of exposure to such high risks could only be overcome by the prospect of gaining substantial wealth within a short period of time, which was likely to have been the key motivator for nearly all who signed up. The majority of those lucky few who managed to obtain such wealth and remain healthy during the five-year period of their contract were probably keen on returning to their homeland in order to live a life of leisure, and were therefore unlikely to invest large sums in expensive household furniture, other than the bare essential items. Writing in the 18th century, Stavorinus records how Dutch homes in Batavia are ‘in general, but poorly provided with furniture’ and that ‘nothing is added that is superfluous, or more than is wanted for use’.33 A meaningful quote from David van Lennep underlines the importance of making quick money: ‘(...) to scrape together money is the principle here, in such a manner that it is openly confessed, to deny this is held to be ridiculous. Look how one argues in Batavia: “the voyage hither is long and dangerous, the climate is unhealthy and fatiguing, these sacrifices and dangers must be compensated for! Only a genius can make an honest fortune. It would be foolish to display more consideration in behaviour and action than others, and consequently fail to reach the objectives for which we have come”. Real life proves this disgusting theory.’34 Those who met their maker during their stay in the East, generally left their physical properties to either their Asian mistresses or colleagues through a will, whereas savings would be remitted to the homeland. In case of there not being a will, goods would be auctioned off and thus rarely left the Asian trading posts.35

The assimilation of alien customs During their stay of over three centuries in the East, it is hardly surprising that the Dutch adapted a number of Eastern customs in their interaction with foreign cultures, as did Asian cultures vice versa. It was already noted in the previous chapter how the Ambonese created a familiar setting for the Europeans by the use of chairs and benches, and similar crossings of cultural borders may be commonly observed in contemporary writings. In his journal from 1601, Roelof Roelofszoon describes attending a banquet with the king of Ternate where tables were prepared


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for his foreign guests.36 A large, probably wooden, table was provided for the higher-ranking Company servants, whereas bamboo tables had been made for servants of a lower rank. The king would sit raised at the head of the wooden table on the traditional pile of rugs and pillows, under the cover of a canopy. Similar descriptions continue to appear well into the 18th century, most notably during banquets and feasts, but never within the private quarters of the ruler, where Europeans were expected to adapt. The above example is most illustrative of the adaptation to foreign cultures being highly dependent on the status of those involved and the social context in which such occasions take place. Many examples are given by contemporary travellers, who are generally quite keen to point out any behaviour in their fellow Europeans that deviates from European norms. Status symbols are among the most obvious examples, but also adaptations to the climate and the aforementioned indulgence of foreign guests. Mixed marriages and mutual economic dependence naturally accelerated the crossing of cultural borders. In order to legitimize their presence and power, but also through their mixed marriages, the Dutch were quick to adapt a number of status symbols that they had witnessed from local Indonesian rulers, as the Portuguese and Chinese had done before them. The most obvious example was having the disposition over a large number of paid servants and slaves, a tradition that was already strongly rooted in Indonesian society long before the arrival of the Europeans.37 Having an extensive number of servants for even the most ridiculously speciďŹ ed tasks remained one of the most important gradients of status, such as having

After Auguste van Pers. Raden Adi Pati, seated on a Raffles chair, wearing a remarkable combination between a European uniform and traditional Javanese sarong. Late nineteenth century. Tropenmuseum: 3728-187a


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a slave whose only function was to light the candles at night.38 During a largescale famine on the Indian continent in the 17th century, a great number of slaves was brought to Batavia from the Coromandel coast and Bengal.39 Many of them struggled to adapt to their new lives in the city with their often cruel masters. The Dutch proved themselves keen observers of the public display of Indonesian rulers. Taking the form of a parade, the ruler would typically appear in public followed by a number of servants with specified tasks, such as the betel box bearer (kendaga), the water jug bearer (kendi), sunscreen bearer (pamajoeng), sitting mat bearer (lampit) and a number of personal guards. Many rulers also had themselves transported by palanquin rather than walking. It is surprising how quickly the Dutch adopted these customs, replacing only the sitting mat bearer with a chair and pillow bearer when going to church. Palanquins were also adopted and – although many were initially repulsed by the habit – a number of Dutch learned to enjoy betel (sirih) as well, making their smiles bright red and eventually leaving their teeth blackened. Many of them also learned to take frequent baths during the day and wear light Indian textiles. Asian citizens similarly adopted Western status symbols. There are several images of Asian Batavians wearing distinctly European attire, and they are known to have driven coaches,40 drink wine and throw European-style dancing feasts as well. However, again such newly acquired habits would depend largely on the social context. For example, Mestizo women were known to sit on the most elegantly carved chairs in church, while preferring to sit on mats within the privacy of their homes. A similar note is made by Stavorinus when visiting the court of Bantam, the interior of which was decorated with Chinese and European furniture: ‘They sat on chairs, in the same manner as we do, although this is quite contrary to the general customs of Orientals’.41 According to Cordiner, the Singhalese similarly adopted European manners, ‘which they strive to imitate in the structure of their houses, and their furniture, and the style of their entertainments’.42 However, when it came to the display of splendour, there was no stopping the Batavians, whether they were European or Asian. So it is not surprising that discussions on a sumptuous code had already started in the 17th century (see following chapter).

Company and private trade The turnover of the Company and that of its employees is a subject that has received a great deal of scholarly attention in the Netherlands, but it is one that is difficult to scrutinize. Many Company servants were involved in shady – and largely undocumented – private trade, and this made a large number of Batavian citizens outrageously wealthy. Gaastra gives the example of Gerard Demmer, a member of India’s High Council during the middle of the 17th century. Given his monthly wage of 350 guilders, it would have been impossible for him to remit a total sum of more than 220,000 guilders to the Netherlands between 1652 and 1654, as he


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did.43 And Demmer is just one of many examples. According to Governor General Van Imhoff, Company servants commonly had more interest in their private trade activities than in those of the Company.44 All this, of course, was veiled in secrecy, yet everybody seemed to know. French traveller Tavernier characterizes these shady affairs as follows: ‘Certainly, all this must be kept secret, for if the Company would find out, everything would be lost for them, including their wages. But they have marvellous shenanigans to protect themselves (...). There is no con that they will not use’.45 Company staff were officially allowed their private trade, but only within set boundaries. Apart from their personal luggage, both higher and lower ranking servants were allowed to bring a limited amount of tax-free merchandise with them when travelling to the East. Chest sizes were prescribed by the Company and dependent on rank. They could be filled with merchandise that represented no more in value than three times the owner’s monthly wage. Although in many ways similar, a set of additional rules for bringing Eastern merchandise back home limited many items, or even forbade them as part of private trade. This of course gave way to a lot of illegal trade activities within every rank of the Company and proved to be almost impossible to eradicate. The possibilities for private trade were therefore significantly extended in 1742, when additional cargo space could be hired by paying so-called ‘recognition rights’. Certain items that were formerly forbidden could now be officially imported by paying a douceur upon arrival in the homeland. Naturally, official revenues started to rise significantly when the rules for private trade were loosened in the 1740s. In 1790,Company servants could profit from an even more liberal policy. 46 Of course, Company laws prior to 1742 didn’t offer much opportunity for substantial profit and every servant would try to find ways to outsmart the officials, often through means of fraud and bribe. And even after the introduction of the more liberal policy, Company servants would seek ways of avoiding having to pay tax. Although many attempts were undertaken to suppress private trade, Company officials were essentially powerless to combat these activities; inspectors would frequently be structurally opposed by other staff members or turn out to be as corrupt as the individuals they were supposed to inspect. Some of them would even disappear under suspicious circumstances.47 Company servants were not allowed to bring cash home. They could exchange their money in Batavia for a certificate or wisselbrief that they could exchange again upon arrival in the Netherlands at a favourable rate. Since these figures were always recorded in archives, we know that the profits made by Demmer were no exception – and so did the powerless Company directors in the Netherlands.48 East Indiamen were relatively empty when they sailed to the East, even taking building materials with them as necessary ballast. There were not many European products that Asian nations were interested in and the bulk of payments would be made in Spanish silver, which did not account for much weight or bulk. If there was a chance of sufficient profit, larger objects would be taken and these probably


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included furniture. Jaffer illustrates how skippers played an essential part in the importation of European goods to India,49 although any high-ranking servant with sufficient cargo privileges could import European items on demand and would accept orders from Europeans living in the East. These would have undoubtedly included household items. British travellers also advised their countrymen to bring furniture to India when leaving home.50 In several Dutch travel journals from the 18th century, travellers mention furniture that was aboard the ship. One notable example can be found in the dairies from the Lammens sisters, who describe the presence of chairs, benches and tables during their journey to Batavia and mention spending many hours rearranging their personal furniture inside their cabin to fight off the monotony of the trip.51 In a drawing by Jan Brandes of the interior of a ship’s surgeon’s cabin, we can clearly see a commode of European design, together with an Asian burgomaster chair (Rijksmuseum: NG-1985-7-1-4). However, since cargo space was so precious during the intra-Asian travels and particularly the journey home,52 it would hardly make sense for private traders to bring objects home that were both large in size and comparatively low in value, such as furniture. And although free burghers were allowed to bring back household items the transportation fees for this were shockingly high.53 There was of course also the high risk of damage during the journey. This explains why complete European carriages could be taken to the East, but similarly large objects or even much smaller domestic items would hardly be sufficiently profitable to bring back to Europe, especially when compared to tea, textiles and porcelain. Locally produced furniture would simply be sold at an auction upon repatriation (see the following chapter). So it is not surprising that little to no Eastern furniture made its way back to the Netherlands before the late 19th century, when transportation costs would be drastically lowered because of the use of steam-powered vessels, and later the opening of the Suez Canal. The only notable exception to this rule is lacquered furniture from China and Japan, most notably the latter. Lacquered furniture continued to be in high demand in Europe, and inventories from Batavia reveal that such furniture fetched prices of up to ten times that of ebony furniture.54 But even the importation of lacquer work diminished during the 18th century, because profits had fallen significantly.55 Although private trade was undoubtedly the most profitable activity, there were – of course – other means of making a little money on the side. As proper craftsmen were in short supply, those with the required skills could exert their trade outside official Company hours. Craftsmen were not only found among those who signed up as carpenters, blacksmiths or shipwrights, but also among those who were officially soldiers or sailors, as is further discussed in the following chapter.


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17th-century Dutch homes in the Indies When the Dutch became permanent settlers in the East, houses had to be built within the walls of the trading posts. Every building activity within the city walls of Batavia was strictly regulated by the Company, following a city plan that is said to have been designed by the famous Dutch scientist Simon Stevin. Houses were primarily built by Company craftsmen, who were accustomed to working in a European tradition, although Chinese workers, as well as a large number of slaves, were certainly employed for such jobs.56 As a result, the earliest settlements in the trading posts were strongly reminiscent of Dutch cities from the same period, and consequently homes were rather ill-fitted for the tropical climate. However, several alterations to the Dutch prototypes were made to accommodate for the heat. The slanted roofs – placed transversally – extended outwards to provide the facades with more shade and protection from heavy rains. Stone and tile floors were advised not only for the coolness they afforded but also because wood was susceptible to damage from insects. Walls were plastered with coral plaster to keep out some of the heat. Clay bricks, coral bricks and tiled roofs were the prescribed building materials to prevent the aforementioned fire hazard. Many of the building materials were initially imported from the Netherlands.57 These houses were largely occupied by the limited Batavian middle and upper classes, as soldiers, craftsmen and sailors were provided with separate housing by the Company close to their working areas. Unfortunately, barely anything remains today to remind us of this particular period in Jakarta’s – or any other Asian settlement’s – history. There is nothing left from the 17th century and only one building remains from the 18th century – the Toko Merah (‘the red shop’), the former residence of Governor General Van Imhoff. Similar buildings can be seen in the illustrations by Johan Nieuhof, published in the third quarter of the 17th century. Most buildings demonstrate the typically Dutch stepped gables, with extended roof ends to provide shade, and plastered walls to keep out the heat. Batavian citizens would typically spend a lot of their free time underneath the roof extensions in the front of their homes, called serambi,58 to smoke a pipe and enjoy a chat. These houses do not appear to feature the typical grandeur of later Batavian homes, with their enormously spacious rooms and high ceilings; they are simple and very Dutch. The layout of the rooms was also typically Dutch, with a front room, back room, hallway and a separate restroom and kitchen in the rear court, with the bedrooms on the second floor.59 Most houses did not feature glass windows due to the heat, but also because glass was quite precious in East India and was initially imported from home.60 Many houses had wooden or bamboo shutters instead. From later descriptions, we also know that the tile floors were often covered with rattan mats.


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Dutch interiors and furniture in the Indies Pictorial evidence of colonial interiors in East India is extremely scarce, being almost non-existent before the 19th century. The Company only hired professional artists for cartography and botany,61 whereas the very few artists who worked privately focused themselves primarily on (city) landscapes and portraits, such as Johannes Rach and Cornelis de Bruin. Pictures of interiors only start appearing during the second half of the 18th century; the intimate drawings of Jan Brandes probably contain the most significant information. The only tangible sources that provide us with an insight into the domestic lives of Europeans in the East during the 17th century are a limited number of inventories and contemporary descriptions. A small number of these inventories not only provides us with such insights but also gives us some valuable clues on the procuring, moving and selling of furniture. The work of Jan Veenendaal in researching Dutch inventories in the archives of Jakarta forms a most valuable basis here.62 Similar research was carried out by De Haan in the first two decades of the 20th century. Unfortunately, the famous historian’s standard work of reference only expresses the personal interpretations of the author’s vast archival research, and he does not share his sources with us through references. A small number of inventories from the Company archives that are in the Netherlands can now be added to Veenendaal’s work, which already indicates the presence of a number of precious items belonging to wealthy merchants or members of the Company’s political elite. While their interpretation is certainly not without its risks, inventories do provide us with virtually the only clues we have. Travel journals rarely describe the interiors of the Dutch in the East Indies, and even when they do briefly mention them, furniture is typically only described as being nothing more than ‘fair’. Several types of seating furniture are mentioned in the inventories. These include chairs, stools, settees, church chairs and so-called ‘luijbanken’, or deep ‘lazy benches’ on which one could either sit, recline or sleep. Church chairs would have been of a folding type that was also common in the Netherlands during this period,63 being carried to service by slaves. However, general chairs are by far the most common pieces of furniture, quite often appearing in surprisingly high numbers. Additional information typically includes surface appearance and materials. Wood species include ebony, padauk, (red) sandalwood and teak. Surface finishes include gilding, varnishing and lacquering. The universally black ebony or ebonized furniture that is seen in current museum collections conveys the image of very austere interiors, which is probably quite far from the truth, as ebony chairs typically only form part of the total collection of chairs. Lacquered furniture especially, which has survived from the 18th century, is known to be highly colourful, and the preceding century may not have been very different. In fact, traces of bright red finishes have been identified underneath the black finish of ebony type furniture during conservation, (Hoving en Klusener). Also, the specific mention of benches and chairs being made of padauk and sandalwood makes


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one suspect that the natural colours of timbers were used to decorative effect. If such objects had been ebonized, these specific timbers would have been nearly impossible to identify and this would have surely been mentioned by the surveyors, for it would have had a dramatic effect on the item’s price. Both padauk and red sandalwood can range from bright orange to deep red and they were already known during these times as very precious timbers. Rumphius even describes how sappenwood chairs would be treated with chemical dyes to create purple colour effects.64 Timber identification during the conservation process has established that only a very small portion of the Tropenmuseum’s furniture collection is made out of ebony, and has instead helped identify a number of beautiful and valued timbers for which it would have been an unspeakable shame to cover them with a – rather dull – black finish, (Hoving en Klusener). It is quite possible that many black finishes are of a later date, which would drastically alter our perception of the Dutch interiors from this period. Another often heard misconception is that colonists preferred sitting on the open rattan webbing of chairs because this offered better ‘ventilation’ in the tropical heat. In the inventories, chairs are often described as having loose pillows. A more likely explanation for the lack of fixed upholstery is the high susceptibility to insect damage, with rattan and loose upholstery being much easier to replace.65 And while none remain, one may assume that such pillows were made out of Eastern fabrics that were fashionable at the time, perhaps even Indian textiles with corresponding decorations to the carving. A number of chairs in the inventories is specifically identified as being Chinese or Suratan. Suratan chairs are of a very typical shape, discussed in more detail by Veenendaal, while a very early example is discussed by Carvalho.66 A small collection of these often brightly coloured, Western Indian and Pakistani chairs is also present in the Tropenmuseum (e.g.3500-182). It is not unlikely that the quote by Van Linschoten on brightly lacquered and turned chairs in the previous chapter refers to this type of furniture. Seeing that Portuguese ships and trading posts were often plundered during their war with the Dutch, it is not surprising to detect them in inventories from the 17th century. More objects are described to be of Portuguese origin, but this is more likely to have been an indication of the previous owner than the actual origin of the item. Perhaps the most interesting descriptions of chairs are the ebony chairs that are denoted as kuststoelen or ‘coastal chairs’. The term ‘coast’ was used as a general indication of the Coromandel coast, indicating this area as the origin of this peculiar type of furniture. According to De Haan, an entire furniture industry was located at the coastal areas of India, providing other European settlements with furniture.67 Unfortunately, he again leaves us with no references. Ebony seating furniture is discussed in more detail in the following paragraph. A number of inventories mention the presence of cabinets – mostly ebony – on stands. A very small number of ebony cabinets has been left to us today, some of


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which are even suspected to date in their entirety from the 19th century, such as the ebony cabinet from the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden (2390-2). The most impressive examples of ebony cabinets can be found in the Rijksmuseum (BK-1994-38, BK-1968-48) and the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag (OHO-19670001). They are typically of a very simple square shape, resembling two-door chests with elaborate hinges and lock plates, made out of solid ebony panels and decorated with floral carving. Stands are generally modelled after Dutch examples from the same period, the earliest examples having baluster-turned legs (ca. 16501675), later examples featuring spiral-turned stiles and stretchers (ca. 1675-1710). Though not specifically mentioned in the inventories, cabinets of a more strictly European design were also produced. A truly sensational example of such a cabinet from the Tropenmuseum is discussed in the catalogue (p. 109). Tables in the inventories are described as being square and sometimes round or octagonal. Most of these are described as being made from teak, a very durable and sturdy timber that is easily available in wider boards and is somewhat reminiscent of European oak. Some of these tables are said to have been varnished, perhaps ebonized, and there is one mention of a table with an ebony foot. From the museum collections which Hoving, Klusener and myself have visited, we have not been able to find a single table that could date from this period. Yet, there is a respectable number of tables to be seen in museum depots, all of which are the product of later reconstructions made from old furniture parts or reproductions dating from the 19th century. One of the most common alterations is the adding of a leaf to a cabinet stand, resulting in a somewhat oddly small ‘coffee’ table (Tropenmuseum: 1295-23, p. 107). Another frequently seen alteration is using the carved backs of benches as table sides and then adding new stiles and a top. (Tropenmuseum: 3097-1.) Thus, tables of the ebony type should always be perceived with the greatest caution. Due to a lack of reference, we can only guess as to what tables from this century actually looked like, but it is not unlikely that they were made after Dutch examples from the same age. Practically all inventories have listed beds. They are described as kooijen or ledikanten, usually indicating four posters. Nearly all Dutch museums that possess an ebony furniture collection own beds such as these, the two most beautiful examples being owned by the Rijksmuseum (BK-1994-37) and the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag (OHO-1938-0003). They follow the common decorations for ebony furniture with floral carved headboards and footboards, spiral-turned stiles and rows of small spiral-turned spindles between divisions of the boards. Rattan webbing is again used to support the weight of the users. These beds were usually auctioned together with all the textiles that belonged to them, including mattresses, pillows, sheets, bedspreads and of course the essential mosquito net or klamboe. Beds without posts would hang the net from ceiling hooks, some beautiful examples of which are preserved by the Rijksmuseum (BK1978-44).


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Other furniture types from the inventories include chests and small (sirih) boxes, guéridons or stands, writing chests, mirrors with ebony or gilded frames, folding screens made out of braided bamboo or rattan, footstools, coat racks, gun racks and clocks. Some of these items – most obviously clocks – are mentioned to be vaderlandts or from the Netherlands, indicating that furniture was actually imported at an early date. Even works by Rembrandt and Ruysdael are said to have made their way to the Indies.68 Lacquer work –especially Japanese – in the form of chests, writing chests and cabinets can also be seen quite often, as was noted in the paragraph on private trade. Other household and decorative items include paintings, engravings, martavaantjes (large earthenware pots for storing water), candlesticks, liquor cellars, backgammon boards and washing jugs. From the collections of the Rijksmuseum and the Gemeentemuseum, we know that beautiful cradles have also survived from this period (Rijksmuseum: BK-1966-48, Gemeentemuseum: OHO-1938-0004). The inventories provide us with some insight into how the interiors of high ranking Company servants were decorated during the 17th century. One of the most important conclusions that may be drawn from these lists is that furniture and household items were procured from a wide range of sources. Furniture was brought from the Netherlands, made by local craftsmen, pillaged from the Portuguese and was also obtained through trade with India, Ceylon, Japan and China, reflecting the mercantile lifestyle of the owners. It also seems that it was still difficult for the Company elite to obtain quality furniture within the Indonesian archipelago. Still, the transportation of larger, valuable items was probably only reserved for those of higher rank, belonging to the aforementioned small elite group who remained stationed for a longer period of time. For most others though, investing in expensive furniture would have been a fairly pointless undertaking. Whenever Company servants died or repatriated, their inventory of furniture was typically auctioned among the newly arrived elite, who appeared in desperate need of household items upon arrival and would pay fair prices for it. It is often noted in later centuries that furniture would continue to fetch high prices on the second-hand market, indicating that there was always a scarcity of household items.69 After the arrival of new furniture from the more remote trading posts, it would generally remain in important Company posts such as Batavia, to be sold again and again until it was ultimately discarded or lost to damage by the climate or by insects. Of course, only the objects that were made out of the sturdiest materials had any chance of survival into the current century – particularly true for wooden and textile objects.

