Scrolling Vines for the Dutch: from Vizagapatam to Masulipatnam
By Jan Veenendaal, translated by Zebregs&Röell
The Origins of the Document-boxes with Dutch coats-of-arms of High-ranking VOC-officials in Asia
In his publication 'Furniture from British India and Ceylon' Amin Jaffer attributes a chapter to furniture originating in Vizagapatam (Visakhapatnam), historically a small harbour-town at the north coast of India in the present-day state of Andhra Pradesh. In this chapter, he elaborates on a small ebony box with a domed lid, decorated with silver mounts which can be found in the collection of the Victoria&Albert Museum. (ill. 1). Jaffer places this box in the tradition of the so-called Vizagapatam pieces of furniture and includes several document-boxes owned by high-ranking Dutch VOC-officials (ill. 2), of which the inlay shows close resemblance to the before-mentioned box. The boxes are decorated with characteristic finely inlaid pen-engraved bone or ivory flowers and scrolling vines, evenly distributed on the lid and sides of the box.
This ‘Explained’ focusses on this distinct group of (writing) boxes, which Jaffer refers to as Vizagapatam. Opposing this opinion, it will be argued that the origin of these boxes with fine inlays is not Vizagapatam, but Masulipatnam (Machilipatnam), a harbour-city about 300 kilometres more to the south along the coast of Andhra Pradesh.
It was not until 1682 that the English East-Indian Company (EIC) opened an office in Vizagapatam. The first years were arduous, and the city counted no more than a few dozen English inhabitants, which were mainly preoccupied with their own concerns for safety and survival. Over time the English gained more power, and living conditions became better, which resulted in trade and investments rising steadily. This all at the cost of their establishment in Masulipatnam, where their presence now was in rapid decline. Already around 1700 the first pieces of furniture were made in Vizagapatam for the well-to-do English inhabitants who occupied high positions within the East-India Company. These precious showpieces were treated carefully, and relatively much of them have survived the test of time and can now be found in private and museum collections.
Although the inlaid decoration of the box in the V&A (ill.1) and a recently acquired and restored writing box in the collection of the Rijksmuseum (ill. 4) are quite different, they are both dated between 1720 and 1730 by the V&A and the Rijksmuseum. The same dates but very different designs suggest that each style originates from a different place, and cannot be regarded as consecutive fashion-trends in one city.
The inspiration for the Vizagapatam inlays from about 1730 on seems to find its origins in England. Clear resemblances can be seen when studying designs for Spitalfields silk, from the neighbourhood of London which was at the time an important centre for silk-production and fashion. It seems safe the assume that designs from James Leman (1688-1745) or Joseph Dandridge (1665-1746) were used as an example for ivory inlays in India from about 1730 (ill. 8 & 9). It is known that John Crompton, an English merchant who lived in Vizagapatam around 1750, possessed and used English designs for chintzes, hand-painted cotton fabrics, and ordered not only chintzes but furniture as well.
Around the start of the 17th century, the Dutch established trade-posts along the coasts of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, formerly known as the Coromandel Coast. As early as 1605 the Dutch established a VOC trade-post in Masulipatnam, and this remained the most important trade post for the VOC on the Coromandel Coast till the end of the 18th century. In the 16th and 17th century’s, this city was a vital port-city of the Golconda Sultanate (1512-1687) and starting from the mid-17th century the economy boomed due to the arrival of the European companies, and in the third quarter of the century, the city flourished and attracted many wealthy Persian and Islamic merchants.
Thomas Bowrey, an English merchant, visited the town around 1672 and described the situation in Masulipatnam long before there was a Vizagapatam furniture-making industry. He wrote that in Masulipatnam various refined and high-quality products, fine and multi-colour cotton fabrics, especially palempores, a diversity of floral-motif chintzes that are as fine as satin, but also chairs, tables and the fabled ebony cabinets and writing boxes, with elaborate inlays of tortoise and ivory. The fabrics are exported in great numbers to other parts of India, to Persia, Arabia, China, Southeast Asia, and also to England and Holland. The English trade-post is governed from Fort St. George in Madras, and that of the Dutch receives its orders from Casteel Geldria in Paliacatta. In Dutch travelogues of the time, the northern part of the Coromandel Coast (where Masulipatnam was the most crucial Dutch trade-post) is also famed for its beautiful chintzes and fabulous ebony chairs, tables and cabinets.
Document-boxes with English coats-of-arms
A few years ago, the Rijksmuseum restored a Vizagapatam box (ill.4), which had a coat-of-arms on the inside of the lid, which was unattributed at the time. Research on arms of English officials in Fort St. George in Madras attributed the arms to James Macrae, who was the director in Madras from 1725 to 1730. A comparable armorial chest was attributed to Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of British-India (1773-1785). However, the dates would be quite late, and it therefore is more likely that the box belonged to his less fortunate family-member Francis Hastings, who was director of Fort St. George from 1720 to 1721 but was replaced on 15 October 1721 due to illness and died two months later. All these document-boxes are made of ebony or palisander and inlaid with an intricate motif of scrolling vines sprouting from baroque vases.
Document-boxes with Dutch coats-of-arms
In the Rijksmuseum collection, one can find another document-box, made of a light-coloured wood inlaid with a Dutch coat-of-arms, attributed to the Falck family (ill. 2). This box was possibly owned by Frans Willem Falck, who died in 1737 in Sri Lanka at the age of 27 and not his son Iman Willem Falck, VOC-governor of Sri Lanka from 1765 to 1785, during whose reign these boxes were no longer being made.
Furthermore, there is a similar piece in the Groninger Museum from the collection of Jan Albert Sichterman, Governor of Dutch Bengal from 1733 to 1744. In a private collection, there is another box with Jacob Mossel’s coat-of-arms, Governor of the Coromandel Coast between 1738 and 1743, who later moved to Jakarta (Batavia) to become Governor-General (1750-1761).
