With Different Eyes

With different eyes

‘’They’ve got red hair, blue eyes. They’re tall, have long faces and long noses with a white complexion.’’ That’s how the Japanese described the Dutch, who lived in Deshima. There were tales that the ‘’red barbarians’’ had no heels and that that’s why they wore artificial heels underneath their shoes. The Asians were surprised by the lack of Dutch hygiene, who hardly ever washed themselves and therefore smelled a lot. It was told that they were insatiable in love, and that that was the reason why they would never grow older than 50. People were bothered by the harsh ways the VOC officers acted with their loud voices and exaggerated gestures. On the other hand, the Dutch saw the Asians as wild gentiles, with their lack of shame of their bodies, which in turn would often make the Calvinist sailors and soldiers blush. The Westerners saw themselves far more advanced than the heathen natives- worshippers of idols. Not to speak of the natives in remote areas, who were accustomed to behead the visitors to use their heads as trophies. There was little to no understanding between the Asians and the Westerners. They looked down upon one another.

How they viewed one another was clear from the descriptions that were found in journals and registers of the VOC, but also in the Chinese, Japanese, Arabic or Malay handwritten manuscripts. Examples were also found in pictures, woodcarvings, netsukes (Japanese carved charms attached to the belt), tapestries and carpets, shadow puppets and on porcelain.

The Hoorn-born director François Bredehoff was gifted a ‘Japanese skirt,’ which was only given to Dutch dignitaries by the Japanese. In the Netherlands, there was a huge need for prints that would depict of the distant unknown Asia, about which such amazing stories were told. Pictures books of people and animals were printed endlessly and distributed. Often they were amazingly accurate, sometimes partly imagined or created on the backs of rumours and fantasies, like the legend about the people with no head and their face on their chest. The Asians depicted the Dutch in many ways. In Japan there were the so-called ‘’hollandgekken’’ (the Mad Dutchmen) which was deeply entwined in the background of the Dutch. They had been for centuries the only western people that the Japanese had contact with. There are woodcarvings of curious Japanese, who during the voyages of the VOC would crowd an inn in the presence of the Shogun to catch a glimpse of the Dutch red-headed barbarians. There were no foreign women allowed to live on Deshima, with the exception of a few Japanese prostitutes.

When governor Jan Cock Blomhoff in 1817 did take his wife, the Japanese watched in amazement. She was depicted on countless prints. Moreover she soon had to leave Japan together with her child and return to Batavia. In India there were so-called ‘story canvasses” woven with pictures to tell a story. In the Amsterdam Tropen Museum, such a canvas is preserved with its pictures of the visits of Jan Ketelaar at the court of the Great-Mogul. Ketelaar, actually his name was Kettler, was a German who didn’t start his career that well. He stole the canvas from his boss and tried to poison him. He fled and enlisted himself in the VOC. In India he was promoted on merit to the number 2 position in the VOC factory of Surratt. On a canvas we see him sitting pontifically at the court as an Indian miniature.

When in Europe the news of the exotic Chinese porcelain came around, people started to order it to their own taste. Many Dutchmen preferred porcelain to match their own culture. They would send plates, jugs and cups as examples for the desired shapes and engravings for the images on the porcelain. The Chinese artists did their best to copy the imprints, but often they didn’t understand what they were painting and they had a fair amount of difficulty with perspective. They enjoyed making the porcelain figurines of the Dutch, just like the Japanese would made netsukes, (the carved belt ornaments from ivory or wood). In Hong Kong, people could have a portrait made in the shape of a brightly-painted clay figurine. Many Dutch 18th century sailors had themselves immortalised this way. In Indonesia, the Dutch appeared in the Wa Yang game. Even Jan Pieterszoon Coen, hated by many, was made into a Wa Yang doll like his wife and gained a place in the series of western conquerors which started with Alexander the Great.

text: Ruud Spruit
translation: Mathijs Biesenbeek, RSG Enkhuizen, tto-junior