Ebony furniture: its origins, decorations and value Perhaps one of the most puzzling characteristics of furniture of the ebony type, is that the ornamentation is stylistically very consistent making it very difficult to distinguish different forms of style and execution. And even when one is able to


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recognize different groups, such as Veenendaal has demonstrated, the lack of any form of historic reference makes it very difficult to determine an object’s age or origin. Indeed, furniture of the ebony type is almost always dated as being from the second half of the 17th century in major Dutch collections, even though many copies were made during the 19th and even 20th century in an identical style; other objects appear on closer inspection to be assembled from several older parts. A great many of such items were identified during the Tropenmuseum’s conservation project. As Hoving and Klusener demonstrate, such alterations are not always so difficult to detect when approaching such furniture from a technical point of view. Still, a number of objects remain that appear unaltered and genuine. While technical characteristics definitely help us to identify both altered and newer objects, they rarely assist us in dating or localizing objects that have passed all the critical tests. One has to resort again to studying the carving as the only point of reference. A very true and important remark made by Veenendaal and Van Campen & Hartkamp-Jonxis, is that the style of carving on ebony furniture seems to have been catering to European demand rather than being of purely Asian origin. Indeed, the presence of this particular type of decoration appears to be reserved for objects that were owned by Europeans; most particularly the Dutch. One finds similar ornamentation in silverware and textiles that was designated for European buyers, and as such represents a style that is neither purely European nor Asian; it is not found in the Indo-Chinese or native Javanese arts and crafts, where floral carving often takes on a very different form. The application of decorations of a more European design seems to have first occurred on textiles from the Coromandel coast (so-called ‘sitsen’), which were amongst the first Asian items of craft that were deliberately adopted for the European market.70 Before the arrival of the more distinct European styles of the 18th century, this particular type of ornamentation seems to have dominated the Eastern crafts of the 17th century that produced items for a European clientele. Having continued production on the very same basis in the 19th century, dating objects with such decorations is most difficult. There are however, a number of different types within these decorations that can be tied to certain periods and regions, as we shall discuss below. Contrary to what is commonly thought, ebony does not occur abundantly in South East Asia, but is limited to several specific habitats. Whereas ebony was initially imported to the Netherlands from South Africa and more specifically the island of Mauritius, the timber was later found to be growing in Asia as well. The Portuguese are known to have already possessed ebony furniture during the early 17th century in India, the most likely source of the material being the eastern coast of India and the island of Ceylon, where ebony had long been known to occur naturally. It would therefore make sense if this region was a source of ebony furniture as well. According to the well-known botanist Rumphius,who recorded his findings in 1641, ebony was found to be growing on the Moluccas as well, and since then was harvested by the Dutch.71 This seems to be confirmed by the archives, where the first mention of a shipload of Moluccan ebony wood aboard the


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ship Oostcappel dates from 1644.72 Whatever the sources for ebony furniture may have been, it is clear that ebony was not readily available in Java and the material had to be imported from other areas of the Netherlands East Indies. Three centres of production for ebony furniture have been identified. The supposedly oldest centre of production is the Coromandel coast, where the florally decorated sitsen were produced and from where furniture was exported to the Indonesian archipelago under the name ‘coastal furniture’. Both Thomas Bowrey and Rumphius refer to ebony furniture being made at trading posts such as Masulipatam.73 Furniture that is characteristic for this region is quite rare in Dutch museum collections, the only notable example being a chair owned by the Rijksmuseum (BK-1976-79). Several chairs from the region are discussed in more detail by Jaffer, all of which demonstrate a wider range of skills than their Batavian and Singhalese counterparts, including ivory inlays, pierced carving and more frequently the occurrence of figurative carving; such carving can also be found on Singhalese furniture, though never quite as abundantly, being mostly limited to the top of the rear stiles. Ornaments include human and animal figures, as well as a number of mythical beasts that draw from Hindu mythology.74 Furniture from the coast and Ceylon are also much more likely to be made out of actual ebony, rather than the many ebonized timbers that we find amongst Indonesian examples. The second centre of production is the island of Ceylon, where the Dutch officially settled in 1658. The shift in focus towards Ceylon probably meant that the island gradually gained importance as a centre for crafts at the expense of the Coromandel coast. It would eventually closely follow Batavia in terms of economic importance and number of European settlers. As the Singhalese were renowned for their level of craftsmanship, the island would also be a likely location for the start-up of a small furniture industry for Europeans, as many travellers would visit the island during their journeys. The Singhalese version of ebony furniture is very distinct from both the Coromandel coast and Indonesia in style and execution, and can be quite easily recognized owing to its low-relief carving. A small number of Singhalese cabinets and settees are owned by Dutch museums. However, the majority of items consists of single chairs. Certain chairs demonstrate a distinct evolution of style, which closely follows the development of Dutch chair types from the same period. This can be best observed in the shape of the legs and stretchers rather than the ornamentation, much like the aforementioned cabinet stands. A very early set that originates from either the coast or Ceylon is owned by the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag (OHO-1938-0009 1 and 2). The Tropenmuseum owns a number of Singhalese chairs from a slightly later period that already incorporate spiral turning that is missing from the earliest examples. Like the Coromandel coast, Singhalese carving is likely to include figurative carving, but its execution of the floral carving is in a much lower relief and promotes a sense of horror vacui. It is most probably these chairs that are described in an inventory as having ‘small flowers’.75 A good example of furniture of this type can be found in the Tropenmuseum (p. 103). Other distinctive features of Singhalese ebony


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furniture include the use of double spiral turning, simple scraped grooves as ornamentation and the overall slender dimensions of parts. All Singhalese chairs in the Tropenmuseum have an unusually low seating height. This has led to these chairs being called ‘children’s chairs’, ‘women’s chairs’ or ‘circumcision chairs’, but the conservation project has shown that these were once higher chairs that were lowered at a later stage. They were never meant to be this low, which again demonstrates how much such alterations may distort our views. One also notices in Singhalese chairs that figurative carving gradually disappears altogether from the ornamentation, becoming virtually non-existent in later Batavian examples. The sudden absence of human and animal motives has been explained by the growing influence of the Islam in South East Asia, but this is not a very likely explanation.76 Other branches of crafts have demonstrated that Indonesian artisans remained very faithful to their Hindu heritage. It is perhaps more likely that the predominantly protestant Dutch buyers were not very fond of such ‘heathen’ imagery, which they often describe in travel journals with a simultaneously curious and intimidated undertone. The third centre of production lay in the Indonesian archipelago. Since there were very few trading posts in this area during the 17th century with a sufficiently high European population to justify a larger scale production, most objects from this area are thought to have been made in Batavia, although one certainly cannot exclude posts such as Ambon and Makassar. The Batavian style of ebony furniture closely follows the familiar design of imported furniture from the coast,77 but is typically more bulky in appearance, featuring thicker stiles and rails with the seats of chairs often being broader than their examples. The style of carving is also more deeply cut and much bulkier in character, demonstrating very bold and fleshy floral ornamentation. Execution may vary from quite soft and smooth to a rather crudely cut finish, the latter being a likely indication of the object being made in later times.78 ‘Ebony’ furniture from Batavia also appears less likely to be made out of genuine ebony, being commonly dyed black or dark brown. Furniture of this type is without doubt the largest group of ebony furniture currently owned by Dutch museums. However this is where our identification methods meet with a dead end. If the decoration is sharply executed and there are no traces of modern production methods or alterations – of which there are very few examples – ebony furniture items are thought to date roughly from the third quarter of the 17th century. Attempts to come up with a more specified locality or date suffer from a lack of tangible references. While one may be able to detect a number of types within the decoration patterns as has been suggested by Veenendaal, there is simply too much overflow in these designs and too few historic sources upon which one can justify a more accurate attribution. The fact that a number of items that have hitherto been hailed as very early examples now appear to be relatively new or drastically altered, makes this all the more clear.


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When looking at the inventories of wealthier Dutchmen, particularly the few that have listed prices, one can safely draw the conclusion that ebony furniture was relatively expensive. Timber had a substantial influence on the object’s value, and ebony was the most highly priced species. When we look at the inventory of Jan Janszoon Menie from 1648, the selling price of 51 reals for his ebony bed (including hangings) is quite steep, being nearly as much as a golden, pearlencrusted tiara or his pregnant female slave.79 Also, the price is considerably higher than a gilded bed with its hangings, which only fetched 28 reals. One can conclude from the inventories that furniture in general, but ebony furniture in particular was estimated at a fair price, much higher than varnished examples. When keeping in mind that a regular soldier or sailor earned a monthly wage of around 10 guilders, whereas the ship’s captain earned as much as up to 80 guilders a month, this would still require the captain to pay more than two months’ wages for a bed such as the one owned by Menie. One can therefore fairly safely conclude that the possession of luxury, ebony furniture was likely to have been reserved only for those of higher rank. And as we discussed earlier, the number of servants in Batavia who might have invested in expensive furniture would have been limited, due to its price and the uncertain lifestyles of its owners. We’ve also noticed that furniture was a much coveted item in the second-hand market, continually being resold and bought by repatriates and newcomers. So ebony furniture was probably less common and more valuable in the 17th century than was previously thought. This also supports the strong suspicion that a large portion of the currently known ebony furniture in museum collections was made at a later date; a suspicion that has been amplified by the findings during the conservation and was already suggested by De Haan in 1922: ‘The well [of original 17th-century furniture in native homes] has long dried up. (...) In general one may assume that virtually everything is now in the hands of Europeans and one must be most prudent when such items are offered by the natives or Chinese.’80


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18th century

The age of disaster and extravagance

After the relentless expansion of power and profits during the course of the 17th century, the Company faced decreasing profits and increasing expenses during most of the next. The often aggressive maritime expansion that was initiated by Asia-based Company officials such as Coen and Van Goens had cost the Dutch mother company enormous amounts of money, which resulted in suffering profits. In fact, the focus on expansion in the East versus the focus on trade profits in Europe had caused tensions between the Netherlands-based and Asia-based Company directories.1 As the maritime expansion was brought to a halt in the last decade of the 17th century, the process of territorial expansion became an important focus for the Company’s factories. As the Company opted to focus its resources on the strongholds of Java and Ceylon, it came to lose its power and influence in other areas of Asia. As competition, largely from the English East India Company and private traders increased, the Dutch were slowly driven away from these regions. As such, the sophisticated network of intra-Asian trade that had proven to be a financial backbone for the Company, became increasingly less profitable and secure, whereas the expenses of the territorial expansion continued to rise.2 While the Company’s influence on the Asian continent slowly started to crumble, the Dutch become politically and militarily involved in a number of conflicts on Java and Ceylon. A conflict with the kingdom of Kandy led to the Dutch warring on Ceylon from 1760 to 1766, whereas on Java, the Company became deeply embroiled in the Javanese succession wars for the kingdom of Mataram. After signing the Giyanti agreement in 1755, the Company expanded its territory on Java considerably. Although it has been called a reluctant imperialist – its main focus being on neutralizing possible threats to its trade activities – the fact remains that the Company could be increasingly characterized as a sovereign state rather than a commercial enterprise.3 Meanwhile, the city of Batavia had its own share of internal problems; these are discussed below. As the Company lost its foothold on the Asian mainland and saw its revenues drop, an almost fatal blow was delivered in the form of the fourth Anglo-Dutch wars, from 1780 to 1784. The English thwarted Dutch economic activity by blocking the arrival of Dutch East Indiamen in Europe.4 So the Dutch in the East became


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increasingly isolated from their homeland. Competition from private traders and the private trade from Company servants also contributed to the already substantial drop in income. Having barely been able to send any ships home over the course of three years, the Company’s debts continued to rise to nearly 40 million guilders. Despite substantial loans from the Netherlands after the war, the Company never managed to pay off its debts and become profitable again; towards the end of its existence, its debts amounted to 120 million guilders.5 After the fall of the Dutch republic in 1795, the state general decided to nationalize the dying Company, but it was officially dissolved in 1799; its debts and possessions now left to the newly found Batavian republic.

Social life As was mentioned in the previous chapter, the upper layer of Batavian society was composed of a relatively small group of several hundreds. This group consisted primarily of the highest ranking Company officials and those who had been the most fortunate in their private trade. Many of the wealthier Batavian Company servants and particularly their wives took great pleasure in displaying their wealth.6 They did this through splendid coaches, magnificent clothing, jewellery and of course an excessive amount of slaves. Since European products were incredibly expensive in the East, one of the most efficient ways to display one’s wealth was to keep up-to-date with the latest European fashions and to own precious European products.7 The Dutch eventually drove around in gilded coaches and dressed after the contemporary French couture, wearing hairpieces and black costumes – most inconvenient in the tropical climate.8 Their interior decoration likewise followed European fashion. Needless to say, life at trading posts could be very expensive. Batavia already had to rely on trade for most of its basic needs, because the region around it barely produced sufficient food to supply the city. Wanting to live according to their rank, the elite had to spend excessive amounts of money on housing,9 slaves and servants, interior decoration and of course the acquisition of European goods. Tavernier often complains about the cost of daily life in Batavia. In one particular case, the French traveller laments that he often receives guests to whom he must – as etiquette prescribes – serve European wine upon arrival. In a matter of days, he complains of having lost ‘a hundred ricks dollars’ to his thirsty visitors.10 Needless to say, the social pressure to spend was high. Unlike in Europe, the Batavian elite did not consist predominantly of those from noble descent. One’s background certainly helped procure a coveted position within the ranks of the Company, but there are many examples of even the highest ranking officials starting their careers as soldiers or even sailors. As death came swiftly in the East and qualified staff continued to be in high demand, career opportunities could offer themselves surprisingly rapidly. Keeping favourable


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contacts with Company officials could mean a quick rise on the Company ladder.11 Marrying the eligible daughters of officials was another way of guaranteeing rapid promotion. Officials’ sons would be sent to Europe for their education at an early age, whereas daughters would remain with their mothers and fathers in the East, giving women an important role in the Batavian hierarchy, with jobs being mostly offered to newly-wed sons and brothers-in-law.12 These women were generally of mixed Eurasian descent, due to the continued shortage of European women in the East. Although officially Dutch, Mestizo women were condescendingly called ‘liplappen’ or the ‘coloured nobility’ and grew up in an Asian environment that was provided by their mothers and slaves, often speaking little to no Dutch. The career possibilities within the ranks of the Company are beautifully illustrated by the rise and fall of Hendrik Breton (1722-1792). Having started out as a simple sailor, Breton managed to work his way up to the rank of governor in the High Council of India, acquiring a considerable fortune along the way. His rise was brought to a sudden halt when he was held responsible for the disappearance of 500,000 ricks dollars from the Company’s deposit. His journals tend to suggest that Breton was set up by what appears to be a sophisticated network of corrupt

Jan Brandes. ‘Tea visit at a European home in Batavia.’ 1779, Rijksmuseum: NG-1985-7-2-15. The European hostess on the right is receiving a Mestizo friend. She is accompanied by her betel bearing servant. The lacking manners of the Mestizo woman are conveyed in a subtle manner by her broadly gesturing pose, whereas the European woman sips her tea reservedly


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officials within the highest ranks of the Company. After repatriation, Breton continued his struggle to have his name cleared, unfortunately to no avail. One may assume that women played an essential part in the following of European trends and the decorations of Batavian interiors. Women in Batavian public life were known for being dedicated followers of fashion and for flaunting themselves in public. Mestizo women were brought up with the strong hierarchical values of their Asian mothers and adopted both Asian and European displays of splendour and status, creating a unique Mestizo culture that would become a point of ridicule for the Dutch, but prove difficult to eradicate.13 Contemporary descriptions of Mestizo woman can seldom be called flattering. Their excessive display of splendour and their apparent lack of European manners made many newly arrived observers frown, whereas their husbands had probably grown accustomed to their strangely hybrid culture. Their typical daily routines involved paying social visits and receiving guests throughout the day. According to contemporary observers, they would surround themselves with a large number of – mostly female – slaves and let themselves be treated as royalty, whilst calling their slaves black whores or dogs and severely punishing them when they did do what was expected of them.14 The most excessive display of splendour took place at the Sunday mass. Here, women would flaunt their most precious clothing and jewellery and would be followed and served by a ridiculously large number of slaves, much to the annoyance of some of the other church attendants. As Nicolaas de Graaff wrote so bluntly, in the 17th century, their splendour ‘even repulses heaven... So they are seated by hundreds, dressed up like princesses, even though they are only the wives and daughters of [ordinary] burgers.’15 And the way they were perceived seemed to improve little over the course of the 18th century. Perhaps even more interesting are the remarks made by Chinese observers about Dutch and Mestizo social behaviour. The Ong-Tae-Hae (translated in English as ‘The Chinaman abroad’) offers an account of Batavian citizens from a very different point of view. Concerning their display of wealth, they are described as, ‘extravagant, and selfindulgent in the extreme’. Church attendance is similarly described with a cynical undertone: ‘Every seven days there is a ceremony day or Sabbath, when, from nine to eleven in the morning, they go to the place of worship, to recite prayers and mumble charms (...) but after half an hour’s jabber they are allowed to disperse, and away they go to feast in their garden-houses, and spend the whole day in delight, without attending any businesses. Then you may see the dust of the carriages and the footsteps of the horses all along the road, in one unbroken succession, presenting a very lively scene.’16 It was particularly the dressing-up of lower ranking females and Mestizo women that irked the upper class Dutch. The Company took measures against this ‘unfitting’ display of wealth at a remarkably early date. The issue was discussed within the council under Governor General Maetsuycker as early as 1666.17 In the late 17th century, the ‘Reglementen op pracht en praal’ was issued from the


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A Mestizo woman on her way to church. One slave carries her sunscreen while the other holds her bible, betel box and spittoon. Haafner, vol. 2, p. 392.

Netherlands. This set of sumptuous codes continued to be expanded well into the 18th century, eventually counting up to 124 regulations. For each rank within the Company’s hierarchy, fitting display and behaviour was prescribed, ranging from the jewellery women were allowed to wear to the number of slaves that could be shown in public.18 It became one of the pet topics of Governor General Jacob Mossel, who issued a new decree in 1754, but it is unlikely that these rules and the accompanying fines had any notable effect. The highest ranking inhabitants of the city are often referred to as living ‘godless’ lives, work being carried out during the day by their subordinates and slaves, while attending extravagant parties during the night on an almost daily basis for their amusement. Naturally, this generally included music, dancing and excessive drinking. Or, as a Chinese observer sums up: ‘The extravagance is carried to its utmost length, and lusts [are] gratified without restraint, just as


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inclination prompts.’ The same author describes European balls taking place, in which European instruments are played that are worth ‘about a thousand reals’.19 Of course, the upper class Batavian citizens could not have been pleased with their image, which reached all the way across the ocean to the Netherlands. In a report by the – not entirely unbiased –Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences, the writers object to the predominant image of the Batavian elite being work-shy drunks, claiming that: ‘The common lifestyle of the decent citizens, is working mornings until twelve for the Company (…), dining with friends at noon, sleep from two to four, then going out for a [coach] ride or stroll, spending the hours from six to nine at a gaming or discussion party [and] commonly having dinner there until eleven, being completely unfamiliar with intoxication’.20 However much we may want to trust the decent members of the society, we are more inclined to believe their less pretentious contemporaries. As Tavernier already illustrated, the city offered little else to do than drink and gamble, and most of its wealthy citizens got bored quite easily, as they actually performed very little work themselves.21 Other activities that are often described as a passing of time for the Batavian elite included hunting and playing card and board games, either in the privacy of their homes or in one of the many illegal gambling houses.22 Brothels are also known to have – unofficially – existed in large numbers.23 This perhaps somewhat alarming portrayal of the Batavian elite seems to be entirely in line with the findings of Jaffer, who describes the English in India as living very similar lives during the 18th century.24

The feast organized by J.A. Paravicini in 1756. Tropenmuseum: 3728-541a. The entirely European attire of the feast makes it almost impossible to detect that the scene takes place in Asia


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Batavia: the cemetery of Europeans and Chinese. Disaster struck Batavia during the second quarter of the 18th century. The city suffered from a severe malaria epidemic from 1733 to 1738, and continued to be ‘unhealthy’ until the beginning of the 19th century. Of course, the newcomers were most vulnerable because travel had led to lowered physical resistance, and they had not had the opportunity to slowly build up immunity to Asian diseases. During the worst years, up to 70 percent would pass away within their first year of arrival in Batavia.25 The new nickname ‘Cemetery of Europeans’ as opposed to the former ‘Queen of the East’ was never quite as fitting as during this period, with Batavia being deemed so unhealthy that other nations wouldn’t even consider capturing the city if they could. It is estimated that Batavia’s ‘unhealthy air’ took the lives of 85,000 Company servants between 1733 and 1795. Already struggling with a shortage of staff, the Company was struck in the heart of its economic activity by the massive outbreak of malaria. The number of Europeans sent by the Company increased drastically, as did the number of hired native staff.26 The primary cause for the disease was probably the creation of several ponds just north of the city for the breeding of saltwater fish. These brackish waters proved to be an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes.27 The connection between the ponds and the malaria outbreak was never fully understood and they were only removed at the beginning of the 19th century. The miasma theory remained the most persistent explanation for Batavia’s troubles and had citizens lock themselves indoors during the nights and early hours of the mornings. Of course, the cause of the outbreak was also explained by the church through the decadent and godless lifestyles of the city’s inhabitants.28 Another disaster that struck Batavia during the 18th century took place in 1740. The Chinese massacre remains one of the darkest pages in the history of the Company. Batavia’s economic climate had attracted large numbers of poor Chinese immigrants during the first half of the century.29 However, the Company fended off these fortune seekers from the already overcrowded city and they were forced to live in the ommelanden, or surrounding regions. Groups of jobless Chinese started to form gangs of thieves and rebels that initiated attacks on the city. The Chinese inside the city walls, however, mostly kept to themselves. In a dramatic misconception of the severity of the situation, the Company suspected the Chinese of a large-scale conspiracy. Starting in October 1740, Dutch soldiers raided Chinese homes inside Batavia and those who tried to flee were hunted down and slaughtered by wandering gangs. The Company directory did little to stop the massacre. The responsible Governor General Valckenier had to answer for the committed atrocities in the Netherlands and was replaced by Van Imhoff. Although accounts of the number of deaths vary wildly in contemporary descriptions, research by Somers-Heidhues indicates that it was probably around 5,000. Sadly, most of the victims were the Chinese who lived within the city walls and had generally opted to choose neither side in the conflict. After having lived outside the


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walls for several years after the massacre, the Chinese slowly made their way back into the city. As the city became increasingly unhealthy to inhabit, the wealthier Dutch Batavians decided to leave the disease-ridden city in favour of the healthier climate of the Batavian countryside. By the mid-18th century, some of the most splendid mansions and palaces had been built south of the city as far as Bogor, although the trend of owning property outside the city walls appears to have had already started in the late 17th century.30 As the former jungles of the ommelanden were increasingly deforested by Javanese and Chinese farmers and lumberers, new building sites could be more easily realized.31 These new resorts were given names such as Rijswijk, Molenvliet and Welgelegen, areas where the wealthiest Dutch elite resided. The new spacious estates were not only an escape from the unhealthy airs of the city, but also provided their residents with new opportunities to display their wealth through the grandeur of their homes and gardens. After the exodus from the city, the former Queen of the East slowly turned into a ghost town. Most of the wealthy Dutch residents had moved to the healthier locations away from the coast and the city was mostly occupied by the Chinese and by Company craftsmen, for the wharfs and workshops were still located in the old city. But by the end of the century the city had been largely abandoned and had lost most of its former glory. The luxurious country estates were generally a one- or two-hour boat or coach ride away from the city and were commonly surrounded by beautiful gardens and parks, often including profitable plantations that were managed by slaves. An even larger number of slaves, up to one hundred, was deemed necessary to run domestic business. In an etching by Johannes Rach of the estate owned by Governor General Van der Parra, we see a broad driveway that leads to the spacious pavilion of an enormous villa with sculpted eagles perched on the rooftops. One of the few remaining buildings of this period is the well-known mansion of Reinier de Klerk, which currently houses the national archive of Indonesia. Like their surroundings, these estates were extremely spacious, featuring grand halls and chambers with high ceilings.