Zebregs&Röell sold a few of these boxes, one with a Sichterman provenance, however, inlaid with an apocryphal coat-of-arms of Sterthemius (first director of Bengal for the VOC, 1655-1658). The Sichterman coat-of-arms was removed by the family. We recently also sold a box of smaller size, with the coat-of-arms of Galenus Mersen (director of the Coromandel Coast in Masulipatnam 1737-1747).
A large box, presently in our collection, bears an unidentified ‘coat-of-arms’ of two crowned lions rampant on both sides of a large decorative flowering plant.
Recently, an ebony ivory inlaid writing box with fantastic silver mounts and the coat of arms of Johan van Oordt (1701-1775), merchant for the VOC at Ambon from circa 1724 to 1740. (ill. 3), was offered in Amsterdam (now in a private collection).
Apart from these large-sized writing boxes, smaller boxes comparable to the V&A one (ill. 1)are known, either with domed or flat lids. These boxes occasionally turn up in the Netherlands, and may have intricate silver mounts from Jakarta (Batavia) or Colombo.
It is noteworthy that the English document boxes with coats-of-arms can be dated around 1720, while the Dutch ones are dated around 1730-1740. If the Dutch boxes were made in Vizagapatam, why are there are no boxes known with fine inlay of scrolling vines and English coat-of-arms? Did the Dutch have to travel to Vizagapatam to order their, old-fashioned, boxes? This is very unlikely, the more so since Dutch ships seldom sailed to the harbour of Vizagapatam. The Dutch VOC-post in Masulipatnam, where trade-goods were stored before being shipped off to a wide array of destinations worldwide, on the other hand was regularly visited by Dutch ships sailing between Bengal, the Maluku Islands, Jakarta (Batavia) and Sri Lanka.
From the early 18th century on the English preferred the more elaborate palempores and chintzes from Vizagapatam over those sold in Masulipatnam and did not trade with that city any longer. However, the Dutch continued to trade for chintzes and less elaborate textiles for export to local Asian and African markets in Masulipatnam.
Before the English started to trade with Vizagapatam, Bowrey enthusiastically described the colourful, costly palempores of Masulipatnam, that were shipped to Europe. Many of these costly palempores with coats-of-arms of rich or noble Dutch families, for instance, the Goslinga family from Friesland (Rijksmuseum inv. BK-1980-795), were privately ordered. However, for the VOC, the cheap cotton fabrics bought by the thousands were more profitable. These fabrics, often white, single coloured, chequered or striped, so-called guinees lijwaat and salempoeri’s were profitably sold on the Maluku islands. There the sales market was best, especially when the clove-harvest was good. This, by the way, makes it understandable that Jan van Oordt, VOC-merchant on Ambon owned such a fine inlaid box from Masulipatnam. He had to decide how many and which type of cotton fabrics had to be purchased for the Maluku’s in Masulipatnam.
Masulipatnam was most famous for its rare, fine, hand-coloured cotton fabric with a repetitive motif of delicate, scrolling vines, each ending in the same flower type. This type of chintz is called kalamkari, after the Persian word for calligraphy and was produced in the Sultanate of Golconda.
A beautiful example of this motif can be found on a large palempore which possibly was ordered by Gerrit van Westrenen (1670-1730) in Masulipatnam, for the occasion of the marriage of Johan Steengracht (1692-1743) and Anna Catharina van de Perre, on the 5th of June, 1718 (ill. 10). The mother of Johan Steengracht was a far-cousin of the mother of Gerrit van Westrenen, head-merchant and opperhoofd of Masulipatnam at the time, and from 1719 till 1723 VOC-governor of the Coromandel Coast. Johan Steengracht himself was one of the directors of the VOC chamber Middelburg in Zeeland. In the centre of this bedcover, is the Steengracht family's coat-of-arms surrounded by a spray of flowers such as carnations, tulips and lilies, tied by twines and leaves, completely in the Dutch taste at that time. Extraordinary, however, are the corner-decorations of Islamic cupola’s with pinnacles (ill. 10), where the red border is filled with finely scrolling vines, ending in the same flowers as can be found on the Masulipatnam kalamkari. A traditional Indian motif and not an English or Dutch design that could change each year, according to European fashion. This particular motif is not only ancient but is still used nowadays in Colgonda. Therefore, it is no wonder local furniture-makers kept producing small boxes, writing-boxes and cabinets with inlays with this traditional motif that originated in Masulipatnam.
In conclusion, one may safely assume that the Coromandel Coast document-boxes with Dutch coats-of-arms were made solely in Masulipatnam, between c. 1730 and 1740, and not in Vizagapatam as previously assumed.
We are grateful to our friend Mr Jan Veenendaal, collector and authority on art and crafts made under Dutch influence in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and South-Africa, for this article on Masulipatnam document-boxes.
Amin Jaffer, Furniture from British India and Ceylon, V & A Publications, London, 2001.
Sinnappah Arasaratnam and Aniruddha Ray, Masulipatnam and Cambay, a history of two port-towns 1500-1800, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi, 1994.
Thomas Bowrey, A Geographical Account of Countries Round the Bay of Bengal, 1669 to 1679, Hakluyt Society, Cambridge, 1905.
W. Francis, Vizagapatam district gazetteer (reprint from 1907), Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, 1992.
John Fryer, J., A new account of East-India and Persia: in 8 letters being 9 years travels, begun 1672 and finished 1681, R.Chiswel, London, 1698.
Laura Koster, Een documentenkist uit Vizagapatnam, India. Verslag van een restauratieonderzoek, Amsterdam Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 2014. (PI Thesis, not published)