Silver from Indonesia

VOC silver is silver made at the time of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), generally by European silversmiths working in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).

In the seventeenth century, following the Dutch Republic’s conquest of Jayakarta (present-day Jakarta), increasing numbers of Dutch people settled in the colony. Its growing prosperity brought an increasing demand for luxury items and domestic wares. European silversmiths were attracted to set up businesses in the town, renamed Batavia. Their workshops often employed indigenous craftsmen or silversmiths brought over from Ceylon and India, where there was a rich tradition of silversmithing. The resulting mixture of occidental design and oriental decoration – or, conversely, of oriental design and occidental decoration – is characteristic of silverware made in Batavia.

Betel boxes made for European residents are a good example of the oriental design/occidental decoration types, since they relate to the typically south-east Asian habit of betel quid chewing, which the Dutch community had adopted. The boxes are elaborately decorated caskets made of tortoiseshell or tropical hardwoods and adorned with silver fittings.

Another very distinctive type of VOC silver is the memorial salver: a plate inscribed in memory of a deceased individual and distributed to his or her relatives and friends. The more important and wealthy the deceased, the more salvers would be made. One salver tells a particularly interesting story. It is in memory of Cornelis Chastelein, regarded as an enlightened man even in his own time. The will he made before his death in 1714 freed all his 200 slaves and left his land to them.

The Kunstmuseum has collections of VOC silver, furniture from Batavia, Japanese lacquerware, Indonesian decorative arts etc. and uses them to illustrate the domestic culture of the Dutch colonial past.

The collection is published in: Titus M. Eliëns, Zilver uit Batavia / Silver from Batavia, The Hague/Zwolle 2012.

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