The arrival of new ships and European goods The arrival of Dutch ships on the horizon of the bay of Batavia must have caused quite a stir amongst the city’s European inhabitants. Being tied to specific currents and winds, European ships were set to arrive at more or less regular intervals, typically from late autumn to early spring. They provided the European population of Batavia with a welcome distraction – the opportunity to obtain European goods and socialize with fellow countrymen to hear the latest news, gossip and fashion from their homeland. As Tavernier sums up: ‘The greatest joy that the people of Batavia may have, is upon the arrival of ships from Holland.’32 When the newly arrived, usually called ‘baren’ or ‘totoks’ were brought ashore, they would typically


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Johannes Rach. View of the villa owned by van der Parra at Welgelegen. 1767. Bruijn en Kist, 2001

be greeted by a crowd of curious Dutch Batavians and Chinese merchants alike.33 The wealthier baren, in their turn, must have been impressed by the display of splendour of Batavia as they were invited inside Batavian homes and later the elaborate country estates. Unfortunately, those who documented their first days of arrival rarely mention the interiors of the houses they visit. And when they do, descriptions are so brief that they provide us with little relevant information. Since the arrival of new Europeans in Batavia occurred so regularly, one may wonder whether the trading posts were actually lagging behind in European fashion. As was suggested by Jaffer for India, the typical dating of European-style furniture in East India with a margin of ten or twenty years of delay may be entirely unjustified.34 The high society of Batavia certainly lived a fashionable lifestyle and was very keen on keeping up with European fashions through the arrival of new ships. Jaffer also suggested that model books were probably imported to the East as the most effective manner to promote new fashions.35 Although no particular furniture model books are known to have existed in the Netherlands East Indies, De Bruijn & Raben mention that Jan Brandes had a copy of the ‘Teekenboeck der proportiën’ (‘Sketchbook of proportions’) by Jacob de Wit in his possession and it is not unlikely that many similar books had made their way to the East.36 One may assume that there was an extremely high demand for European goods amongst the wealthier Company servants, which led to high prices and fierce competition for precious items. Since ships from Europe were relatively empty upon their departure to the East, money could be made by importing the


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demanded objects to the trading posts, especially when the Company took a more lenient stance on private trade in the 1740s.37 When these concerned luxury goods, the buyers at the colony were wholly dependent on the private trade of the newly arrived, for the Company rarely became involved with the importation of luxury products. All the Company trading posts regularly sent an official list of required European products to the Netherlands (the ‘General demand list’), but such lists rarely included any products that could be considered luxury goods, most of them being silver capital, building materials and tools. However, according to Jaffer, English skippers would bring European luxury items to India on a large scale, both by order and to be sold to the highest bidder upon arrival, renting entire warehouses for this purpose. Such warehouses took the shape of salons in the 19th century, where substantial profits were to be made from the wealthy and eager British population of India.38 It is most likely that a similar development took place in the Netherlands East Indies, though no references to such practices can be found in 18th-century sources. We do know, however, that a number of shops (toko’s) dedicated themselves entirely to the selling of European products from the early 19th century onwards, probably building on a tradition that had already been initiated in the previous century.

European and Chinese furniture Batavia was the cultural melting pot of South East Asia, so it is not surprising to see this diversity reflected in the interior decoration of its inhabitants. As a large number of Batavian citizens was of mixed descent, so was the furniture that decorated their interiors. Many objects dating from the 18th century have been left to us that display a sometimes curious hybrid of styles, much like their ebony predecessors had done before them. On the other hand, there is also a number of objects of an unmistakably European design that are most difficult to identify as being of Asian origin. Unfortunately, inventories from the 18th century do not provide us with sufficiently elaborate descriptions of the objects to recognize a certain style, usually only providing us with a very basic indication of the shape, materials and finish of the items. They do, however, give us some valuable clues as to the general developments that took place in the style of Dutch interiors in the Indies. Ebony furniture had largely disappeared from the inventories by the 1730s, probably having gone out of vogue in the preceding two decades. Its presence is replaced by an increasing number of Chinese furniture items. Many of these are described as being lacquered and gilded, a popular furniture finish that we shall discuss later in more detail. There were many qualified Chinese cabinet makers working in Batavia, and the Dutch had also negotiated a trade agreement with Canton in 1728, where many quality furniture items were being produced. Also worth mentioning is the greater variety of wood species that was being used


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to decorative effect, probably following the European fashion of using brightly coloured timbers from the Western Indies. It is quite surprising that there is hardly any reference to furniture being of European design, even though a considerable amount has been left to us, to this day. However, Chinese, Japanese and Javanese items are typically very specifically mentioned. This does not necessarily mean that such items were made in these regions, but rather indicates a particular shape or design. An inventory from 1786 also mentions a number of English chairs. However, the majority of items have no regional indication whatsoever, perhaps suggesting that these were of a common European design. Clocks and mirrors are similarly no longer described as being Dutch, while it is well known that these items were generally imported from the homeland, even appearing in the Company’s official records.39 Furniture types vary little from the preceding centuries. New are the appearances of close stools, marble-topped tables, provision cupboards, game tables and a billiard table, the latter undoubtedly European. Also new are the descriptions of a ‘three-sided’ chair and several round chairs of a type that is currently best known as the burgomaster chair. Most of these furniture types can be found in the collections of Dutch museums. As the calamander cabinet from the catalogue demonstrates (p. 108), furniture of a purely European design was probably already being made in the Indies during the 17th century, but it is highly unlikely that this was carried out on a large scale; this cabinet is an extremely rare surviving example. After ebony furniture had become unfashionable during the early 18th century, European styles came to replace this curious Eurasian class of furniture. A short transitional phase occurred during the first quarter of the century, during which European shapes were incorporated into the existing designs of ebony furniture, resulting in some most peculiar hybrids, as can be seen in the catalogue (p. 118). The first European style that can be well distinguished in museum collections, is the Marot or Louis XIV-style. A table in the collection of the Tropenmuseum (p. 117) is clearly inspired by the Marot style from the earliest years of the 18th century. Although not quite as elaborately carved as its European counterparts, the table wholly captures the new style, yet betrays the Asian origins of the carver in the unmistakably Asian facial features of the caryatids. A more distinctly European and polychromed version of such a table is owned by the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag (OHO-1978-0002.) Another remarkable piece dating from the same period is a red lacquered and gilded chair in the Tropenmuseum (p. 112), in which the style seems to have been interpreted by a craftsman who had little experience with European furniture proportions. A similar chair can be found in the collection of the Rijksmuseum (BK-1972-67). Both the Louis-XIV and Louis-XV styles were well represented in the East Indies. Chairs, benches and cabinets form the major part of Dutch museum collections, some of which are so well made that they are very difficult to discern from their European counterparts if one only looks at their design. It is usually only the use of exotic timbers and the presence of rattan seats that betrays their origins,


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suggesting that there were craftsmen who were skilled in European styles. Others, however, continue to demonstrate a lack of understanding of European design, resulting in strange hybrids of styles and oddly proportioned pieces. A set of wellmade chairs dating from around the 1730s is owned by the Tropenmuseum (736-1 to 5); these are most elegantly proportioned, yet retain a typically Asian character of ajour carving. On the other hand, a calamander rococo chair that is owned by the Rijksmuseum (BK-1968-47) is a wonderful example of craftsmanship, and truly captures the essence of the style. A miniature writing desk from the catalogue is also exceptionally well made (p. 114). However, European and Asian furniture styles continued to be curiously mixed, which tells us that many makers were most probably not of European origin. It is particularly the Chinese influence that becomes very strong during the 18th century, with native Indonesian and Indian forms becoming virtually unrecognizable. Combining this with the fact that an increasingly large number of Chinese objects are mentioned in the inventories from this period, we may deduct that a large portion of the cabinet making industry was in the hands of the Chinese, something which was also often hinted at in travel journals; they were probably creating furniture of both Asian and European design. The Chinese were of course also involved in creating export porcelain with convincing European decorations.40 In his description of the interior of the court of Bantam, Stavorinus describes the presence of lacquered Chinese furniture as well as European chairs made from walnut.41 The Tropenmuseum owns two cabinets from the mid-18th century that demonstrate the assimilation of styles very well (886-84 and 1034-1), both of these are treated in the catalogue (p. 121, 124). The Rijksmuseum also owns cabinets that demonstrate this development, (e.g. BK-1972-26). Furniture that was purely Chinese in style and execution must have also been produced in substantial numbers in the trading posts that had a larger Chinese population, such as Batavia. Several pieces are owned by the Tropenmuseum that are said to be Indo-Chinese, but they can hardly be distinguished from original Chinese models unfortunately. A similar evolution can be seen in the design of chairs. A very good example of this is a set of red lacquered and gilded chairs in the collection of the Rijksmuseum (BK-16025-A and B). These chairs follow an English design from the second quarter of the 18th century, yet are decorated with carving that displays a strong Chinese influence, not to mention the characteristic red and gold finish. Both Terwende Loos and Van Campen & Hartkamp-Jonxis have discussed these chairs as an example of the growing Chinese influence.42 Chairs of this type are also clearly depicted in a drawing by Brandes. (Rijksmuseum: NG-1985-7-2-17.) It was also suggested by Terwen-de Loos that the well-known burgomaster chairs – also appearing regularly in the drawings by Jan Brandes – are derived from a Chinese type known as the Lohan chair.43 Although it is hard to pinpoint the origins of such round chairs, a Chinese influence may not be that far-fetched. Burgomaster chairs often appear with rococo decorations, suggesting that they were popular during the second half of the 18th century (p. 122). A virtually undecorated example of


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the round chair in the Tropenmuseum that looks well-used, is said to date from the 17th century (904-3).44 However, the conservation project taught us that the patina of Asian furniture can be most deceptive and one must be careful with such attributions. As round chairs only start appearing in the inventories from the mid18th century onwards, we simply cannot say whether they were made almost a full century earlier as well. Contrary to ebony furniture, East Indian furniture that is not of the ebony type was never quite as actively collected as its predecessors, which is why one generally finds such pieces to be in a more authentic condition; dating them thus becomes a less risky affair. One may find many more beautiful examples of 18th-century cabinet making in Van De Geijn-Verhoeven, Veenendaal and Terwen-de Loos. A style that is notably missing from the Dutch museum collections of East Indian furniture is Louis-XVI or neo-classicism. Only one very rare cabinet dating from around 1800 is owned by the Rijksmuseum (BK-1994-41); it is of a purely French neo-classicist design. It is not surprising that there is this gap in the Dutch collections, considering the political situation of the late 18th century on Java. Contact with the homeland had been almost completely cut off during the AngloDutch wars (1780-1784) and communication had remained difficult in the years leading to the fall of the Dutch republic and the Company. Neo-classicism never managed to fully penetrate Batavian society and it was only during the British interregnum that contact with Europe was fully restored, resulting in a very strong British Regency influence that would continue well into the 19th century. If there is one thing we may safely deduce from the inventories, it is that interiors in the East were decorated with bright colours, not unlike European homes during the same era. In the drawings by Brandes we detect some very bright blues and reds and many furniture items that have been left to us make use of highly decorative timbers and brightly lacquered and gilded finishes. One of the most commonly observed finishes is the combination of a bright red lacquer with gilded details, like the above-mentioned chairs from the Rijksmuseum. The bed that is depicted in one of Brandes’ drawings also exhibits this particular colour scheme (Rijksmuseum: NG-1985-7-7-2). One often finds reference to this particular finish in the inventories as well. Some objects in the Dutch museum collections still posses such a finish, but their number is very limited. The use of red and gold is a strong suggestion that Chinese cabinet makers, who popularized the style in South East Asia, were involved. But it is also known to have been used in native Javanese work, where it is often combined with even brighter blues and greens in ceremonial items, such as bridal chairs, altar pieces and musical instruments. It is, however, not very common on objects of European design, of which a large portion simply exposes the bare wood or is blackened to resemble ebony. It was therefore very surprising to discover that many European-style items carried traces of red lacquer and gilding in their crevices. These included chairs, tables and several pieces of decorative carving, mostly dating from the 18th century, but also from the 17th. On some items, the entire finish had even been preserved


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underneath a thick layer of a black, waxy substance (e.g. Tropenmuseum: 886-60). Analysis has shown the red lacquer to be mostly red ochre pigment in shellac. Also found on one item were traces of urushi, which is a rather extraordinary finding. It appears that many items were actually refinished in black, presumably in the 19th and 20th centuries, when Indonesian furniture was expected to be black. Again, we must review our notions of colour in East Indian interiors; it was probably much brighter than we have come to expect.

Carl Friedrich Reimer. ‘Reception of the ambassadors of the Kandyan king by governor-general Falck.’ 1772. Rijksmuseum: RP-T-1904-18. This scene takes place in the governmental quarters of Colombo, Ceylon. The furniture on display is clearly of European design, although one can detect an Asian rug on the floor, as well as an Indian spittoon near the feet of Governor General Falck. Notice the bright blue upholstery on the chair to the left

Local crafts and craftsmen One of the most difficult questions to answer is exactly who the makers of furniture were in the East Indies. Seeing that influences were so incredibly diverse and so many cultures exercised wood-related crafts, one can hardly provide the reader with a uniform answer. There are very few written sources on the nationalities of the craftsmen, and while there are some prevalent and strong suspicions, these are generally not supported by any form of historical evidence. We will therefore look at some of the most likely suspects.


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First there are the Europeans themselves. From the very first journey to the East, woodworkers were an indispensable part of the Company’s crew. These were predominantly shipwrights and carpenters who repaired ships and built warehouses for the Dutch in the Company’s earliest days. As Batavia grew, many more woodworkers were required to build up the city and made their way to the East. The Company records indicate that over a thousand of them had already arrived in the East during the 17th century.45 Being strictly limited to their individual guild regulations in the Netherlands, it is unlikely that such workers had much experience in the more delicate woodworking processes, not to mention such specialized decorative techniques as carving and turning. However, because they were not bound to guild regulations in the East, they may have produced simple stools or benches for Company servants, but would hardly have been qualified to produce the elegant furniture that the Company’s elite would have required. In a rather stark contrast to the number of carpenters and shipwrights, only two cabinet makers officially arrived in the East during the 17th century. Looking at the related crafts, only four carvers, one turner and four coach makers were recorded as arriving in Asia. However, it is well known that many craftsmen registered as soldiers or sailors and converted to their crafts upon arrival. Similarly, those who had received training in Europe, could always earn a little extra on the side by practicing their crafts, so their actual numbers would have been higher.46 Still, their numbers cannot have been substantial, as the Company naturally had much more use for shipwrights than for cabinet makers. In an overview of the Company’s craftsmen in the Batavian crafts quarters from the late 17th century, no cabinet makers are mentioned, and only two carvers, four coach makers and four wood turners are said to have worked there.47 There may have also been cabinet makers amongst Batavia’s limited population of free burghers, but there is no evidence to support this; also, it is made all the more unlikely since they would have experienced fierce and unfair competition from the Chinese and slave labourers, and the Company would have charged high costs for their required working permits.48 The most common theory therefore, is that there were many qualified cabinet makers among the many slaves in the Company’s crafts quarters who worked under the guidance of European craftsmen. Indeed, there were many slaves brought to Batavia from the Asian continent who could have been qualified craftsmen, but it is most unlikely that they were trained in constructional cabinet making, and only specialized in decorative techniques. This would explain why early ebony furniture is often very badly made from a constructional point of view. The only known construction method for the makers of ebony furniture appears to have been the dowelled mortise and tenon joint. And even this is extremely crudely cut, forming a sharp contrast with the elegantly decorated surfaces. Most chairs and benches are actually very wobbly and certainly not safe to sit on. This makes sense if the – very probably Indian – craftsmen who produced them were unfamiliar with furniture construction, and there were insufficient qualified European cabinet makers to supervise them.


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Records reveal that the chiefs of the crafts quarters would often clandestinely ‘lend out’ some of their workers to perform private jobs in the city.49 It is also known that citizens would occasionally lend out some of their slaves who possessed particular skills. This was largely in line with the common procedure of hiring craftsmen in South East Asia, a habit that is also known to have applied to craftsmen in India and Ceylon.50 A client would hire the skills of a worker, who typically had no workshop and would bring only his tools to the home of the client. The client then had to deliver the required materials – as workers held no private stock – and discuss a set price in advance. Much to the annoyance of the Europeans, they had to acquire the timbers themselves and really had to press the workers to finish in time and within the allowed budget. Workers would typically decide their own working hours and try to demand more payment after finishing the job. They also experienced troubles in understanding Western drawings, which could lead to an unsatisfactory execution of the supplied model. Most of them worked on the earth with only a very limited number of tools. Of course, for slave labourers, the procedure would have been somewhat different. But still, craftsmen generally went to the homes of their clients to perform their work. There is no indication whatsoever, that there was ever a cabinet making workshop within the Company’s crafts quarters, as has been suggested by Veenendaal.51 It is not mentioned in any of the contemporary descriptions, nor is there a cabinet making section illustrated in a layout of the crafts quarters by Heydt. A reference to any form of large-scale furniture production centre in Batavia during the 17th century has yet to be found, which again points towards ebony furniture having been much rarer than has been suggested. In fact, the most likely group that would have been involved in full-time cabinet making during the 17th century was the Chinese. The Chinese were the most entrepreneurial people in Batavia, running and dominating several divisions of crafts. And the Company was most pleased to work with them, praising the quality of their work. They certainly did not work as slaves and were known experts in the field of furniture construction. From the limited inventories that exist from the 17th century, we know that the Dutch already possessed Chinese furniture in their interiors, which was possibly bought locally. There are no direct indications that the Chinese worked in European styles or made ebony furniture during the 17th century, but their influence became all the much clearer in the 18th century. It was also the Chinese who were most involved in the timber trade. They owned most of the sawmills around Batavia and offered the broadest range of timber species on the local markets.52 The Company only traded in the most precious species that were in high demand in Europe, mostly for medicinal, olfactory (incense) and dyeing purposes. Ebony was one of the rare exceptions to this rule, and was mainly imported from Mauritius, the Moluccas and South East India.53 Company records indicate that there was a steep rise in the number of European cabinet makers during the 18th century. Two hundred and thirty four European cabinet makers arrived in the East between 1700 and 1793. It is


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therefore not unlikely that some well-made objects of pure European design were actually made by European cabinet makers in the East. Curiously though, virtually no cabinet makers arrived before 1750, whereas their numbers literally exploded in the second half of the century. There is, however, a fairly logical explanation for this sudden rise, which is that in 1743 Governor General Van Imhoff recognized that the Company’s crafts quarters were inefficient, opening the way for entrepreneurship.54 This would have no doubt attracted European cabinet makers who sought their fortunes elsewhere. By the end of the century though, the Chinese had already securely positioned themselves as the leading producers of furniture in Batavia.55 Nearly all journals from the 19th century point in their direction for quality cabinet work and one often finds advertisements of Chinese cabinet workshops in papers. What part then, did the Javanese play in the production of furniture, one may ask. Since the Javanese were not used as slaves, they would not have worked in the crafts quarters of the Company. Many sources also indicate that – while they were appreciated for their carving – the Javanese were generally considered to be bad craftsmen. We already read how the Javanese had little to no tradition in constructional woodworking and they continued to be ridiculed by the Dutch for their lack of skills in this particular field. The Javanese – like many other craftsmen from Asia – were also generalists rather than specialists, not limiting their line of work to a certain technique, but to a certain material.56 They were often said to deliver sloppy work. Common quotes from the Dutch, particularly during the 19th century, are along the lines of, ‘All Javanese call themselves woodworkers (tukang kayu), but none of them are any good’. Also, native woodworkers simply had different criteria by which they judged the quality of the work, focusing mainly on the finish, whereas the Dutch appreciated quality of construction and selection of proper timbers. The Javanese are known to have selected pieces of wood that were full of splits and not pay the slightest attention to these defects before starting their work. As Loebèr puts it in 1916: ‘the native in general possesses little feeling for wood as a material [and] gladly covers his sloppy work with layers of paint and gold leaf’.57 He also notices how this forms a sharp contrast with the quality of their carving, which does receive their fullest attention. As such, Javanese woodworkers were only considered to deliver proper products when working under the strict guidance of European or Chinese craftsmen, which they did during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Under the hammer Public auctions or venduties were very common events in the daily lives at the trading posts. As Company servants and later civil servants were susceptible to illness and lived highly mobile lives, there was a very lively market in secondhand goods.58 In fact, announcements for public auctions typically took up a large portion of the early newspapers; there was even a newspaper entirely devoted to


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such announcements as early as 1776.59 There were also many shops carrying second-hand goods, as well as cabinet makers holding stocks of hand-medown furniture. Auctions were initially executed under the strict control of the Company, and an auctioneer was appointed for the organization of such events; announcements were generally posted at the castle or in the taverns. There was even a separate Chinese auctioneer appointed to organize such events for the Chinese population in the city. After the fall of the Company, the organization of public auctions rapidly became the terrain of private entrepreneurs, both European and Chinese alike, some of whom would grow into respectable auction houses during the course of the 19th century. In a short article from 1845, a Dutch observer describes the typical process of such events in Batavia. They were also important social events, again providing the Batavians with an opportunity to flaunt by acquiring items at a high price. According to the author, it was particularly youngsters who would overspend on such events for the sheer purpose of demonstrating their wealth. ‘A large crowd has gathered at this auction, some to buy cheap, other out of sheer curiosity, many are tempted by the beautiful furniture to place a bid. As such, prices may run to ridiculous heights, even so that a clock – though broken – fetches more than half of its original cost.’60 But on a more philanthropic note, some bidders were actually willing to pay high prices so that relatives of a deceased may be relieved of their debts or help repatriates pay for their ticket homewards. Slaves were brought along to the auctions to carry the items to their new homes, as can also be observed from the illustration below after Rappard.

