In 1665, Jacob Jansz. Coeman, a Dutch painter working in Batavia (present day Jakarta), painted a portrait of a family group (Rijksmusem, Amsterdam). He shows the merchant Pieter Cnoll, his wife, Cornelia van Nijenrode, and their two daughters in a landscape. Two dark-complexioned attendants, a man and woman, accompany them. This painting exemplifies aspects of the entanglement of various Asian peoples and the Dutch from the early seventeenth century onwards. The first two hundred years of that entanglement forms the subject of this exhibition.
Cnoll was a Dutch employee of the leading joint stock company of the Dutch Republic, the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (the United East India Company or VOC) at its principal port in southeast Asia. By the time Coeman painted this portrait, the Dutch maritime trading network in Asia included ports in present-day Iran, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and southern Japan (from 1641 onwards restricted to an enclave at Nagasaki). Batavia, on the north coast of the island of Java, was its hub.
Cornelia van Nijenrode (the name is variously spelled) embodies Japanese and Dutch entanglement at its most intimate. Her dress is characteristically Dutch, but her delicate, pale features are not. Her father was a VOC official, Cornelis van Nijenrode, who traded in Hirado in southern Japan. While there, he had two daughters with two different Japanese women. He acknowledged them, provided for them in his will, and arranged for them to be brought to Batavia after his death in 1633, where Cornelia, raised Dutch, married Pieter Cnoll in 1652. They had nine children, including the two daughters depicted in Coeman’s portrait. Only one of their children – the sole son – survived into young adulthood.
The two attendants in Coeman’s painting are among the couple’s slaves, who numbered between forty and fifty. Although the Dutch did not generally enslave southeast Asians themselves, they bought slaves from predominantly Muslim traders who captured non-Muslims in coastal raids. The woman holding the fruit basket is unidentified, but because the man holds a furled umbrella, he is likely Cnoll’s most favored attendant who in public shaded his master with an open umbrella. This practice signified high status, an Asian convention adopted by the Dutch. A tradition recorded by Indonesian historians identifies him as Untung Surapati, one of a number of young Native men who acquired armed followings through their military exploits in conflicts among Javanese rulers in which the VOC regularly took part. He allegedly embarked on this martial career following Cnoll’s death in 1672, but to identify this young man as a “freedom fighter” against the Dutch, as he is described in the exhibition, is a simplistic anachronism.
Nonetheless, Coeman’s painting is a portal to the complex world of social intermixture that followed the arrival of the Dutch in maritime Asia. The painting was the subject of a recent article by Jean Gelman Taylor (“Meditations on a Portrait from Seventeenth-Century Batavia,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 37, 2006, pp. 23-41) not referred to in the entry in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition. Taylor, an Australian historian of Indonesia, writes: “Coeman’s portrait obliges us to recall history’s voiceless, the skilled and the unskilled labouring classes of Europe and of Asia, and the great interlocking of life and fortune that global trade produced” (28). The curators of the present exhibition, Karina Corrigan, Jan van Campen, and Femke Diercks, have chosen to focus only selectively on aspects of the entanglements of what historian Sven Beckert characterizes as “war capitalism.” This is the phase of capitalism preceding industrialization that functions through explicit violence of the kind that underwrote nearly all the VOC’s endeavors. Violence and the threat of violence are mentioned but not emphasized by the curators who focus almost exclusively on consumption rather than also taking account of conditions of production (by “history’s voiceless”) and exchange. They acknowledge two instances of the violence that allowed the Dutch to consume Asian goods. Both concern the senior VOC official, Jan Pietersz. Coen whose portrait, attributed to Jacob Waben (Westfries Museum, Hoorn) is in the exhibition. The label notes that in 1619, Coen’s VOC fleet laid waste the Javanese town where he subsequently built Batavia and its fort. Further, the curators state that in pursuit of a monopoly in the nutmeg and mace trade, in 1621 Coen’s troops slaughtered thousands of the inhabitants of the Banda Islands, where nutmeg was grown. This massacre is commemorated in a narrative dance filmed some years ago on one of the islands, which is included in the exhibition as a video with a commentary by Indonesian scholar, Tamalia Alisjahbana. Hers is a rare Asian voice in the presentation of the exhibition. The inclusion of this video, produced by the Peabody Essex Museum is laudable.
In spite of a sizeable catalogue, this project explores no discernable research agenda. Rather, the exhibition is a lavishly attractive presentation of a selection of goods loosely tied to Dutch people characterized under such rubrics as “Networkers,” Tastemakers,” “Thought Leaders,” “Fashionistas,” and “Innovators.” Many of these goods are indeed spectacular, including silver, ceramics, textiles (Chinese embroidered silks, and Indian painted cottons), clothing, lacquer work, mother-of-pearl, rare hardwoods, and ivory. There are also plenty of seventeenth-century Dutch oil paintings that depict such items. The two organizing museums have drawn on their varied holdings in all these media and forms. They have also secured generous loans from many other museums internationally, as well as from private collections. The result is a plethora of luxury goods, most of which were acquired for or made for the European market controlled by the VOC, and focused on the city where its operating capital was raised, Amsterdam. But to characterize the complex social encounters, whether by turns agonistic or mutually satisfying, among the various peoples involved – of whom the Dutch were only one – as little more than an opportunity for Europeans to indulge in luxury admixed with a little learning, is banal. One does not have to be steeped in post-colonial theory to acknowledge that one person’s luxury is another’s misery.
The spices of the east – cinnamon, cloves, and pepper – that enticed Europeans to the southeast Asian islands are packed in open glass cylinders in the exhibition’s foyer. Their scents evocatively greet the visitor. One might be forgiven, though, for imagining that those heady perfumes can never mask the reek of blood that emanates from so many of the items on display within. Yet worthwhile histories of entanglement are far more complex and equivocal than such a dramatically negative response might suggest. They are also far more complex than the simple tale of European consumption presented here allows. This is in many ways a disappointing exhibition, dominated by a long superseded historical mythology of a Dutch “Golden Age” – golden only to the beneficiaries of war capitalism, past and present. Even so, the exhibition provides an opportunity to view many significant surviving items that speak to cultural entanglement, even if almost exclusively from the perspective of the wealthy of Amsterdam.
Bard Graduate Center