After Josias Cornelis Rappard. ‘A public auction.’ 1881-1889. Tropenmuseum: 3728-792


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19th century

The colonial era

The 19th century was a troubled era for the Netherlands East Indies, with many rapid successions in power that would eventually lead to the emergence of a truly colonial society. After the fall of the Company, the Company’s debts and possessions were left to the newly founded Batavian Republic, soon to become the Kingdom of Holland. Under the authority of Louis Napoleon, Herman Willem Daendels became the first Governor General of the now colonial empire. His main task was to protect Java against the continuous threat of a British invasion. Daendels quickly personified the new colonial attitude of the Europeans, which formed a stark contrast to the reluctant imperialism of the Company. In his efforts to centralize power on Java, Daendels is said to have literally dragged the old and feeble Sultan of Bantam off his throne, taking his place on the seat while crying out ‘I am king now!’ While it is perhaps a somewhat romanticized picture, it clearly illustrates that the new kingdom no longer endeavoured to remain on friendly terms with the Javanese, but oppressed them with a grand display of power. During a very short rule of only three years, Daendels notably reformed the island of Java, starting the break-up of the old Batavia, building on the island’s military strength and founding a new colonial society that was governed by an intricate network of civil servants. Daendels’ ambitions were roughly disturbed by the British invasion that took place during the Napoleonic wars. With Thomas Stamford Raffles being appointed new Governor General in 1811, the Netherlands East Indies would experience a British interregnum for the next five years, which was to leave a significant influence on Batavian society. After the signing of the treaty of Paris, the Netherlands East Indies were restored to the Dutch kingdom, with the official transition of power taking place in 1816. The acknowledgement of the Dutch authority however, would continue to be fought by rebels within the archipelago. The Dutch had to wage a five-year war against the Javanese and later against the Sumatrans to secure their position as colonial rulers of the area and expand their territorial domain. Under the auspices of King Willem I, the Nederlandsche Handels-Maatschappij (NHM, Netherlands Trading Society) was established in 1824, the spiritual successor of the bankrupted Company. In order to make the colony profitable again, the Dutch introduced the so-called ‘cultuurstelsel’ in the Indies. The cultuurstelsel was a tax system that was most sensitive to corruption, and its consequences could be felt until the early 20th century. Fertile lands were farmed


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out and the local farmers had to grant twenty percent of their yield to the Dutch authorities, which the NHM would ship to the European market. However, the system met with a great deal of abuse, through corrupt civil servants and local Indonesian rajas, who would pressure their farmers by demanding yields well over the aforementioned twenty percent, in order to receive a larger cut of the profits. As a result, the people suffered from poverty and famine. The Dutch government eventually decided to abandon the state monopolized cultuurstelsel in 1870 and allow for private entrepreneurship in the colony. Slavery had also been officially abolished a decade earlier. Investors were actively sought for new enterprises, and this was also one of the most important goals of the well-known World Exhibition in 1883. Towards the end of the century, the Dutch colonial government had expanded its power to include many of the other islands of the Indonesian archipelago. The widespread area that fell under Dutch jurisdiction proved difficult to govern and required an enormous amount of civil servants, who would typically – much like their Company predecessors – be moved to different posts at regular intervals. However, for the first time, this period saw a drastic increase in the number of Europeans in the East, including many women and children. Already by the mid19th century, the number of Europeans approached 23,000, rising to around 75,000 by 1900.1 Meanwhile, the old city of Batavia was rapidly torn down; the new centre of power having moved towards the Batavian countryside, to the luxurious district of Welgelegen.

The promotion of European values Although European culture and values were already the norm in the Netherlands East Indies during the time of the Company, society continued to include Asian characteristics for many years. It was mostly because of the predominant Mestizo culture among females that Asian culture continued to be upheld within the mixed marriages of the time. It had already been noted that many of the Dutch travellers who visited the East felt uncomfortable with the assimilation of their fellow countrymen into Asian culture. Numerous Company officials similarly felt that society had drifted away from traditional Dutch, Calvinist values and actively sought means to turn the tide. Several schools had already been founded during the 18th century to educate Mestizo children in European fashion and promote Calvinist values.2 Of course, Dutch was to be the prescribed language in such institutions. However, the Mestizo culture proved to be strong enough to survive these deliberate attacks. The promotion of Dutch values was taken a step further in the last three decades of the 18th century, during the period of the Indies Enlightenment. The newly founded Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences became the habitat of mostly Dutchmen, born in the Netherlands, whose main goal it was to actively follow the


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After Josias Cornelis Rappard. ‘The rice table.’ 1883-1889. Tropenmuseum: 3728-820. This European family is served a rice table by their servants, enjoying their meal out on the rear veranda. Contrary to what is commonly thought, the concept of the Rice table dates from Dutch colonial times rather than being an Indonesian tradition. Notice the very Dutch buffet on the left and the sunscreens on the right

intellectual developments in Europe. It must be noted that its founding year of 1778 makes it the oldest known Western cultural institution in Asia.3 The Society took part in many public activities involving culture and science and regularly published articles on Indian society through its well-known publications known as ‘Transactions’. The meeting place for the Society became known as the most important Gentlemen’s’ club of the city, which was eventually partly decorated as a museum during the early 20th century. As Taylor fittingly describes it, the society was a ‘product of outsiders who were sufficiently wealthy and conscious of the European model to attempt to re-create in an alien environment the sociability remembered from the homeland’.4 As such, the society publicly rejected Mestizo culture. Although after making a rather bumpy start with a relatively modest number of members, the Society grew into one of most important institutions of the Netherlands East Indies in the late 19th century. The English felt similarly strongly about Mestizo culture, and endeavoured to suppress public displays of Asian culture within the daily social lives of the Batavians. With the sudden British invasion of 1811, more than 5,000 Britons made their way to Java and took a dominating position over the modest Dutch population, making their influence strongly felt. One of the most notable means through which the British imposed their values and attacked Mestizo culture,


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was through their publishing of the ‘Java Government Gazette’. The enlightened paper – printed in both English and Dutch – published many stories on European culture, values and fashions; it attacked Mestizo culture, but also propagated the abolition of slavery and the education of females, the latter naturally being aimed at those of mixed descent.5 With the continued promotion of all things European, disdain for all things Indian grew alarmingly amongst both the English and Dutch. These sentiments continued after the departure of the British. Betel was forcefully renounced, as were other aspects of Asian culture that had formerly been enjoyed by the Europeans, such as Asian music, theatre and dance. Likewise, Europeans who demonstrated signs of Asian influence, were effectively excluded from social life. And marrying an Asian woman was certainly not done. Being part of the educational offence of the Enlightenment period, many public institutions were founded during the first decades of the 19th century, such as theatres, libraries and social clubs, which actively sought to involve Mestizo women.6 Mestizo culture eventually caved in under European pressure, but also because an increasing number of European women made their way to the colony. By the end of the century, Mestizo culture had largely disappeared. Discrimination of native Indonesians also continued, excluding them from governmental positions or any jobs with higher payment, and typically perceiving them as being inferior. Only by 1864 were Asians allowed to apply for governmental positions, but the required exams were notoriously expensive and difficult to pass, essentially continuing the earlier ban.7 Slavery was only officially abolished in the Netherlands East Indies in 1860, but the tradition of having a large number of servants continued unhampered, now having become a class of severely underpaid employees. All in all, Europeans became increasingly isolated in their own culture.

Civil servants, their families and their homes An enormous number of civil servants was required to govern all areas of the colony, leading to a highly bureaucratic society. They were generally divided in two groups: those stationed on Java and those stationed at the many ‘outposts’. Many servants continued the nomadic lifestyles of their Company predecessors; moving around the vast archipelago and buying and selling their homes and household items on regular occasions.8 As was noted, an increasing number of women made their way to the East, as civil servants were allowed to bring their families to the colony; this became much less of a health risk after the introduction of steam-powered vessels and the opening of the Suez Canal. By the third quarter of the 19th century, vessels were set to arrive and depart on a monthly basis and the duration of the trip was drastically shortened to an average of ninety days.9 This also meant that European products were much more easily available and Europe felt much closer than it had done before. There were many shops (toko’s) on Java that specialized in European products and were well up-to-date with all the


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After Josias Cornelis Rappard. ‘A shop in Batavia.’ 1881-1889. Tropenmuseum: 3728-778. A toko (small shop) in Batavia selling European goods: mirrors, clocks, suitcases, earthenware, toys, oil lamps and dried hams. A young couple and a child are casually browsing. The man on the left is accompanied by his Javanese servant

latest fashions from home. The well-to-do district of Rijswijk in Batavia actually featured a ‘French neighbourhood’, where one could purchase all the latest Parisian fashions, including nearly all imaginable household items.10 Much as in the 18th century, owning European items was definitely the norm, and many were ashamed to admit they had purchased European imitations on the native pasars. The high ranking Dutch civil servants had become the new elite of the East Indies. They would later be joined by entrepreneurs who had made their fortune in the East. Their public behaviour, however, differed drastically from that of their Company predecessors. Dutch colonial society in the 19th century was much more sober than in the preceding centuries. The outrageous wealth and decadent lifestyles had given way to the more Calvinist attitude from which the Company directors had felt society had strayed. Members of the new elite simply lived their regular family lives in an alien environment. The public display of splendour had become much less common, status being derived largely from an individual’s governmental position, rather than their wealth, and this was determined in the Netherlands. Previously it had been the intermarital relationships that had characterized most of the Company’s command structure. Civil servants also received their main payment through the Dutch government; private trade was no longer as attractive as before,


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since many of the formerly valuable objects were no longer in high demand in Europe. Instead, trade focussed on bulk materials and foodstuffs, such as indigo, coffee, tea and sugar. Although they lived very comfortable lives, civil servants weren’t nearly as rich as some of the Company servants that had preceded them. Gone too were most Asian status symbols, now held in great contempt. Governor General Daendels’ reform policies had an enormous impact on the outward appearance of the former capital of the dissolved Company. During a term of just three years, he was the driving force behind the demolition of the old city and catalyzed the move towards the southern districts that was already underway. Also, following orders from the new king of the Batavian republic to improve the public health conditions in Batavia, Daendels initiated radical steps. Castle Batavia was torn down in 1809 and Daendels ordered the new government residence to be built in the luxurious district Welgelegen, which now houses the Indonesian ministry of finance. Stones from the old castle were actually reused for the building of a new castle. Welgelegen would become the main housing district for high ranking Dutch civil servants in the following years. Another major building project that was ordered under Daendels would become the new home of the Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences, club ‘De Harmonie’. The new Batavia had a very different character to the old city. The cramped Dutch city from the 17th century formed a stark contrast to the wide, airy estates with their countless parks and broad roads connecting them. And although parts of the old city survived, the torn walls, filled-in canals and many demolished homes leave very little to be recognized today. However, many of the houses from the colonial era are still standing. In a style that is known as ‘colonial empire’, these broad, stately buildings were typically of a single-story type and had high, tiled roofs for improved air circulation. Actual buildings were often fronted by a roofed colonnade, creating a deep veranda where most of the private time was spent. Via the entrance and through the main living quarters, the way commonly led to a small courtyard, which was flanked on either side by the more commonplace living and working areas, such as the kitchen, storage room, bathroom and servants’ quarters. Rooms were typically very spacious, with high ceilings, large windows and white plastered walls, creating a static, open and airy – but also somewhat sterile – environment. Still, these homes were well-adapted to the tropical environment and were most comfortable when compared to the earlier Company houses. Many public buildings, including those of the higher ranking servants, were designed and built by the department of civil buildings, its main office was located in Batavia.11 Several examples of such homes may be found in Wils. Although the number of European women had drastically increased over the course of the 19th century, by 1880 the ratio was still only around one woman to every two men.12 Many European men continued to have secret relationships with Indonesian concubines – called njai – who they would visit in their kampongs. Nonetheless, there were now many Dutch families in the Indies and, unlike in previous centuries, there was also a new European society that was growing


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naturally, through birth, rather than merely through the number of expatriates. Households were naturally run by women; there are a number of most interesting household books from the late 19th century that give us insights into their daily activities. Catenius-van der Meijden’s book is a wonderful example, covering all possible facets of the Indonesian household, from the construction of buildings to the responsible selection of tasteful furniture and the treatment of (disobedient) servants.

Education and the stimulation of local crafts With the continued downplaying of Indian culture, the Dutch felt a responsability to educate the native inhabitants of the Indies. This tendency became all the more stronger towards the end of the century with the rise of socialist ideals in the Netherlands. There had always been a shortage of qualified craftsmen in the Indies, both during and after the Company era. The Company had already made several careful attempts to promote the education of crafts amongst Dutch, Mestizo and Mardijker boys, but it is unclear whether this ever flourished.13 The ideal of education though, was not always as altruistic as it appeared to be; this was particularly true for the education and stimulation of crafts in the 19th century. As revenues from the colony continued to fall, the Dutch government sought new ways for it to become profitable once more.14 The start-up of a craft industry in the East Indies became increasingly interesting for the government for three reasons: labour was cheap, native Indonesian art was gaining popularity in Europe, and regular export could now be more easily accommodated. Dutch investors were to be drawn to the Indies to develop small-scale industries such as batik work, carving and cabinet making. In 1884, Van der Kemp was asked to research the potential of exploiting local crafts in several parts of the East Indies. Although there was definite potential, traditional crafts had long been in a decline and there was a shortage of qualified workers among the native inhabitants. However, the Indonesians had shown that they could produce items of sufficient quality under the strict supervision of Dutch and Chinese foremen, and so the government decided to invest in their education. Eventually, three schools of crafts were officially founded in Batavia, Semarang and Surabaya but never became very successful, largely due to the strongly hierarchic values upheld by the Javanese. After obtaining their diploma from the school, many students felt that manual work was now beneath them and opted for clerical jobs instead, even if they were lower paid.15 Also, the Javanese generally showed little interest in being trained as craftsmen.16 Although there were actually smaller scale furniture industries in Indonesia, the potential that was envisioned by the Dutch government was never fully realized. Japara remained one of the few areas where native cabinet making flourished, and much of the recognizable carved, teak furniture made its way to the Netherlands from the late 19th century onwards.


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Furniture in the 19th century It is quite astounding how much influence the relatively short British interregnum of Java had on interior decoration. As the Company’s power started to crumble, from the mid-18th century on, it lost most of its trading posts to the English Company on the Asian continent and Ceylon, allowing its foremost competitor to expand at its expense. The British had a profound influence on Asian culture, often adopting a more aggressive approach in promoting European values than the Dutch Company had done before it; and this included the increase in distinctly British styles of form and decoration. By the time Batavia had fallen to the British, the European inhabitants of the island had long lived in cultural isolation from their homeland. Even after the Anglo-Dutch wars, contact with the homeland remained limited as the Company struggled to survive. The French neo-classicism and Empire styles that were so dominant during this period in the Netherlands never quite reached the remote East Indies. Instead, the British Regency style became fashionable in most of the East Asian trading posts after the British settled in Java and the predominantly Dutch city of Batavia. It was an influence that would continue well into the 20th century. Unfortunately, Dutch museums possess few items from this period, except, that is, for the many Raffles chairs. Other examples are only to be found in Jakarta. Since furniture was also imported by the British from their homeland, there are a increasing number of references to English furniture in inventories from the 19th century. It is also quite common to come across mentions of mahogany furniture in inventories and auction announcements. Although furniture made from mahogany was imported from Europe, the actual raw timber had been imported from as early as 1813.17 The most obvious example of British influence in the early 19th century is the Raffles chair. Several variations appear that deviate little from the prototype and they continue to be made in Indonesia up to this day. An early British example can be found in the drawings of Hepplewhite. The Tropenmuseum’s collection features several chairs of this type, most of them made from teak, (6075-3, 3621-26, 1524-1), but also a more rare example made from solid calamander (2626-1); there is also one of rosewood, inlaid with calamander (p. 128). The Rijksmuseum owns a rare set of chairs that portray stronger French influences (BK-1994-46A, B). Another type of furniture that is known to date from this period, is the so-called ‘Madura bench’.18 Based on the Grecian sofa designs by Sheraton, the only known example of this type in the Netherlands is owned by the Rijksmuseum (BK-1994-49). Finally, a remarkable object from the early 19th century that is worth mentioning, is an ebonized screen of neo-classicist design in the collection of the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde (2390-4). By the time Java was returned to the Dutch and the number of Dutch settlers started to increase, Batavia had been exposed to so many influences, that it is not surprising to find that the interiors of the second half of the 19th century demonstrate a rather confusing mishmash of styles. The population of Dutch civil


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servants continued the nomadic lifestyles of their Company predecessors, selling and buying their interiors at public auctions that would include furniture in Dutch, British, Chinese and Indonesian styles. As the Netherlands’ influence had again increased, Dutch styles such as Biedermeier (c. 1820-1850) and later the Willem III style (c. 1850-1890), start to appear in Indian interiors, though surviving examples are quite rare. A mahogany meidenkast is discussed in more detail in the catalogue (p. 130). Also well-represented were a plethora of neo-styles, including gothic, renaissance and rococo, of which the latter seems to have been the most common. Many of these were imported from Europe, but a number was also produced locally. Such furniture can often be spotted in the large collection of interior photographs that have been left to us from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These pictures also clearly illustrate the strongly eclectic interiors of those days, as can be seen in Wils and the vast collection of photographic material in the Tropenmuseum. Again, there are not many examples in Dutch museum collections and they were never part of a deliberate collecting strategy. There are several remarkable types of furniture from the 19th century that deserve special mention. There is the so-called ‘krossi gobang’, known in English as the ‘planter’s chair’ (Tropenmuseum: 261-21a, 3666-1). Reclining chairs of this type are fitted with extendable armrests upon which one may lay one’s feet. Some chairs even feature circular indentations in the arm rests that provide room for a drink. It is hardly surprising that such chairs were known in Dutch as luiaardsstoelen (‘slackers’ chairs’). These were commonly placed on the veranda where much of the daily life was spent during the hottest hours of the day. Rocking chairs were similarly common (Tropenmuseum: 261-25a-f). Another type of furniture that dominated the Dutch interiors was furniture made from bamboo and braided rattan. This was amongst the cheapest furniture one could buy and it was produced in large numbers by Javanese and Chinese craftsmen. No furniture of this type ever made its way into Dutch museums, but pictorial evidence suggests that it was extremely popular and was often used outdoors as well. Imported bentwood furniture was also quite commonly used for this purpose. We must also mention furniture that was made in Chinese and Eurasian styles. Chinese furniture had continued to be part of Dutch interiors since the Dutch first arrived in the East, and although an Indo-Chinese style had made a small appearance, furniture of this type continued to be unmistakably Chinese in appearance and quality, making such pieces difficult to identify. As was mentioned before, many copies of old ebony furniture were produced during this period, and the Eurasian style of floral carving was once again popularized in the areas that had large numbers of European residents. In a painting by Hardouin of a Batavian bride, from 1853, we can already detect that the bench on which the bride sits is reminiscent of the ebony style.19 Towards the end of the 19th century, traditional Javanese carving had gained in popularity and was often applied on Western-style items. Local industries emerged that produced European items decorated with native ornaments; in the case of furniture, the most obvious example is the delicate carving from the Japara


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region. A substantial amount of furniture was produced in this region well into the 20th century, often featuring European furniture designs and decorated with Javanese carving, almost without exception produced in teak. Many such objects made their way into Dutch homes and museums, including the Tropenmuseum, which preserves an impressive cabinet of this type that is said to have been owned by the famous Dutch author Eduard Douwes Dekker (930-11). All the above styles and models were freely combined in the interiors of the Netherlands East Indies, creating a strongly eclectic and cluttered atmosphere that formed a rather stark contrast to the austere and roomy living quarters of colonial homes.


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a technical survey of the ebony furniture collection of the tropenmuseum

The many colours of ebony Joost Hoving and Reinier Klusener

The story of ebony furniture is an enigmatic one, shrouded in mystery. A number of Dutch museum collections feature these dark-coloured objects, and they all possess a puzzling consistency of style and ornamentation. Little appears to have changed between the time when the originals were made and when copies were produced, centuries later. The lack of tangible historical sources makes debate on the authenticity of such items difficult, a fact that is reflected in the many different names that furniture of this type has been given in the past. It has been decided to opt for the term ‘ebony furniture’1 in both this and Van Gompel’s study, using it to designate a certain model or style of furniture, rather than the material of which it is made. All conclusions have been based on a combination of historical and technical research rather than a review of the currently available literature on the subject. The enigma of ebony furniture lies not only in its history, as treated by Van Gompel, but also in technical issues. These arose from a project started in early 2007 by the Tropenmuseum to restore its ebony furniture collection. It soon became apparent that many items had been radically altered, raising suspicions that their original appearance had been quite different from how they looked today. Many objects were found to have been composed of left-over parts from earlier items, often dating from different eras, or had their dimensions severely changed. Benches had been cut up into chairs, cabinet stands converted into coffee tables and plate racks made out of chair parts; sometimes the final item included shapes that probably never existed in Company times. During the conservation project, many items belonging to the ebony furniture group were subject to close technical inspection that was carried out in the workshop of Hoving & Klusener in Amsterdam. By being able to dismantle many pieces of furniture in the workshop, it soon became clear that the conservation project offered an opportunity to research ebony furniture in a way that had never been done before. The combination of historical and technical research led to new insights that give us a rare glimpse into domestic life in the Dutch colonies. Such insights would not have been possible without this technical approach. Following on from Van Gompel’s historical account, the research here focuses on material aspects of ebony furniture.


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Since ebony furniture shows little to no stylistic or regional development – or at least none that can be clearly identified – it is almost impossible to either determine an item’s age or get any indication of a possible country of origin at first sight. Although many questions have still been left unanswered, the technical research, which focussed on subjects such as timber species, surface coatings and systems of measurement, has confirmed many of the suspicions that emerged during the historical research. Many copies of ebony furniture appear to have been made during the 19th and 20th centuries and a lot of the items showed signs of drastic alteration. The suspicion that ebony furniture was much brighter and more colourful than had been previously suspected has in particular changed our current perceptions. While technical analysis did not often help to specify the date or place of origin of a particular piece of furniture, it did help determine wether alterations had been made, and helped the researchers differentiate 19th-century copies from earlier examples, or at least those which contained original parts (i.e. parts from the 17th century). Common alterations can now be more easily spotted and authentic parts can be distinguished from later additions, as many items appear to have undergone very similar ‘overhauls’. This allowed the researchers to divide the pieces of furniture into different groups, according to the degree of alteration. Only a very small percentage of the researched objects were thought to date from the 17th century and showed no signs of heavy alteration, suggesting that items that date from this era are much rarer than we’d come to expect. The second and largest group comprised furniture that contained original parts (parts that had been taken from 17th-century items of furniture) but were still for the most part ‘new’. It is in this group that we find many items with deceptive forms or dimensions, a deception that heavily distorts our views of ebony furniture as a whole. The third group is made up of items that are altogether ‘new’, i.e. produced during the time that ebony furniture was in fashion in the colonial Netherlands East Indies. These findings are supported by historical evidence as Van Gompel has demonstrated,2 but the scale of modifications and copies was much greater than had been expected. This article has been divided into several specific areas of technical research; some of them proved very valuable as a resource, while others offered little to no relevant information. These different areas of technical research will be examined first, and then the reader will be introduced to some of the more common alterations carried out on ebony furniture, ones that are not too difficult to detect. These observations are accompanied by as large a number of images as this publication will allow. The conclusion reviews the different areas of research, presents the major outcomes, and discusses how these results alter the way we look at ebony furniture. As part of the research, a database was created containing charts of technical data; this is available on request from the Tropenmuseum.


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Legend To understand our analyses, it is useful to know a number of technical terms; the image provides a legend of the common names for furniture parts. Please note that the often separate seating frames are not visible in this drawing, neither are the so-called ‘cover rails’, which commonly surround the seating frame and are placed over the seat rails. 1





4 13 5


6 7

12 9 11 10


Top rail




Upper back rail


Ball foot


Back spirals (in some cases


Stretcher joint (in which the


Seat rail joint (in which the aprons


stretchers are jointed to the legs)


Lower back rail


Upper seat rail




Rear stile




Arm rest stile


Arm rest


Rear stile finial

are jointed to the legs)

Timber analysis At first sight, it is almost impossible to determine which timber has been used in a piece of ebony furniture. Since a great many pieces are not made out of genuine ebony and are covered with a thick, waxy finish, a lot of this furniture is simply identified by the generic term ‘ironwood’ in Dutch museum collections. This is a general name for species that are both dense in structure and heavy in weight; this accounts for a large number of Asian timber species. The researchers hoped that the identification of firmly region-bound species would indicate regions of production for ebony furniture, as well as provide clues about an item’s authenticity and age.


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Since ebony, and the strongly related calamander, are easily identified when observing a cut on end-grain wood, items made from these timbers could immediately be excluded from further research. There were less of them than had been expected; the majority of items was not made from ‘black gold’, a popular term for this valuable wood. Out of the 44 items analyzed, only 14 appeared to have been either wholly or partially made from ebony or calamander.3 Small cuts were made in invisible areas that became accessible during conservation, such as the bottoms of feet or the tenons. If this method proved inconclusive, samples were taken from similarly invisible areas, to be analyzed by microscopic timber analysis.4 Microscopic analysis helped identify the following species: red sandalwood (pterocarpus santalinus), padauk (pterocarpus indicus, macrocarpus), Indian rosewood (dalbergia latifolia), East Indian satinwood (chloroxylon swietenia), oelin (eusideroxylon zwageri), teak (tectona grandis), nangka (artocarpus sp.), tandjoeng (mimusops elengi) and gerongang (cratoxylum sp.). Nearly all identified timbers are native to large parts of South and South East Asia, with the exception of red sandalwood and satinwood. A surprisingly large number of pieces (13), had been made out of red sandalwood, a species that is native to Southern India and particularly the Coromandel coast. Red sandalwood was identified in many samples from items that had been thought to be wholly authentic or at least partially composed of authentic parts.5 This clearly indicates the coast as a centre of production for ‘ebony’ furniture, as is confirmed by contemporary sources,6 although we cannot exclude the possibility that timber trade brought this species to Batavia. The Company actively traded in red sandalwood on a large scale. Because of its supposed medicinal properties and source of red dye, red sandalwood would have been easily available in Batavia. However, nearly all pieces made from red sandalwood had been covered by a thick, black finish. Red sandalwood was held in high esteem during the 17th century, and many pieces had probably been intended to show their natural colour. Rumphius even mentions that a chemical dye was used to change the colour of such items from red to a deep purple. This was also done with the extracted dye when it had been imported to the Netherlands.7 Satinwood on the other hand, is only known to have grown on the island of Ceylon, where the single item in which this timber was identified was probably produced. The researchers noted that precious timbers were much more likely to be found in 17th-century items, or parts dating from this period. These timbers include ebony, calamander, satinwood, red sandalwood, padauk and Indian rosewood. Surprisingly, these are the timbers that are also specifically mentioned in 17th- and 18th-century inventories from the Netherlands East Indies – and they were held in the same high esteem as they are today. They provide very attractive grains and colours that were meant to be shown as a decorative effect and not be covered by a black finish. Items that were identified as ‘copies’ (i.e. 19th- or early 20th-century examples) were less likely to have used attractive or valuable timbers.8 There are two probable reasons for this: firstly, these furniture items had been intended


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to imitate ebony from the moment they were produced, so had no need for an attractive colour or grain – they would be covered by black stains or coatings anyway. Another reason is that it became increasingly difficult for craftsmen in the Netherlands East Indies to obtain valuable timber species, as trade was strictly controlled by the Dutch government. The importation of timbers from these regions to Europe increased enormously during this period, leading to rising prices and limited availability.9 The craftsmen in the Indies had to resort to illegally cut wood and low quality timber, both commonly referred to as ‘wildwood species’. This explains why many items belonging to this group are made out of uncommon and unattractive timber species. The only exception to this was teak, which was widely available on Java, but more expensive than wildwood.

Ebony (Diospyros sp. div.)

Red sandalwood (Pterocarpus santalinus)

Satinwood (Chloroxylon swietenia)

White sandalwood (Santalum album)

Indian rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia)

Amboina burr (Pterocarpus indicus)

Sappanwood (Caesalpinia sappan)

Sandalwood after treatment with the chemical dye that is mentioned by Rumphius

Indian Padauk (Pterocarpus indicus)

Calamander (Diospyros sp. div.)

Java teakwood (Tectona grandis)

Camphorwood (Dryobalanops sp. div)

Salimuli (Cordia subcordata)

Timber species that are regularly mentioned in the archives in relationship to furniture from the Netherlands East Indies. Ebony and Red Sandalwood are most common on furniture of the ebony type and have been identified in many samples


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Although it is very risky to draw conclusions from wood determination research alone, combining it with the outcomes of historical research gave the researchers several new insights. For example, it appears that, while other precious species were also used, ebony and red sandalwood were the most commonly used timbers for the production of the original ebony furniture during the 17th century. Inferior and cheaper wood species are more often found in ‘copies’ from the 19th or 20th century, or were used in the new parts of altered items. Timber analysis can therefore provide valuable clues to an item’s (partial) authenticity. Other than being an aid in determining authenticity, timber analysis also confirms the strong suspicion that 17th-century furniture in the Netherlands East Indies was far more colourful than the current uniform black leads us to believe.

Positioning marks Positioning marks are deliberate scratches or cuts on the surface of furniture parts used to determine their position during assembly or to separate different items within a set of items, such as four identical chairs. As many of these marks were found on mortises and tenons when furniture pieces were being disassembled during the conservation process, it seemed logical that they might also provide us with further clues. A majority of the researched items possessed positioning marks in invisible locations. Out of the 27 objects that required disassembly, 23 used positioning marks. Most striking however, was that many objects showed large numbers of different positioning marks; these could range from a single mark to as many as 42 on a single item. All marks were carefully documented and an attempt was made to categorize them.10 Marks had been cut with chisels and gouges or hammered in with pointed tools or nails. There was a huge variety in the marks’ appearance; there were linear cuts, C-shaped gouge cuts, scratches and hammered dots. There was the common progression, from one to four, to indicate the four sides of the item, a system unknown to European furniture making. Additional marks sometimes seemed to indicate a separation of parts within a set of identical items. The use of numbers or pencil marks, common on European furniture, was nowhere

Examples of positioning marks on ebony furniture (from left to right: 1295-23, 1295-29, 99-3, 3097-2, 3097-2, 1954-7)


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to be found. Indeed, because they are not instantly recognizable, some of these marks appear quite exotic. As such, they do not seem to indicate any involvement of European cabinet makers or earlier restorations in Europe. There were also no marks found in Chinese or Javanese scripts, so their curious shapes provide us with little useful information on the makers of these objects. However, a very interesting observation was made not by looking at the actual shapes of the positioning marks, but simply their numbers. As has been mentioned, many pieces had a large number of marks that seemed to indicate different stages within the object’s lifetime, apparently confirming that they were regularly disassembled or were reassembled from parts belonging to several different items. Whenever old and new parts were used to create into a new item, new positioning marks appear to have been added to replace the old ones. The use of many marks belonging to different groups can therefore help identify stages of alteration to an item and help to separate original parts from newer parts. Different groups of positioning marks may also indicate regular disassembly for other purposes. It was noted that the dimensions, combined with the simple construction techniques of ebony furniture, make it well suited for easy disassembly, transport and reassembly. As cargo space was very limited on the Company’s ships, furniture had to be reduced to as small a size as possible. Sets of chairs appear to have been transported in this manner,11 which is why the use of positioning marks is very important on these items. Therefore, the number of positioning marks on furniture may also reflect the mobile lifestyles of its owners. In all probability, the more marks there are on a piece of furniture, the more turbulent its history has been.

Rails and stretchers of a large ebony bench that has been completely disassembled. The otherwise large item now only takes up a very limited amount of space. Needless to say, it is now very well suited for transportation


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Tool marks During conservation, the researchers kept a constant look out for unusual tool marks that could provide them with more information on the production methods of ebony furniture.12 They were also hoping that such marks could provide clues to an item’s authenticity. Unfortunately, few useful observations were made. Apparently, methods of production remained practically unaltered for many centuries in the Netherlands East Indies, as indeed did the general appearance of ebony furniture. All items appear to have been completely handmade, apart from a single chair on which traces of a band saw were detected. There did however appear to have been a change in the level of surface finishing on items from the 19th century. All the invisible parts on items from the 17th century appear to have been very crudely cut, such as the insides of seat rails and mortise and tenon joints. The irregularity of the shapes seems to indicate the use of adzes and axes rather than planes. Sometimes there was even a large inconsistency in the dimensions of similar parts, such as a right leg being significantly shorter than the left. Contemporary descriptions from the 17th century reveal that craftsmen in the East only carried a very limited amount of tools.13 And their focus seems to have been primarily on the carved decorations. But when we look at ebony furniture from the 19th and 20th century, we find that joints are better cut and the invisible sides of the wood are more carefully finished. Parts that are of a uniform thickness and length appear to have been planed or sanded on the inside and may have even seen the use of some machinery. From a constructional point of view, these items are much better made than their predecessors, perhaps because production of these copies had been largely taken over by Chinese craftsmen. Their carving however, is often much less inspired and lively than earlier examples, much like the shapes of the spiral turnings, which we will discuss below.

Turnery The use of turned wood is a typical feature of ebony furniture, especially in the form of spiral turning. Contrary to common belief, a spiral is not created through turning, but through carving. The spiral is actually carved and rasped into shape. Alongside spiral turning, symmetrical turning is also occasionally used in ebony furniture, typically in the shape of balusters. Many of these are suspected to be later additions or repairs, replacing earlier spirals. Though carved, spirals are commonly produced on a lathe. At the basis of the spiral shape lies a simple geometric drawing that will determine the eventual shape.14 By changing certain dimensions within the drawing, spirals may vary from sleek and subtle to heavily knotted strings. After drawing the layout of the spiral, the depth of the lowest parts is sawn in and coarsely cut into shape with gouges


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and chisels. Finally, the finishing surface is rasped and abraded into the wood on a very slowly spinning lathe. On many items from the Tropenmuseum’s collection we found evenly distributed and continuing scratches within the deepest surfaces of the spirals, indicating that they had been produced on a lathe. Some spirals appear to not have been finished on the lathe – where one can still see the cuts of carving tools and the typical scratch marks are lacking. This was evident on many items that appear to have been produced in the 19th and 20th centuries. Most spirals on older ebony furniture tended to be quite subtle in shape; the difference in height between the lowest and highest parts being very small, resulting in a slowly creeping and elegant spiral. Many 19th-century spirals appeared to be more pronounced, sometimes with very closely spaced knots that appear much coarser than earlier examples.

Example of a 19th-century spiral (front leg on 1954-7). Note the spiral’s steep and compressed dimensions – a common feature of later examples of ebony furniture. The marks of carving tools are still visible in this example, indicating that it was not finished on a lathe Example of an earlier spiral (back spiral on 1295-34). It has a much more subtle, slowly creeping shape. In the depths of the spiral, the tool marks of rasping are still clearly visible, indicating that it was finished on a slowly spinning lathe


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Carving Carving has always been one of the very few characteristics of ebony furniture that can be used to determine an item’s age. Scholars of furniture have made attempts to categorize carving into groups. But since many items appear to be composed of a number of different parts, from different objects or eras, grouping becomes very complicated indeed. The researchers attempted something similar but opted for a more technical approach rather than focusing solely on stylistic developments. The makers of pieces from the 17th century put most of their effort into their carvings, giving little attention to constructional work. Things seem to have actually turned around during the 19th and 20th centuries, when items were well made, but decorated with uninspired, crude carvings and sometimes badly proportioned spirals. In the carving of furniture from this period, many small details appeared to be missing and the height of the relief to be often very irregular. One could say that such carving demonstrates an early stage in the carving process that has not received the level of finishing that is common on earlier items. Details in leaves and flowers are missing, tendrils demonstrate an unnatural flow and many tool marks are still visible. Whereas the decorations from both periods appear very similar, 19th-century carving lacks the required finish and care that make the earlier decorations come to life and provide it with an effect of great depth. The above observation is usually sufficient to separate the carvings from earlier and later times. Since both can be present on a single piece of furniture, one is advised to closely examine all the different parts of an item that are decorated with carving. Another valuable indication can be the level of wear on carvings. Delicate parts on early carving are often found to have chipped off, especially in brittle timbers such as ebony. Parts of thin tendrils can be missing; the tips of leaves similarly; and the sharpness of the cartouches surrounding the carvings may have worn out. One can also look at the wear on the wood itself, which sometimes appears ‘impoverished’ or even treated with lye on some of the older parts; such observations however, can be risky to say the least. As Van Gompel stated,15 dating ebony furniture solely on the stylistic developments of the carvings is extremely difficult. While technical research cannot provide the observer with conclusive evidence either, it can assist in attributing an item, or part of an item, to a certain era – either the greater part of the 17th century, or the late 19th to early 20th centuries, when copies were made. Attempts to come up with more specified attributions are much too risky; these are best obtained through a combination of stylistic and technical observations. Out of the pieces with carvings that were examined in the workshop – 41 in total – only two were found to be entirely composed of parts from the 17th century; 29 were made up of sections dating from different eras, some of them even possessing only one part from the 17th century, while others had several. Ten were established to have been produced entirely in the 19th or 20th century.


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A typical example of 19th-century carving (top and upper back rails on 3097-2). The carving is quite crudely cut, possesses very few details and has received little finishing. It almost seems as though the carver stopped half-way through the process

17th-century carving (on a top rail from 1373-1). Notice how much more detail has gone in to the natural flow of the ornament, the design of the leaves and the level of finishing. The background is also more evenly cut away than in the example above. A form of natural wear is also easily visible in this example


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An example of the typical Singhalese style of low-relief carving (17th-century, apron of 903-27). Also notice the use of animal motifs

Top rail on 904-2. The decorations on this chair are very unusual for ebony chairs. The flow of the ornament and the way in which the flowers and tendrils are shaped are not at all Asian. They also quite crudely cut when viewed from up close. Although this chair was formerly believed to be a richly decorated example of 17th-century ebony furniture, technical research has led us to suspect that is was actually produced in Europe as a copy


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Measurements and measuring systems It has always been common for cabinet makers throughout the world to work with semi-standardized units of measurement. Although values may vary wildly amongst different cultures and regions, such units are commonly derived from human anatomy. During conservation treatment, dimensions of furniture items were recorded, and compared to known systems of measurement from South East Asia. While admitting that it was an ambitious undertaking, the researchers hoped to uncover a familiar system of measurement, one that would help indicate a certain region or culture of origin, or provide an explanation for the peculiar dimensions of ebony furniture. However, the deviation within sizes proved to be so great, that an underlying system could not be uncovered. In cities such as Batavia, many different cultures were at work and they used many different systems of measurement, most of which were not standardized until the early 20th century. However, recording the dimensions of these pieces of ebony furniture was not in vain. It was soon discovered that – although actual sizes varied – the furniture’s general dimensions remained consistent. Whenever a chair or bench deviated from the proportions that had been expected, it was always found that that piece of furniture had been altered in some way, affecting its dimensions. Therefore, big deviations in size were usually a good indication that an item had been tampered with. Sometimes, the evidence for such alterations is difficult to find without disassembling the piece, which is why dimensions are a very good aid in identifying them. Pieces with odd dimensions were always found to have been altered, as there appears to have been little discrepancy in the dimensions of ebony chairs as a whole. In earlier publications on ebony furniture, dimensional deviations were used to designate a specific user or function. Higher chairs with armrests for example were referred to as ‘male chairs’ or ‘king’s chairs’; chairs without armrests ‘female chairs’ and unusually small chairs were sometimes called ‘children’s chairs’ or even ‘circumcision chairs’. All such chairs that were examined in this project had had their dimensions altered during earlier interventions. They had been heightened, lowered or had armrests added or removed. So it is not advisable to draw any conclusions regarding an item’s owner or potential use based on dimensions. Dimensions, as far as the research showed, can only be used to help identify common alterations to ebony furniture. However, one observation that always holds ground, is that Singhalese ebony furniture generally makes use of more slender dimensions than ebony furniture from the Coromandel coast and Batavia; but such items are already easily distinguishable through their remarkable, low-relief carving. Though in no way certain, an explanation may have been found for the fact that ebony furniture’s dimensions remain consistent while actual sizes vary greatly. Throughout major parts of South East Asia, a system of measurement was used that was known in Malay as the ‘depa’ system.16 This was also derived from human


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anatomy, but unlike craftsmen in the West, Indonesian and Indian craftsmen were known to not have used any rulers. Instead, they commonly used their own bodies to set out sizes; this can be seen on photographs of Indonesian craftsmen at work in the early 20th century. This would explain why there could be a consistency in proportions and a wide range in actual sizes; the dimensions would depend on the craftsman’s height, as well as a rather large margin of error. Although impossible to prove, many of the dimensions in ebony furniture relate surprisingly well to standard sizes within the depa system for a shorter man.17 This might also explain why ebony chairs are quite differently proportioned from Western chairs.

Carvers at work in Borneo. Notice how the carver on the right marks a measurement by spreading out his left hand (into a djinkal) and cutting a mark with the stylus in his right hand. The carvers also appear to use templates to draw out their work

Surface ďŹ nish It became apparent quite soon in the research project that many ebony furniture items had been died black to resemble ebony. References to colourful furniture in inventories made us wonder what had happened to all that colour. Earlier publications suggested that the reason that ebony furniture items survived for so long was because of the durability of ebony compared to other timbers. But timber identiďŹ cation has proven this claim to be false. During conservation treatment,


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the researchers detected traces of red filler materials on a number of black items, as well as a reddish tone that shone through the existing finish; traces of a yellow and white finish were also found on two items. In most cases though, all the items were covered by a thick, waxy finish that also arose the curiosity of the researchers. Through gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and microscopy, a small number of samples from curious items were examined.18 Seven furniture items with an interesting surface appearance were selected and small samples taken away for analysis.19 Other than searching for colour, a comparison was also made between the ‘original’ and ‘new’ parts of composite items in search of insights about the authentic methods of surface treatment, and the later methods that were employed. Looking at cross sections through a microscope helped distinguish different layers of finish. Research carried out on the black finish provided few remarkable discoveries. Timbers appear to have first been treated with a black dye20 and then covered with one or more layers of coating, which was often found to be coloured with pigments. There was unfortunately no way of telling whether the black dye and coatings were original or not. Although many items were dyed black to resemble ebony, ebony itself was also commonly dyed to make it more evenly black.21 However, since red sandalwood was identified under many black items, one is tempted to think that the majority of black surface finishes date from later times. The predominant coating was beeswax, although traces of carnauba wax, shellac and colophony were also found; they had been mixed into the waxy substance. The carnauba wax suggests that furniture may have been repolished in Europe, as this South American wax was only imported to Europe during the 19th century. The coatings were found to have been coloured with pigments, predominantly carbon black, in order to make the surface as black as possible.22 Small traces of red ochre were also found in a number of coating samples.23 The addition of a little red to a black finish was a tried method of giving the black more depth. One item was also found to have the yellow orpiment added to the black finish.24 The most interesting discoveries were made from samples with traces of a red finish. Minor defects in the wood of many items seemed to have been filled in with red putty; closer inspection revealed this to be a mixture of shellac and red ochre pigment. Many of these fillings gave the impression of being quite old. Remarkably, this filler was also found on many black ‘ebony’ items, although it appeared to have been coloured red deliberately. The use of a clear red putty would be peculiar on items if they had been intended to be black, suggesting that the original intended colour for these items had been red, either through the use of a red timber or a red finish. And indeed, in one sample remnants were detected of a shellac finish that had been coloured bright red with a red ochre, which was probably the item’s original finish.25 Van Gompel also discusses a number of items in the catalogue that either retain this finish or have it covered by a layer of black wax, but these


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generally date from the 18th century. It now appears that 17th-century furniture was also finished in red. Another curious and most interesting finding was on bench 886-83, which showed traces of a red finish, but unlike the other researched items, here it was not a combination of red ochre and shellac but of Eastern lacquer (also called urushi) and cinnabar.26 The use of this finish is well known in China and Japan, but it was not known to have ever been used on ebony furniture as well. There can be no question that this item was produced in Indonesia. Since the red and gilded finish is often regarded as being typical for Chinese cabinet work, we can only assume that the use of Eastern lacquer was also introduced by the Chinese. And surprisingly, a single chair in an identical style to this bench was found in the Arsip Nasional of Jakarta. The red and gold finish on this chair is most carefully applied and looks almost new. Eastern lacquer is known to be highly durable, more so than shellac, so it is quite probable that this bench was also finished with this material. The fact the bench in this collection once looked similar is very surprising indeed. Conservators have also observed white residues inside the pores of ebony items, and one piece on which a yellow lacquer shone through the black finish (see picture below and on next page). Analysis of both samples was inconclusive, but the white was probably a gesso ground for gilding and the yellow lacquer an imitation of gilding. Research carried out on surface coatings proved once again that ebony furniture often looked very different from the way it appears today. Analyzing just a few samples provided us with many new insights but also with many new questions. Further analysis needs to be done in the future to give us more information about the original appearance of furniture from South East Asia.

Bench 886-83, coated with urushi lacquer and cinnabar


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Sample no. 886-83/2. The red cinnabar particles are bound in a layer of urushi lacquer

Chair in an almost identical style to bench 88683 in the Arsip Nasional of Jakarta. It is possibly finished with urushi lacquer

The yellow finish on a palmette (on the stretcher joint of 1295-29). Though analysis was inconclusive, the yellow lacquer may have been used to imitate gilding, in the familiar red-and-gold colour scheme

The bottom of a spiral turned stretcher (1295-37), on which the red fillings are clearly visible


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The inside of a table from the catalogue (no. 1954-2). The original red-and-gold finish appears to still be present under the thick black finish that now covers it.

Rattan webbing All ebony furniture items that were used to sit on were fitted with rattan cane webbing. Chairs with wooden board seats are occasionally found, but these always turned out to be later replacements. It is very likely that all rattan seats were once fitted with loose upholstery, but none of this has remained. Both the upholstery and the rattan cane are highly susceptible to insect damage and wear in the humid tropical climate, so we do not suspect any of the current rattan to be original.27 Rattan was known to be periodically replaced, so there was no hope of finding any original material. However, the ways in which the rattan was fixed to the seat rules proved very interesting; unfortunately however, these were very difficult to determine. Many ebony chairs possess loose seat frames that are fitted with rattan webbing (Ill. no. 1); these can be easily lifted out of the chair, which is very convenient for replacing the rattan, and are supported by four corner blocks on the inside of the chair. However, all the loose seat frames which we investigated dated from the late 19th or early 20th century. They can be found both on older and newer items and it is usually uncertain whether these replace earlier frames or a different construction for the rattan webbing. There were also a number of chairs where the holes for the rattan had been drilled directly into the seat rails. These holes probably continued into the so called ‘cover rails’ originally (Ill. no. 3). Whenever the wood holding the rattan split or broke, the construction might have been replaced by a loose seating frame. 28 A third method of rattan webbing that is often found, is an obvious result of earlier repairs. It is a simpler version of the loose seat frame, which simply rests upon the seat rails instead of on corner


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blocks. To accommodate this frame type, the tops of the front stretcher joints are often found to have been sawn off (Ill. no. 2). All three methods of rattan cane webbing can be found on ebony chairs. It is very difficult to determine how the rattan was originally fixed to the chair or bench. Similarly unclear are the patterns into which the rattan was weaved or the thickness of the original strips of rattan cane. However, if the rattan was always covered with upholstery, one can imagine that the patterns were very simple. Of the 28 researched chairs, 15 were found to have been fitted with loose seat frames at a later stage. Six chairs had authentic loose seat frames, but these were all thought to date in their entirety from the late 19th century. All the corner blocks are, similarly, not original. Although no conclusive evidence was found, the rattan webbing on 17th-century chairs is thought to have originally been fixed in the seat rails and cover rails (Ill. no. 3), later being replaced by loose frames for easier recaning. The distance between the individual holes for the rattan webbing on such items is also commonly much wider than in 19th-century examples. Traces of old rattan were found in these holes that are much wider apart than in later examples and suggest a much coarser weave. 29 Similar hole spacing was found in a number of items. Still, it remains hard to pinpoint how rattan webbing for ebony chairs developed, these observations remain only personal suspicions.

Ill. No. 1: the construction of loose

Ill. no. 2: example of a common alteration

seating frames, resting on corner blocks.

in which the cover rails have been

Commonly found on 19th-century

removed and the tops of the frontal seat

examples of ebony furniture. The top cover

rail joints have been cut off. An entirely

rails – with upward faced carvings – are

new frame rests upon the seat rails

still present


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This chair (2045-4) was fitted with a loose seating frame when it reached the workshop. Underneath a thin cover rail, (original) holes here found giving information about the distance and possible thickness of the rattan that had been used Ill. No. 3: example of a chair with fixed rattan webbing. Holes have been drilled directly into the seat rails

Common alterations to ebony furniture Nearly all areas of technical research indicated that ebony furniture underwent many alterations in the course of history. Out of the 41 items that were examined, 25 appear to have had their dimensions severely altered. Parts were added and removed and some items of furniture seemed to have been entirely composed of parts belonging to a number of different items. New pieces of furniture were even created around one single section of ancient carving. It is common to ďŹ nd the carved back rails and seat rails of chairs used in a wide variety of newly produced items; there were no less than 16 cases of this in our group of furniture. And an even larger collection of such items is present in the depot of the Tropenmuseum – these were not part of the research project. Of the remaining pieces, most were found to have been produced in their entirety during the 19th or 20th century; this could be deduced from the different research outcomes already discussed. Indeed one could almost safely say that if an ebony furniture item looks as though it has remained untouched, then it was probably produced at a later date. Four chairs, produced in the east Indies and made of red sandel wood feature very European stylistic characteristics that are uncommon in ebony furniture, such as reclining backs and tapering rear stiles.


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There actually appears to have been even less stylistic development in ebony chairs than had been expected, and deviations more often than not suggest alterations or later copies. In the end, there were only two chairs within the group that appeared to date from the 17th century and to have been largely untouched (see Van Gompel, p. 104). While it had been expected to find a lot of items that had been altered, the sheer amount of the alterations came as a surprise. Ebony furniture seems to have undergone much more drastic interventions than European furniture and these changes were quite difficult to detect. The reasons for these drastic interventions probably lie in the mobile lifestyles of its owners, the former scarcity of furniture in the East and, in particular, the growth of the Indonesian antiques market during the 19th century. Every single piece of original carving that could be found was used to satisfy the (antique) furniture cravings of the eager colonists; and cabinet makers and art dealers took notice too – the collections grew. Also, because the simple construction of ebony furniture allows for easily interchangeable parts, recomposing furniture was probably quite a common procedure. And when original parts became more and more scarce, new parts would be increasingly incorporated. Many items actually seem to have undergone similar treatments, suggesting that they were commonly applied to ebony furniture in the past. The images below illustrate a number of common alterations and how to best detect them.

Chair 112-2. This chair had its spiral legs replaced by turned balusters and has seen a number of other alterations. The remarkable height of the seat, when compared to other ebony furniture, has led to it being called a ‘church chair’. It is much more likely that the height results from the addition of new turning work


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Constructional drawing of the alterations to chair 112-2. Here we can see how the legs of the chair are composed of multiple parts. In the legs, only the seat rail joints and rear stretcher joints are original. All other parts are new and are actually made out of black-stained mahogany. Baluster shaped turnery and ball feet have been added to raise the chair to a normal European seating height. Another common alteration can be detected in the rattan webbing seating frame that has been added. The cover rails (see Ill. no. 2) have been removed and the tops of the seat rail joints cut to accommodate for the new frame. However, the mortises of the cover rails are still present. Probably the original cover rails where worn out because of fixed rattan webbing

This small bench (2916-1) was created by splitting a broad luijbank in two. It was originally twice as broad. Whenever needed, new parts would be added, so many parts of these benches are often found to be new. The wooden seat top is also new


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An obvious example of a chair raised by

Another chair that had its height

the addition of turnery (112-1)

altered. Note that the spiral turnings and stretcher joints are not composed of a single piece. All the spiral turned leg parts on this item (903-27) are new, just as in the set of chairs in catalogue no. 1

Chair 1436-3 was originally fitted with armrests. After removal of the arm rests, the mortises were filled with blocks of wood and crudely recarved (upper left This chair, 1373-1, has had the tops of its

corner). The back rails have also been

seat rail joints cut off to accommodate for

shortened. The carving ends abruptly

the new seating frame (see also the chapter

and half of the holes intended for

on rattan webbing)

another back spiral are still visible


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This chair (1436-5) is composed from two different chairs. The entire back once belonged to a different piece, which was slightly more narrow than the current lower part of the chair. It has been jointed to the seat in a rather awkward angle

The outer stile of this small bench (99-3) was originally the middle stile of a broad bench. The original mortises have been filled out and recarved to make the alteration invisible. One can also see that the seat rail on the left has been shortened. All the carved parts on ebony furniture are entirely surrounded by a clearly marked cartouche. The rim on the right of this part is missing and the carving stops abruptly because of the shortening


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This drawing illustrates how a broad bench was split in two. The parts marked in green were used to create a smaller bench. All the leftover (yellow) parts were used to make a second bench, as bench 2916-1. One can see that the green bench is complete, whilst the yellow bench requires many new parts to make a whole again

Little has changed. The tradition of reassembling ebony furniture from leftover parts continues unhampered to this very day in Jakarta (photograph by Reinier Klusener, October 2009)


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Conclusion Technical research has proved to be a very useful tool in the study of ebony furniture, particularly in combination with historical research. By combining the two, new discoveries have been made. The Tropenmuseum has taken an important step by putting the focal point of the research project on technical aspects, something that is rarely done in the study of furniture collections. The restoration project offered a unique opportunity for technical research because a large number of objects could be placed next to one another under similar conditions, allowing for observations that would have been impossible under different circumstances. The outcomes of our research may not please everyone involved in the collecting and studying of ebony furniture. If there is one thing that has been established, it is that many items are not what they appear. Nearly all of them were subject to extensive alterations that have clouded our judgment for many years. A lot of items were produced at a later date, in forms that probably never existed in Company times. Chairs were made into tables and plate racks; cabinet stands into tables, benches into mirror frames, and the list goes on and on. This led to a number of questionable conclusions about the development of these enigmatic items. In fact, the research has probably raised many more questions than it has answered. But if there is one thing that it has proved, it is that one has to be very careful in approaching furniture of the ebony type. Together with Van Gompel, this research project set out to provide the reader with new insights into the authenticity and appearance of ebony furniture. One of the most important outcomes is our perception of colour in the interiors of the Netherlands East Indies during Company times. Both technical and historical research indicate that this was much brighter and diverse than we had expected. Both the timber identiďŹ cation and surface analyses strongly hinted in this direction. Other areas of research were useful mostly in the identiďŹ cation of alterations and later copies of ebony furniture. However, a combination of several technical observations were often required to make a strong case. Hopefully the reader now has some tools to detect common alterations in ebony furniture and distinguish 17th-century furniture from later reproductions. Much more research will be required to fully reconstruct the image of authentic ebony furniture, but the lack of reliable sources makes it questionable whether this will ever be possible. Like many have said before: part of these items’ appeal is derived from their aura of mystery, and some questions are therefore perhaps best left unanswered.


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Highlights from the furniture collection of the Tropenmuseum


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Set of two chairs Ceylon, ca. 1660-1680 h 71 w 48 d 42 Tropenmuseum: 1436-5, 1436-6 Acquisition: J.W.C. van Steeden, 1940 Exhibitions: permanent display Southeast Asia dept., 1993-2002 Ebony,*1 rattan

The prototypical ebony chair is most likely to have originated on the Coromandel coast of India and to have made its way further eastward to Ceylon, Java and even Ambon over the course of the 17th century. The chair still has the basic dimensions of the so-called ‘Spanish chairs’ that were en vogue in the Netherlands during the 17th century, although similar models were popular in many Western European countries. The stylistic development of the Dutch chairs can also be seen in their Asian counterparts, starting with a double row of crested stretchers and turned baluster stiles (the Netherlands: ca. 1600-1650, Asia: 1600-1675), and ending with examples that are less slender in shape and have many spiral-turned decorations (ca. 1675-1700).2 Figurative carving is another feature that starts to disappear from ebony chairs from the third quarter of the century onwards. These particular chairs demonstrate a transitional phase in the development of the ebony chair, in which the crested stretchers and carved figurines on the rear stile finials are still present, but spiral turning has already started to be incorporated. One may also notice the distinctive Singhalese style of floral carving, which is highly detailed and in a very low relief. Such busy areas of carving promote a strong sense of horror vacui. Other features that are distinctive for Ceylon are the double-turned spirals, the scraped grooves in the top of the seat rails and, particularly, the use of rather slender parts. The low seating height of these chairs – and many others of similar height – has led to them being called ‘children’s chairs’, ‘women’s chairs’ or even ‘circumcision chairs’.3 However, in all cases, thorough inspection reveals that all such chairs have been lowered. And although miniature ebony furniture is known to have existed,4 the current height of items gives us no indication of their designated users. These particular chairs are very likely to have had a double row of stretchers, much like Dutch examples; their peculiar height is a result of the removal of the lower segments. It is not always clear why such chairs were lowered. Perhaps they were damaged or their ‘surplus’ parts were used in other furniture – it is difficult to say.


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Chair Indonesia, ca. 1675-1710 h 77 w 57 d 47 Tropenmuseum: 1295-37 Acquisition: D.S.J.F. van Gybland Oosterhoff-Neys, 1939 Exhibitions: permanent display Company’s period room, 1939-1970 Red sandalwood,* rattan

This chair demonstrates a very different style from the Singhalese examples described above and is more typical of the Indonesian version of the ebony chair. Most furniture of this type is thought to originate from Batavia, although it may also have had its roots in other larger trading posts such as Ambon. This chair is one of the very few early examples that show no signs of significant alteration. It makes a much sturdier impression than its Singhalese counterpart, with its thicker parts and broader, deeper seats. Also, the carved and crested stretchers have now been completely replaced by spiral turning. The floral carving is also of an altogether different character than the flush and busy decorations on the chairs described before. The finely detailed sprawling network of tendrils and flowers has been replaced by several bulky, stylized (lotus) flowers and there is much more empty space in the deeply cut-out background. Although there is less detail, the carving is sharply executed with great accuracy, which distinguishes this chair from the many 19th-century copies that were executed in an almost identical style. The basic shape however differs little from Singhalese examples. Many settees and luijbanken (reclining or sleeping benches) of this type were also made and are now part of Dutch museum collections. The timber species used in this particular chair has been identified as red sandalwood, which is a bright red, most attractive and much valued timber. It is very likely that this chair exposed the wood’s natural colour at an earlier time or was perhaps even dyed to a purple hue.


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Cabinet stand Coromandel coast or Indonesia, ca. 1675-1700 h 76 w 93 d 54 Tropenmuseum: 1295-23 Acquisition: D.S.J.F. van Gybland Oosterhoff-Neys, 1939. Exhibitions: permanent display Company’s period room, 1939-1970 Ebony,* teak

Originally intended as a cabinet stand, this piece has suffered from a very common alteration to ebony stands and is a testimony to how ebony furniture has taken on many forms during its many years of existence. This piece was converted into a coffee table, presumably somewhere in the late 19th or early 20th century; a leaf was added to the top, which is now missing, allowing us to see the rebates that were originally intended for holding the top cabinet. Cabinets and stands were frequently separated for this purpose, and new stands are often found to have been added to original cabinet tops. Another recurrent intervention is the addition of a drawer; to accommodate it, the front panel was cut out and dovetailed into teak drawer sides. Dovetail joints were never used in ebony furniture and this is commonly clear evidence that the piece has been tampered with. The current – non original – feet were also replaced during conservation in 2009. Other than these interventions, the stand appears largely untouched. It is made out of solid ebony wood and is incredibly hefty. The carving is very sharply executed, depicting flowers that follow a graceful rhythm. It is quite possible that the flush central flower on the drawer front carried a mark or coat of arms at one time – perhaps in silver – but this is sadly missing. Another indication of the object’s previous function is its uncarved back, suggesting it was originally intended to be placed against a wall.


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Cabinet Batavia, ca. 1660-1680 h 210 w 201 d 87 Tropenmuseum: 1295-22 Acquisition: D.S.J.F. van Gybland Oosterhoff-Neys, 1939. Exhibitions: permanent display Company’s period room, 1939-1970 Calamander*, Indian rosewood, teak, oak and elm (added during conservation in 2009), brass, iron

This remarkable cabinet is unmistakably of Dutch design. In terms of quality of design, construction and decoration, the cabinet is so wonderfully executed that it may easily measure itself against some of the Dutch cabinets from the same period in the collection of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. The often questionable proportions of Western-style furniture in Asia, including the uneasy interpretation of carved ornament, are nowhere to be found in this piece. Yet the use of completely solid, precious timbers from South East Asia makes it impossible for it to have originated in Europe. Not being able to use glue or veneers in the tropical climate, such ‘waste’ of precious timbers would have been unimaginable in Europe. The mouldings are also dowelled onto the cabinet’s carcase without the use of glue. However, other than the use of timbers and the construction methods, this piece demonstrates no signs of Asian influence whatsoever. It is therefore very likely to have been made by a highly experienced Dutch cabinet maker, familiar with Western design. The Doric mouldings and elegantly carved festoons are the main factors contributing to this assumption. Cabinets of this type are called rankenkasten in Dutch (tendril cupboards) and are typical of the third quarter of the 17th century. The designer of this piece, however, has done away with the usual bottom drawers and has kept carved decorations to a bare minimum, promoting the cabinet’s verticality and providing it with a simple elegance and lightness of shape to compensate for its unimaginable weight. The cabinet uses the highly figured calamander wood (also called ‘striped ebony’) to a striking decorative effect. Even the rear panels are made out of the precious Indian rosewood. The missing teak interior shelves have been replaced by oak examples and new feet were added during conservation, substituting earlier replacements. On trying to open the cabinet door, one discovers a surprising, charming, hidden element. With every turn of the key, a bright bell tone rings. As was the way in Europe, servants and slaves were often suspected of stealing from their masters and this was an effective way of notifying the owners of such activities. In fact, the key has to be turned a total of four times before the lock is fully released, providing the owner plenty of opportunity to hear the alarm.


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Screen Batavia, ca. 1680-1700 h 187 w 202 d 58 Tropenmuseum: 99-1 Acquisition: M. Enschedé, 1920 Exhibitions: none Padauk

This carefully carved and pierced screen appears to demonstrate a mixture of cultural influences. The design of the carving is unmistakably European, executed in a strong baroque style that suggests the late 17th century. The graceful scrollwork surrounds a rectangular central panel and is further embellished with multiple flowers and several cherubs. The top of the screen is bordered by a string rope and below we find several heraldic decorations, such as a deer and a cuirass. When studying Indonesian carving that has been carried out in a Western style, the nationality of the carver is often betrayed by the facial features of human figures, particularly in the shape of the eyes and noses (see p. 117). However, these cherubs are distinctly European, as are their attributes. The central panel below the heraldic decorations would undoubtedly have contained the owner’s family coat of arms. Unfortunately however, the panel that would have helped us identify the family, has been replaced by a rather unremarkable piece of Balinese carving. Carving in a European style was often finished in a combination of lacquer, polychromy and gilding but no traces were found on this particular piece. The purely European carving is in stark contrast to the peculiar stand that holds the screen upright. The rather plump shape of the stand makes it feel strangely out of place. One is tempted to think that the stand is a later addition, but we often find different styles to be curiously mixed in items from the former trading posts. It is certainly not uncommon for Indonesian furniture to display a wide range of influences, often leading to remarkable mishmashes in style, as can be seen in other examples below. The somewhat creeping, cloud-shaped decoration on the stand is typically Chinese and is known as Lingzhi design. The motive is derived from a Chinese mushroom that has a somewhat kidney-shaped form and has been in used in carving since the Ming dynasty.5 It can be spotted in many Batavian items that demonstrate a Chinese ‘hand’, although the Chinese were quite capable of imitating European carving motives. Perhaps all the carving for this screen was executed by a Chinese worker, or perhaps the stand was added at a later date, we cannot say.


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Chair Batavia, ca. 1700-1730 h 128 w 63 d 57 Tropenmuseum: 1295-98 Acquisition: D.S.J.F. van Gybland Oosterhoff-Neys, 1939. Exhibitions: permanent display Southeast Asia dept., 1979-1993 Gilded and lacquered teak, green velvet

This chair illustrates the transition into the 18th century very well. From the early 18th century onwards, we encounter more examples of European-style furniture in the Netherlands East Indies, with ebony furniture having become unfashionable. The Louis XIV-style appears to have been the first truly European style that made its way into Batavian cabinet making, its complex and elaborate shapes radically breaking with the simple and austere design of ebony furniture. This particular chair demonstrates how the new style was adopted, but perhaps not fully understood. The basic dimensions of the chair are those of an English type that was popular in the Netherlands during the last decade of the 17th century.6 Its decorations clearly promote the fashionable Marot style that would come to dominate Dutch interiors during the following decades. However, even at first sight, this chair makes a somewhat awkward impression. Its proportions – particularly the inclinations of the back, legs and armrests – do not ‘feel right’ and are even slightly bewildering. The carved decorations also seem to illustrate unfamiliarity with the new fashion. Following a theory that was suggested by Jaffer, the cause of the item’s odd proportions may be found in the use of model books or prints. Asian cabinet makers were not familiar with the proper reading of such designs, which sometimes led to rather extraordinary executions.7 The chair is made from Javanese teak and is finished in the red lacquer and gilding that is often referred to in the inventories. It looks surprisingly untouched. Chemical analysis of red lacquer traces found on different objects has shown that it is often a mixture of shellac and red ochre. In one case, even urushi – a very durable varnish that was brought to Indonesia by the Chinese – was discovered. Lacquered items are also often described in travel journals and they are likely to have been fairly common in cities such as Batavia. Many European-style pieces of furniture, dating roughly from 1700-1780, also show traces of a red finish in their crevices – some of these are included in the catalogue. Sadly, most of them have been stripped of their finish, often exposing rather unremarkable timbers underneath, which were never intended to be seen. The green velvet probably dates from the early 20th century, but the drilled holes for the original rattan webbing have remained visible.


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Miniature writing desk Canton, possibly Batavia, ca. 1725-1750 h 37 w 37 d 24 Tropenmuseum: 1295-24 Acquisition: D.S.J.F. van Gybland Oosterhoff-Neys, 1939. Exhibitions: permanent display Company’s period room, 1939-1970 Padauk, mahogany (earlier restoration), brass, iron

European furniture in miniature form is already a rare commodity, and Asian examples are even more uncommon. The Tropenmuseum owns two such items: an ebony cabinet stand from the 17th century (1696-22) and this remarkable writing desk, which is of exceptional quality. The style is undeniably European, with full-sized examples being common in England and the Netherlands during the second quarter of the 18th century. The typically Dutch shape of the drawer front, with its vertical serpentine flow, bears the name orgelgebogen. It is not unlikely that this object was executed in miniature form after an imported example. The writing desk is made out of solid padauk, a very fair timber that grows in most parts of South East Asia. Together with ebony and satinwood, it was one of the few timbers that was imported into Europe to be used as a veneer in cabinet making, particularly the attractive burr (called amboyna wood). When opening the mahogany lid (replaced during an earlier restoration), a serpentine interior appears that is divided into five vertical sections with nine drawers. The two pilasters that flank the central division can be taken out to reveal two very slim, secret drawers. The pilasters themselves are quite remarkable in their shape, being more reminiscent of coconut palms than traditional Western columns, which is another indication of the object’s Asian origin. The interior can also be removed in its entirety, allowing documents and letters to be hidden behind it. The quality of this piece in terms of joinery is outstanding. A number of highly complex joints can be identified that are alien to both European and Indonesian cabinet making; their use indicates the involvement of Chinese cabinet makers, and would undoubtedly have impressed the highly critical European clientele. It is not unlikely that this item was made in Canton, where the Dutch traded from 1728 until the early 19th century. Canton was renowned for its cabinet making industry, but many similarly qualified craftsmen also resided in Batavia. This item clearly illustrates how qualified the Chinese were in copying European furniture designs.


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Table Batavia, ca. 1700-1740 h 75 w 124 d 76 Tropenmuseum: 1954-2 Acquisition: H. van Oorschot, 1950. Exhibitions: none Teak, calamander, traces of gilding and red lacquer

This table is another example of the well-represented Louis XIV-style in Indonesia, dating from the first half of the 18th century. Sadly, it has undergone a number of alterations that make it appear somewhat unremarkable today. However, the quality of the design of this piece is undeniable. The carving displays a balance and sharpness of execution that demonstrates the carver’s familiarity with European design. However, like many surviving examples from this era, the unmistakably Asian facial features of the caryatids provide us with a clue as to the carver’s cultural background. Some major interventions have seriously affected the table’s appearance, which would have been much richer than its current condition suggests. The crossbars between the legs are an obvious later addition that pay no favour to the item’s lightness of design. Even if crossbars had been present in the original, they would certainly have featured carved decorations. Also, the current table top, made from solid calamander, is probably a replacement for what was once a figured marble top. The presence of marble tops is often noted in 18th-century inventories. However, the most lamentable intervention is the refinishing of the object’s red lacquered and gilded surface with a very dull, black finish. When looking at the inside of the table, one still sees many traces of the original finish shining through the waxy black surface, suggesting that it is still largely present underneath. The bare skin of the caryatids is also likely to have been polychromed to a skin tone, much like a similar carved table from the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag (OHO-1978-0002). Considering these interventions, one can imagine that this table’s original appearance would have displayed a richness that is now almost completely gone. Like many furniture items from these regions, their current appearance does these items very little justice.


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Bench Batavia, ca. 1700-1730 h 113 w 212 d 72 Tropenmuseum: 886-8 Acquisition: G. Vissering, 1934 Exhibitions: Wonen in de wijde wereld, Tropenmuseum Amsterdam 1963 (cat. no. 144) Indian rosewood, rattan, traces of red lacquer

The Tropenmuseum has in its collection a number of benches of the ebony type that retain the ebony chair’s basic model, but in a broadened form (e.g. 1295-29). The number of such benches that have been left to us suggests that they must have been quite a popular furnishing item. Their broad, deep seats and contemporary name luijbank (lazy bench) indicates that they were used for both sitting and sleeping; they were probably covered with many pillows or a mattress. Ebony benches of this type are likely to have been made up until the early 18th century, when the arrival of the Louis XIV-style made


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them unfashionable. The practical shape of benches however, seems to have still been in demand at that time, leading to the incorporation of Louis XIV chair designs in elongated benches. This curious item demonstrates how such an incorporation could result in a somewhat bemusing shape: four single chairs adjoined into one broad bench. Nothing like it would have been known in Europe, making this a distinctly Asian adaptation of a European design. An almost identical piece is owned by the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag (OHO-1966-0001), discussed in Van de Geijn-Verhoeven. Apart from their curious adjoinment, the chairs’ individual shapes are quite elegant, with their sharply executed, pierced carving, and although their shape is very much European, the carving retains recognizable Asian characteristics, such as the distinct foliage, palm leaves and flowers. Although not extremely detailed, the carving is very accurate and the pierced work demonstrates the carver’s skills. Like many of its contemporaries, this bench shows traces of red lacquer underneath its black finish, suggesting that the colour scheme would once have been very similar to chair no. 6. in this catalogue.


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10 Cabinet Batavia, ca. 1750-1780 h 285 w 211 d 79 Tropenmuseum: 886-84 Acquisition: G. Vissering, 1934 Exhibitions: none Padauk, possibly rendang, teak, brass, iron, green velvet

When the wealthier Europeans left the inner city of Batavia during the mid-18th century, their new countryside homes were fitted with much more spacious rooms, and this space would remain a characteristic feature of colonial homes during the following century. The high, imposing ceilings gave these homes an undeniable grandeur. It is therefore not surprising that a number of furniture items also increased in size. Truly enormous cabinets have survived from this period, very few of them ever leaving the Indonesian archipelago because of their sheer size. When looking at the picture of this cabinet, it is important to realize that its total height is an impressive 285 centimetres. Again, the design is curious. The cabinet’s basic shape is rather classical, consisting of three pilasters and a curved cornice. This bulky carcase is carried by what appears to be a disproportionally feeble stand. One almost fears that the cabinet will collapse under its own weight, but it is an exceptionally well-made construction. Also of outstanding quality is the carving, announcing the arrival of the rococo style in the European trading posts. The central carving on the cornice is so wonderfully balanced in design, and executed with such precision, that it could have been taken straight off a high-quality Dutch cabinet of the same era. The execution of the carving on the stand is of a similar high quality, although the scaly cabriole legs and central bouquet convey a Chinese influence. Similarly non-European are the drawers underneath the cabinet doors, which are actually fully trapezoid in shape and very thoroughly dovetailed. When opening the cabinet doors, two shelves are visible, each with elegantly moulded fronts, demonstrating the attention to detail that went into the production of this undoubtedly very costly item. The shelves and the bottom of the cabinet are both covered with green velvet. The height of the cabinet would have made it difficult to release the lock at the top of the left-hand door – a problem that was efficiently overcome by fitting the lock with a long rod with a ring at the end, allowing the lock to be operated from an average standing height. Timbers include the reddish padauk and possibly the similarly deep red rendang wood. No traces of red lacquer were found on this piece, which is not surprising given the quality of the timbers that were used.


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11 Round chair Batavia, ca. 1750-1790 h 86 w 73 d 72 Tropenmuseum: 1954-4 Acquisition: H. van Oorschot, 1950. Exhibitions: none Possibly red sandalwood, rattan

During the last century, chairs of this type were bestowed with many imaginative titles. ‘King’s chair’, ‘shaving chair’ and ‘burgomaster chair’ were all terms that referred to the chair’s possible use or owner. The chairs are still known in Jakarta as kursi betawi (Batavian chair), although chairs of this type were known throughout both the Indonesian archipelago and the Indian mainland; in the inventories, they are simply called ‘round chairs’. Their origins have been the subject of much debate, as no European chairs of a similar design are known.8 Descriptions of round chairs start appearing in inventories from the mid-18th century onwards, and they are indeed often decorated with rococo designs, as demonstrated here. We know that such items were popular during the time of Jan Brandes in the East (in the third quarter of the 18th century), as they are clearly depicted in many of his works. Simpler, undecorated examples have also survived (e.g. Tropenmuseum: 904-3), but it is difficult to assess their age. The rococo decorations have been elegantly incorporated into this chair’s design. The carbiole legs are well carved, as are the scalloped stretchers and pierced backs with floral decorations. Unfortunately, the very simply turned entrejambe – essential for the chair’s stability – feels somewhat out of place, as do the turned divisions of the two back rails. Nonetheless, this item is of undeniable quality and fully captures the essence of the rococo style; it is by far the fairest example of a round chair in Dutch museum collections.


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12 Lacquered cabinet Indonesia, ca. 1750-1790 h 274 w 189 d 70 Tropenmuseum: 1034-1 Acquisition: possibly made for Susuhunan IV of Surakarta, left by Susuhunan VII to Pangeran Ario Tjokronagoro, acquired at an auction in Tjokronagaran. Donated to the Tropenmuseum in 1936 by an anonymous benefactor. Part of a set, second piece owned by the Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam. Exhibitions: none Teak, brass, iron, glass, red lacquer, gilding

This beautifully lacquered cabinet is amongst the few items that have retained their original lacquered and gilded surface. Two tones of red are used to create the subtle, and very beautiful, decorative effect. A similar use of colour is evident in Chinese cabinet work, but also in more precious Javanese pieces of woodwork, such as musical instruments and gong racks, (e.g. Tropenmuseum: 450-2). Apart from the distinctly Asian finish, the overall design of this cabinet also exhibits strong Eastern influences. Much like cabinet 886-84 (catalogue no. 10), the basic shape consists of a vertical division through three pilasters and a curved cornice. The stand is again of very modest proportions, making it appear squashed underneath the massive top. The stand is remarkably similar to the Chinese Kang table, the basic dimensions of which appear to have been adopted here as cabinet stand, explaining its relatively low height.9 The carved decorations are clearly inspired by rococo, but exhibit strong Asian influences. And while beautifully carved, the decorations appear somewhat alien to the Western eye, particularly the six C-scrolls that make up the crossbars between the legs. The disproportionally large carving over the entire width of the cornice also adds to the already massive appearance of the object. Smaller native storage items from Bali, Sumatra and Java exhibit similarly heavy tops (e.g. Tropenmuseum: 3098-7). Many furniture items from the 18th-century attempt to follow European fashions but display a lack of familiarity with European design and proportions. However, the Asian influences in this particular cabinet are so dominant, that one may wonder whether the intention was to follow European fashions at all; in fact, European influences appear to play a minor role. The rococo decorations actually seem to have been re-interpreted, rather than copied, by the undoubtedly Asian craftsmen who produced this item. It is thus in a class of its own. The museum’s records tell us that this piece can be traced back to Susuhunan IV of Surakarta, who reigned during the final quarter of the eighteenth century. It is therefore not surprising to detect stronger Indonesian influences in the design of this piece. An identical piece is owned by the Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam. The glazed doors allow us to see the rather unremarkable teak interior that provides room for three shelves. Below the doors are two drawers. The back boards of the cabinet carry an inscription in the traditional Javanese Hanacaraka writing, which rather surprisingly reads: ‘Small cabinet with open legs’.


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13 Marble topped table Batavia, ca. 1750-1790 h 82 w 138 d 72 Tropenmuseum: 99-2 Acquisition: M. Enschedé, 1920. Exhibitions: none Teak, padauk, grey marble, gold paint, traces of red lacquer

This table features very outspoken and bold rococo carving in what is an obvious attempt to copy European models from the same era. It succeeds rather well, owing much to its well-defined proportions and decorations, making it appear European at first glance. The natural flow of the carving informs us that the carver was familiar with such design, yet it possesses a certain sharpness in its shapes that is uncommon for European pieces, making it look almost aggressive. It is also quite coarsely finished when viewed from close quarters, although it captures the essence of the style well. This table probably comes closer to its original appearance than its Louis XIV predecessor (see p. 117); however, it too has undergone a number of interventions. The carving is currently embellished with thinly painted lines of gold, but traces of red lacquer are again found inside the interior crevices, suggesting it too was finished in the now familiar colour scheme of red and gold. The table was undoubtedly fitted with a marble top, although the current top was probably added at a later date as it doesn’t quite follow the contours of the woodwork.


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14 Raffles chair Indonesia, late 19th century H 84 W 57 D 54 Tropenmuseum: 3621-27 Acquisition: F.S. van Lonkhuijzen, 1966. Exhibitions: none Indian rosewood, calamander, rattan, green velvet pillow

A great number of chairs of the Raffles type were produced during the 19th century and continue to be made up to this day. The short British interregnum had secured the position of this model of chair – which harks back to designs made by Hepplewhite – for over an entire century. Its basic design appears to have changed very little over the course of the century, with occasional slight variations in the design of the backs. The most simple examples were typically made from teak and produced in large sets, but the Tropenmuseum owns a number of examples that are more richly decorated or executed in more precious timbers (e.g. 2626-1, made from solid calamander). This chair is made from Indian rosewood (sometimes called ‘blackwood’) and inlaid with strips of calamander in a geometrical pattern. It is amongst the very few chairs that appear to possess their original upholstery, which was probably a much brighter green than the greyish tone seen here. The loose pillow fits snugly onto the rattan webbing, allowing for a comfortable sit; most rattan-webbed chairs were probably fitted with loose pillows at some time. Fixed upholstery was considered impractical in tropical climates as it was highly susceptible to insect damage. By using loose upholstery, pillows could be easily stored away when they were not in use. Entire rattan coverings are also known to have been used to protect furniture that was not in use.


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15 Maiden’s cupboard

Indonesia, ca. 1875-1900 H 196 W 110 D 42 Tropenmuseum: 3430-1 Acquisition: G.M. de Vries, 1964. Exhibitions: none Teak, mahogany, brass, iron

This cupboard, often called a ‘maiden’s cupboard’, is of a very typical Dutch design from the Willem III period of the late 19th century. The original glass doors suggest that it probably contained tableware, which was often rather elaborately displayed in the interiors of the Netherlands East Indies – primarily because it was expensive to import from the fatherland. It is quite rare to see a piece of colonial furniture in a museum collection that is relatively young and so undeniably Dutch. Considering that the Dutch influence on colonial interior decoration had greatly diminished during the 19th century, it is quite uncommon to find an object as this so well-preserved. The fact that these items of furniture were Asian probably escaped notice quite frequently, as was the case here. The use of teak suggests it has its origins in Java. The carving also hints towards an Asian origin, being quite different from Dutch cupboards from the same period. This suspicion is also confirmed by the unusual construction of the piece, which features a teak interior and an exterior made from West Indian mahogany. Mahogany was already being imported into the East Indies in the early 19th century (see chapter 5), but could not be applied as veneer because of the Indies’ tropical climate. The maker of this item has attempted to overcome this problem by using rather thick (c. 6 mm) mahogany boards that are both glued and dowelled onto the teak carcass. The carving is also executed in teak and coloured to a dark tone, perhaps once intended as an ebony imitation, which was also a common feature of its Dutch counterparts.


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Notes ‘Of very questionable artistic value’

Upon arrival of the Dutch in East India



Nieuws van den Dag voor Nederlandsch-Indië, 19th of

The Portuguese possessed forts at some of the

september, 1901, p. 5. The author’s review is based

most important trading posts of Southeast Asia.

on his visit to the exhibition titled Oost en West, which

These included of course Malacca on the Malaysian

was held at the Royal Palace Kneuterdijk in 1901

peninsula; Aceh and Pasai on the island of Sumatra;

2 Rouffaer, p. 58

Bantam on the island of Java and many on the remote

3 The European debate on the origins of ebony furniture

eastern islands, such as Banda, Ternate and Ambon.

is clearly illustrated by Jaffer, p. 132 4 The term ‘Company furniture’ was first used in van

Some of the ruins are still standing today 2 Unger, p. 32

der Geijn-Verhoeven, but was likely derived from the

3 Carvalho, p. 2, 3

common reference to objects from the Netherlands

4 Kern, vol. 1, p. 173

East Indies as ‘VOC-art’: van Campen & Hartkamp

5 Kern, vol. 1, p. 128; Rouffaer & IJzerman, vol. 1, p. 120.

Jonxis, p. 9

The latter travel report that is quoted from is actually

5 Jaffer, p. 130-132

written by Willem Lodewijcksz. However, for a more

6 Van de Wall, p. 5

comprehensive reading, references in the text are

7 Het nieuws van den dag: klein courant, 1st of May, 1883, p. 1; 05-02-1883, p. 5

made to de Houtman, who was admiral of the fleet 6 Kern, vol. 1, p. 133, 134

8 Terwen-de Loos, p.14

7 Idem, p. 125

9 Catalogus, vol. 3, p. 231, 232

8 Idem, p. 147

10 Oosterhoff, p. 338

9 Idem, p. 136

11 Oprechte Haarlemmer Courant, 22nd of April, 1898,

10 Idem, p. 151

quote taken from Oosterhoff, p. 338 12 Van Brakel (2), p. 103 13 Oosterhoff, p. 322 14 The collection of CNO was exhibited in the

11 Jaffer, p. 106 12 The term heathens was commonly used to indicate those of Hindu religion, unlike Muslims who are generally called ‘Mohammedans’

Rijksmuseum for many years, before the foundation

13 Kern, vol. 1, p. 153, 154

permanently parted with it in 1994, considerably

14 Idem, p. 57

expanding the Rijksmuseum’s collection

15 Pires, p. 86

15 Lunsingh Scheurleer, p. 4

16 Loebèr (4), p. 8-10

16 The Rijksmuseum collection features a splendid

17 Niemeijer, p. 29, 40, 41

ebony cradle from the Coromandel coast that is on

18 Niemeijer, p. 43

permanent display, BK-1966-48

19 The beach houses likely being the warehouses

17 Terwen-de Loos, p. 14, De Haan, part 2, p. 83

20 Rouffaer & IJzerman, vol. 1, p. 106

18 Terwen-de Loos, p. 14, 15

21 Idem, vol. 1, legend of plate 12

19 Nieuws van den Dag voor Nederlandsch-Indië, 19th of

22 Idem, p. 111, 113

september, 1901, p. 5

23 Idem, p. 123, 124

20 Catenius-van der Meijden, p. 232

24 Idem, p. 82

21 Sumatra post, 25-01-1930, p. 23

25 Idem, p. 106

22 Sumatra post, 19-10-1932, p. 14

26 Keuning, vol. 1, p. 85

23 Het nieuws van den dag voor Nederlandsch-Indië, 20th

27 Unger, p. 53

of June, 1906, p. 9

28 I.e. Johan Jacobsz. Saar (1644-1659): Saar, p. 3

24 De Haan, part 2, p. 84

29 Nas, p. 338

25 Jaffer, p. 132

30 Rouffaer & IJzerman, vol. 1, p. 106

26 Held from April the 21st 2011 to January 31st 2012


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31 Keuning, vol. 1, p. 68. The typically carved door

was actually Coens who fiercely propagated a more

portals as described by van Neck are known in

independent form of citizenry, but his arguments

Indonesia as Gebyok

were almost completely ignored by the Heren XVII in

32 Unger, p. 54

the Netherlands

33 Rouffaer & IJzerman, vol. 1, p. 106

15 Raben, p. 94, 95

34 Idem, plate 13, p. 114

16 Blussé, p. 52, 63, 75

35 Keuning, vol. 3, p. 35

17 Saar, p. 11

36 Idem, p. 67, 69

18 Valentijn, vol. 3, p. 533-534

37 Unger, p. 54

19 Taylor, p. 16

38 Terwen-de Loos, p. 11, Veenendaal, p. 15. However,

20 Van Gelder, p. 199. Arak is a distilled liquor made out

there exist a number of images in early Indonesian

of sugar cane, and was often called ‘Indian wine’

architecture of figures that are seated on a raised

21 Van Gelder, p. 42

platform, as well as sculptures of seated Buddhas

22 Van Gelder, p. 45

(pralambapadasana). But we do not find any reports

23 Gaastra, p. 81

of living Indonesians who make use of chairs or

24 Van Gelder, p. 42

thrones upon the arrival of the Europeans

25 Gaastra, p. 91. Most prices in Batavia were expressed

39 Keuning, vol. 4, p. 65-68 40 Jaffer, p. 118

in Ricks Dollars or Reals of eight rather than guilders, both being worth three guilders apiece

41 Unger, p. 49

26 Van Gelder, p. 149

42 Rouffaer & IJzerman, vol. 1, p. 68

27 Van Gelder, p. 234

43 Keuning, vol. 5-1, p. 99

28 Van der Brug, p. 26. This number requires some

44 Idem, p. 118. Jolinck uses the old Dutch word

nuance as is noted by the author. Some successful

‘plonderasij’, which is somewhat difficult to translate

journeys had little to no mortality, whilst other

into English, for it may include everything that one

had half of the staff pass away before arrival. This

requires in a home; not just furniture, but also

depended largely on the outbreak of diseases aboard

objects such as cooking ware and clothing

and unforeseen extensions of the duration of the

45 Idem, p. 176

journey 29 Van Gelder, p. 163. A short, but vivid discription of

The age of expansion and settlement

such a ritual can be found in the diaries from the


Lammens sisters, in Barend-van Haeften & Van Eyck-

Gaastra, p. 16

2 Idem, p. 17, 19, 23 3 Not to be confused with the colonial Netherlands East Indies of the nineteenth century, which were limited to the Indonesian archipelago

van Heslinga, p. 60 30 Van de Brug, p. 57 31 Van Gelder, p. 41. Again, this number requires some nuance. The mortality rates were much higher

4 Gaastra, p. 39

amongst the lower ranking staff, particularly soldiers,

5 Blussé, p. 23

of whom up to 90 percent would never see Europe

6 Fryke, p. 26

again. Although exact numbers are unknown, the

7 The layout of the crafts quarters may be found in a

chances of surviving repatriage for Company officials

map by J.W. Heydt from 1740 8 Van Gelder, p. 174 9 Gaastra, p. 84, 85 10 Abeyasekere, p. 14

was, of course, significantly higher 32 Keuning, vol. 1, p. 73. The terrible disease to which van Neck refers, which killed one of his head merchants, is bloody flux or dysentery

11 Van der Brug, p. 35, 242

33 Stavorinus, p. 262

12 De Bruijn & Raben, p. 31

34 Translation of the quote taken from Blussé, p. 172

13 Van der Brug, p. 23

35 Blussé, p. 174

14 Blussé, p. 17, 24, 25. As the Company continued

36 Van Foreest & de Booy, vol. 1, p. 246

to deny the civil rights and possibilities for private

37 Niemeijer, p. 50

trade of Batavia’s free burghers, citizens started to revolt during the second quarter of the century. It


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38 Slaves who had mastered a certain skill represented

65 The so called ‘white ants’ or East-Indian termites

a much higher value, such as cooks and gardeners.

are a true plague in Indonesia. It is often mentioned

Among the wide range of functions that slaves

in contemporary sources that a small infestation

exerted –they are too many to all be mentioned here-

of these pests would be able to reduce a piece of

was the caring for furniture, which included cleaning,

furniture to dust within a matter of days. They were

checking for vermin and maintaining the polish.

even more keen on the much more vulnerable

(Catenius-van der Meijden, p. 157). Many households

textiles. One way to prevent a piece of furniture from

also employed a general woodworker (tukang kayu)

being attacked, was to place its feet in small bowls of

who would busy himself with daily repairs

water. This could be a very good explanation for the

39 Niemeijer, p. 54 40 Niemeijer, p. 153

fact that much furniture has been provided with new feet, or suffers from water damage

41 Stavorinus, p. 80

66 Van de Geijn-Verhoeven, p. 23, 24; Carvalho, p. 30, 31

42 Cordiner, p. 109

67 De Haan, part 2, p. 87, 89

43 Gaastra, p. 95

68 Scalliet, p. 16

44 Bruijn, p. 161

69 Venduties, p. 410

45 Tavernier, vol. 2, p. 383

70 Van Campen & Hartkamp-Jonxis, p. 57

46 Bruijn, p. 150, 151

71 Rumphius, vol. 4, cap. 1, p. 4

47 Gaastra, p. 95, 96; van Gelder, p. 195

72 Nationaal archief 1.04.02, 1147, Ambon: p. 347-349

48 Bruijn, p. 168

73 Jaffer, p. 132

49 Jaffer, p. 37

74 Hindu ornamentation in Singhalese carving is

50 Idem, p. 95 51 Barend-van Haeften & van Eyck-van Heslinga, p. 56, 103 52 It was often noted that the East Indiamen that were headed to the Netherlands were generally overloaded

discussed in more detail by Cooramaswamy 75 Veenendaal, p. 152 76 Van de Geijn-Verhoeven, p. 29, 30 77 A valuable account of the importation of coastal furniture is given in the archives: when Jacob

53 Van Dam, vol. 1.2, p. 4, 5. By orders of the Company,

Joriszoon Pits was restationed from the Coromandel

the bringing of large and relatively low-valued items

coast to Batavia in 1686, the Company listed part of

was actively discouraged

his personal inventory that he wished to bring to his

54 NA.1.04.02 Inv: 1431 Batavia, p. 739-750. Two

new residence. Amongst these goods are a notable ‘8

lacquered, Japanese cabinets from the inventory of

parcels of woodworks, consisting of chairs, benches

governor general Speelman are listed as being worth

and beds’ (NA1.04.02 Inv: 1429 Coromandel, p. 115).

the staggering amount of 3800 reals. By comparison,

The fact that the document describes the furniture

his sandalwood bed was estimated at only 109 reals.

as being moved in parcels, seems to suggest that the

Prices of ebony furniture were at approximately the

furniture was brought in parts, to be reassembled at

same level

its new home. This would obviously save precious

55 Jaffer, p. 90, Van Campen & Hartkamp-Jonxis, p. 26

cargo space. It is important to note that the extremely

56 Brommer, p. 295

simple construction and the limited size of the

57 Brommer, p. 296, 298; Nas & Grijns, p. 7

separate parts of ebony furniture makes it relatively

58 Niemeijer, p. 168

suitable for the continually moving lifestyle of its

59 Brommer, p. 298, Stavorinus, p. 261, 262 60 NA.1.04.02 Inv: 1175 Batavia, p. 276-304. From the inventory of Jan Menie, a small chest with windows was offered for auction. These were actually bought by the Company for the fair amount of 35 reals

owners 78 In the same way, it is often also possible to distinguish earlier parts from later additions 79 NA.1.04.02 Inv: 1175 Batavia, p. 276-304. The price for the slave would include the possession of the unborn

61 De Bruijn & Raben, p. 97

child. Prices in the seventeenth century are expressed

62 Veenendaal, p. 150-183

in so called ‘reals of eight’, being worth sixty stivers,

63 Baarsen (3), p. 75 64 Rumphius, vol. 2, cap. 17; vol. 3, cap. 26

three guilders or one Ricks Dollar 80 De Haan, part 2, p. 84


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The age of disaster and extravagance

28 Idem, p. 36


29 Part of the sudden increase on Chinese immigrants

Gaastra, p. 57

2 Van der Brug, p. 23 3 Gaastra, p. 62-64

may also lay in the lifting of the ban on emigration by the Chinese emperor in 1684. (Akveld & Jacobs, p. 77)

4 De Bruijn & Raben, p. 40

30 Taylor, p. 52, 53

5 Van der Brug, p. 25

31 Niemeijer, p. 126

6 De Bruijn & Raben, p. 32, Gaastra, p. 101

32 Tavernier, vol. 2, p. 379

7 Conradi (anonymous), seventh book, p. 11

33 Van Gelder, p. 197. The word ‘baren’ is derived from

8 Van der Brug, p. 37

the Malay word ‘baru’, meaning newcomer

9 According to Stavorinus (p. 266), monthly rents in the

34 Jaffer, p. 88

inner city of Batavia ranged from 5 to 40 Ricks Dollars

35 Idem, p. 78

per month, with the fairer houses being offered from

36 De Bruijn & Raben, p. 83

25 Ricks Dollars or 75 guilders. However, during the

37 De Haan, vol. 2, p. 96

time of his writing, Batavia had already started its

38 Jaffer, p. 45

decline, with many of its wealthiest citizens having

39 NA.1.04.02 Inv: 877 Bengalen, p. 1752-1753. In this

already left the inner city for the countryside

particular document from 1733, a financial overview

10 Tavernier, part 2, p. 379. According to Tavernier,

is given on a number of clocks and mirrors that were

imported French wine costs as much as two Ricks

officially imported by the Company. Several items

Dollars per pint

were heavily damaged during the journey, but they

11 de Bruijn & Raben, p. 33. Jan Brandes elaborately describes how he pays a large number of Company officials regular visits, most likely to secure and promote his position within the Company’s ranks.

were still sold at a relatively modest loss, indicating the high selling price that they would have fetched, had they not been damaged 40 Van Campen & Hartkamp-Jonxis, p. 74

12 Gaastra, p. 104

41 Stavorinus, p. 78

13 Abeyasekere, p. 35

42 Terwen-de Loos, p. 102; van Campen & Hartkamp

14 Conradi (anonymous), seventh book, p. 4

Jonxis, p. 59

15 De Graaff, p. 18

43 Terwen-de Loos, p. 65

16 Ong Tae Hae, p. 5, 6

44 Van de Geijn-Verhoeven, p. 57

17 Niemeijer, p. 154, 155

45 All staff numbers are taken from the ‘VOC-opvarenden’-

18 Taylor, p. 67, 68 19 Ong-Tae-Hae, p. 10, 58. Most popular during the eighteenth century were the so called ‘slave

archive from the Dutch National archives 46 Van Gelder, p. 182 47 Van Dam, vol. 3, p. 199. The same quote was taken

orchestras’, in which slaves played European scores

up by Veenendaal in Van de Geijn-Verhoeven, p. 19.

on European instruments that were imported from

Veenendaal interprets the mention of ‘4 turners’ as


chair turners. It is far more likely that these were

20 Conradi (anonymous), seventh book, p. 7 21 Tavernier, vol. 2, p. 398, 405 22 Van Gelder, p. 195, 196. Most gambling houses were

more general turners who might have worked on furniture on rare occasions, but certainly not fulltime 48 Blussé, p. 20

run by the Chinese, who were known as fervent

49 De Haan, vol. 1, p. 357

gamblers. Stakes could run incredibly high for Chinese

50 Jaffer, p. 79, 80; Baldaeus p. 818. Baldaeus comments

and Europeans alike

on the craftsmen of the Coromandel coast and

23 Idem, p. 198

Ceylon:‘They are excellent workmen in ivory and

24 Jaffer, p. 31

ebony wood, as likewise in gold and silver, and will

25 Van Gelder, p. 47

come with their tools (which are but a few) to work in

26 Van de Brug, p. 11, 173, 174 27 Idem, p. 171. However, Blussé also points to the defective irrigation system of the sugar cultivating

the houses of the Dutch’ 51 Van de Geijn-Verhoeven, p. 19 52 Niemeijer, p. 404. Rumphius regularly mentions the

areas surrounding the city, causes an ecological

Chinese in relation to the timber trade on Ambon.

disaster. (Blussé, p. 17)

He also typically accuses them of forging precious


Furniture_p001_144.indd 136

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timbers through dyeing and other methods of fraud.

17 Brugmans, p. 300

(Rumphius, vol. 2, cap. 9, p. 40)

18 Java government Gazette, 29th of May, 1813, p. 6

53 Surprisingly, of the many precious and beautiful timbers from East Asia, only a very limited number

19 Terwen-de Loos, p. 130 20 Ritter, p. 53

of species was exported to Europe prior to the nineteenth century. These were predominantly

The many colours of ebony

ebony, calamander, satinwood, padauk and amboina


(which is padauk burr), which were all used in

2 Van Gompel, p. 11

European cabinet making. Most exotic timbers were

3 Ebony and calamander are almost impossible to

actually procured from the West Indies

Van Gompel, p. 6

distinguish from one another on a microscopic

54 Conradi (anonymous), sixth book, p. 102

level, since the species are very closely related.

55 De Haan, vol. 2, p. 96

Calamander is sometimes called ‘striped ebony’,

56 This was also true for India, Jaffer, p. 80

because of the characteristic figuration of light brown

57 Loebèr (4), volume ‘Houtsnijwerk en

streaks, which can be used to decorative effect.

metaalbewerking’, p. 8 58 De Bruijn & Raben, p. 35 59 Zuiderweg, p. 117. The paper was called Vendu-nieuws 60 Venduties (anonymous), p. 410

But even in Company times, the species were used interchangeably and calamander was dyed completely black to resemble ebony 4 Samples were taken preferably from tenons or other areas that remained invisible after conservation

The colonial era

treatment. Timber analysis required a minimal


sample size of one cubic centimetre. If no suitable

Taylor, p. 8, 128

2 Idem, p. 79. Governor-general Van Imhoff stood at

location could be found to take a sample from

the basis of the foundation of such schools. Reinier

easily – such as in the case of the item not requiring

de Klerk followed on Van Imhoff’s initiative several

disassembly, samples would be taken with a hollow

years later

drill bit. The final timber analysis was executed by

3 Groot, p. 3

Iep Wiselius. The ‘Inside Wood Database’ (http://

4 Taylor, p. 88 was used as a reference

5 Idem, p. 97- 99

source. More information on the process of timber

6 Idem, p. 102, 110

identification can be found in a number of easily

7 Idem, 118, 119 8 Although one could also rent furnished houses. 9 De locomotief, 26th of April, 1877, p. 8. Nearly all

accessible sources 5 The red sandalwood was predominantly identified in reused parts that already conveyed to us a sense of

papers from the late nineteenth century onwards

considerable age. This could be limited to only a top

contain travel schedules of both the arriving and

rail or single apron in some items, whereas the rest of

departing ships 10 Abeyasekere, p. 58, Taylor, p. 129. The many

the object was made of inferior wood species 6 Jaffer, p. 132.

newspapers of the period demonstrate the wide

7 Rumphius, vol. 2, cap. 17; vol. 3, cap. 26

variety of European items that were sold

8 Though a small number of nineteenth century chairs

11 Akihary, p. 299

are made of ebony

12 Deckers, p. 304

9 Van Dapperen, p. 187

13 Termorshuizen, p. 135

10 A chart containing an overview of all position marks is

14 Brugmans, p. 49. The High Council of India had

available at the Tropenmuseum.

accepted a plan to initiate a school of crafts as early

11 Van Gompel, p. 45, note 27

as 1755, but it is not certain whether such a school

12 Identified tool marks include the use of chisels, adzes,

was ever actually founded 15 Nieuws van den dag: kleine courant, 9th of June, 1883, p. 5

gouges, frame saws, planes, scribes, a band saw, rasps and abrasives. 13 Van Gompel, p. 62

16 Nieuws van den dagvoor Nederlandsch-Indië, 8th of March, 1924, p. 1


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14 This drawing includes the number of twists, the thickness of the ‘knots’ and the direction in which the

Highlights from the furniture collection of the Tropenmuseum

spiral flows


All wood species that are marked with an asterisk

15 Van Gompel, p. 45

have been identified through microscopic wood

16 De Bruyn-Kors, p. 339.: De Bruyn-Kors, G.F. ‘Schets

determination in which small samples were taken

van den Riouw-Lingga archipel.’ Natuurkundig tijdschrift voor Nederlandsch-Indië. Deel 4, 1853. Lange

from the object 2 Dutch chairs that form a good point of reference for

& Co., Batavia. p. 40-90; 303-387. p. 339

the development of ebony chairs are provided by

17 The largest size was the depa, of a man with spread arms. After this, each size would roughly be halved.

Baarsen (3), p. 67 and Baarsen, p. 47 3 For example: Van de Geijn-Verhoeven, p. 53, Van de

First with the ella (from chest to fingertip), then the

Wall, p. 82 (fig. 15). These examples have been called

hasta (elbow to fingertip), djinkal (from thumb to little

‘children’s chair’ and ‘women’s chair’ respectively.

finger with a spread hand) and selempap (a palm’s

The truth is that both examples were clearly lowered

width). Finally, the selempap could be divided into four djari, or thumb widths

at a later time 4 The Tropenmuseum owns a very rare example of a

18 All samples were taken and researched by the Dutch

miniature ebony cabinet stand, dating from the 17th

Institute of Cultural Heritage (RCE). GC-MS analysis

century (later converted to a small table): 1696-22

was performed by Henk van Keulen and microscopic

5 Shixiang, p. 140, 141

research by Matthijs de Keijzer and Luc Megens

6 Baarsen (3), p. 211-213

19 These items include three small benches (2916-1, 1295-29 and 99-3), two large benches (1295-97,

7 See also chapter: 18th century 8

Van de Wall has suggested that the basic shape of

886-83) and two chairs (903-27 and 1436-6). Again,

this chair originated in India (p. 79). Jaffer discusses

further charts and results can be requested at the

examples from the Coromandel coast: p. 178, 195.


According to Terwen-de Loos, the basic shape is

20 The specific dye could not be identified.

derived from the Chinese Lohan chair, which could

21 Rumphius, vol. 4, cap. 1. According to Rumphius, ink was used for this purpose, with the addition of a

certainly have inspired the design 9

Shixiang, vol. 2, p. 65

little red dye from sappanwood to increase the colour depth 22 Bone black was identified in item no. 1295-29, sample no. 1 23 One item contained a highly refined form of red ochre, which technically changes its name to iron oxide red 24 1436-6 25 1295-97, sample no. 2 26 The red sample was taken from the bottom of the stretchers. Because of the detected presence of Laccol in the sample, the lacquer was probably procured from South East Asia, possibly current day Vietnam. 27 Van Gompel, p. 40 28 Seat rails often split along the lines of the rattan webbing holes, because the holes severely weaken the wood. An easy way to repair this, would be to plane down the cover rails to remove all the holes and fit the seat with a loose frame instead 29 2045-4


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About the authors Joost Hoving and Reinier Klusener were trained as cabinetmakers and furniture conservators in Amsterdam. After having worked in Italy for several years, they founded the company Hoving & Klusener Meubelrestauratie on the Zoutkeetsgracht in Amsterdam. Their work includes private commissions as well as projects for diverse Dutch museums and institutions. Amongst these are the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, the Royal Palace Amsterdam, the Tropenmuseum, the Rotterdam Museum and many other. Both conservators are currently working on the installation of the period rooms in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. Reinier Klusener is also employed by the University of Amsterdam (UvA) as a part-time teacher of furniture conservation practice. Dave van Gompel was trained as a furniture conservator and art historian in Amsterdam. After his studies, he has worked for Hoving & Klusener Meubelrestauratie, the University of Amsterdam (UvA), the Tropenmuseum and currently holds a position as junior furniture conservator at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. His main interest lies in the convergence of the technical aspects of traditional cabinetmaking and the history of furniture and interiors. The authors wish to thank: — Koos van Brakel — Martijn de Ruijter — Arlette Kouwenhoven — Fred Scholten — Linda Cook — Cees van Soestbergen — Iep Wiselius — Herman den Otter — Paul van Duin — Jan van Campen — Femke Diercks — Fransje Brinkgreve — Annemarie Geleijnse — Henk van Keulen — Matthijs de Keijzer — Luc Megens — Auke Gerrits ( illustrations )


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KIT Publishers Mauritskade 63 P.O.Box 95001 1090 HA Amsterdam The Netherlands E-mail: © 2013 KIT Publishers – Amsterdam, the Netherlands Editing: Linda Cook Translation ‘The many colours of ebony’: Dave van Gompel Design: Ad van Helmond, Amsterdam Production: High Trade BV, Zwolle, the Netherlands Printed in Hungary isbn 978 94 6022 2252 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the publisher.

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Netherlands East Indies. This group of items has received very little scholarly attention, but holds important information about the domestic lives of the Dutch in the country’s former trading posts and colonies. The collection is an important historical document of a scarcely detailed period of Dutch interior decoration in an alien environment. The Tropenmuseum initiated a four-year conservation project that led to important discoveries about the original appearance of these items – discoveries that forced us to alter our current views. This publication discusses important aspects of social and domestic life in the former Netherlands East Indies, and also gives a technical survey of the museum’s significant collection of ebony furniture. A short catalogue details highlights from the Tropenmuseum collection.

dave van gompel | joost hoving | reinier klusener

and most important collections of furniture from the former

Furniture from the Netherlands East Indies 1600 - 1900 dave van gompel | joost hoving | reinier klusener

The Tropenmuseum of Amsterdam houses one of the largest

Furniture from the Netherlands East Indies 1600-1900 a historical perspective based on the collection of the tropenmuseum

ISBN 978-94-6022-225-2

9 789460 222252

Furniture omslag 5.indd 1

27-01-13 13:50

Furniture from the Netherlands East Indies