“I remain on land, keep my comfort, drink a glass of wine and smoke a pipe of tobacco”
Dutch Tobacco Boxes in the National Museum of Sri Lanka
K. D. Paranavitana
An enthusiastic sailor heading towards the East bought a tobacco box from a trader in Amsterdamin the seventeenth century where on top lid embossed the following verse which is a free rendering from the Dutch.
“I navigate as a hero to far-lying coasts
It is not for want of money, prefer much my rest
And remain on land, and keep my comfort
And drink a glass of wine, and smoke a pipe of tobacco”
Another box carried on top lid embossed with a trade scene in a garden with sellers, accompanied by a long text inscribed in four lines containing the verse,
“Money, money, that’s the slogan – money’s the highest blessing
By money is everything from other places here procure
By money am I just want to bring to the land
All that in Congo grows, and all that Sumatra plants”
Let’s observe what these tobacco boxes are.
The oriental tradition before 16thcentury gives hardly any evidence on the use of tobacco or its smoking. However, the tradition in Europe has it that Christopher Columbus had observed the habit of smoking among the inhabitants of the ‘New World’ that he found in the last decade of the 15thcentury. It took about further half a century to bring the plant for cultivation on European soil. Columbus in his travel journal stated about a ‘highly priced dried leaves’ which would probably have been tobacco. Apart from smoking some considered that it has a kind of therapeutic quality and used as a remarkable panacea.
The smokers felt a need of a handy container for preservation and carrying tobacco wherever they wished. The first series of tobacco boxes were came into use in Europe in mid 17thcentury. After several decades of the establishment of the first Dutch limited liability trading Company (VOC) in 1602, certain fortune-seeking persons from all over Europe carried away by the ‘Indian Craze’ gathered in Amsterdam looking for employment or sailing to the East Indies. They joined the Company in any position they could secure and embarked for the East with their newly acquired habits, chief among them being the smoking of tobacco. The unprecedented demand for tobacco, a luxury at the time, required some method of preserving its fresh flavour for a considerable period and a handy pack to carry in their pockets. Not too large, heavy or bulky. The tobacco box was designed to serve this purpose and, in the first instance was egg-shaped or oval, and was later oblong in shape. These requirements were met by the manufacturers of tobacco boxes and continued during the 17ththrough to the 18thcentury for both local market and for export to neighbouring countries.
The tobacco box was one of the most durable Items among the wide range of smoker’s articles brought by the Dutch sailors arrived in the island over a period of nearly hundred years. This is the main reason, therefore, for the large number of tobacco boxes preserved in the National Museum in Colombo. These boxes represent the changes that took place over the years in size, shape, designs, methods and depictions. The early 17thcentury boxes are small reflecting the high cost of tobacco. When the growth and supply of tobacco was increased, pipes with larger bowl came into use and the size of the tobacco boxes too naturally became larger. Accordingly, most of the 18thcentury boxes were oblong with rounded ends making it easier to put into or pull from the user’s pocket. It went on further improvements over the years by introducing boxes of rectangular, octagonal and varied in shape and length but never more than 4 4/3 in breadth and 7 inches in length.
The tobacco boxes are made using either brass or copper. ‘The lid is usually fixed with rolled hinges of strips both the backside of the lid and a piece attached to the backside of the top. The others made of brass and/or copper are made as follows: for the sides a long narrow strip of metal bent in the desired shape and soldered at the end. The base is soldered with a small overlapping edge to the sides. The lid is made in a smaller and provided with an overlapping edge and hinged to the back. The hinge is composed of several small rolled-up stripes from bot lid and the back of the side that are connected with a metal pin’.
As far as the art-historic value of the tobacco boxes are concerned the pictorial illustrations are common with the rest of the contemporary European works of art. However, the designs or scenes of the subject matter are intended to appeal to smokers with particular interests. The decorative motifs and designs added by the different manufacturers to enhance the artistic value of the boxes. Some moulds repeatedly used as models to emboss the prints. Copying boxes and making them in a series was a common practice, e.g. crucification boxes and those of victories Frederick the Great. Religious beliefs, particularly on Jesus Christ, the stories taken from the tenets of Christianity or specific professions that need to be guided by the religion are in the forefront. Appreciating the greatness of contemporary victorious political leaders, the battles they won at different places in Europe carry considerable historical importance covering Germany, England, Russia and Turkey. These boxes are intriguing source of information about the society to which they were produced. Various social, economic and trading aspects have also been the subjects of depictions in tobacco boxes. Some dictums, proverbs and representations associated with contemporary social life, have been converted to illustrative format.
The Department of National Museums in Colombo is in possession of116tobacco boxes. The earliest belong to late 17thand the others to the 18th century. Their state of preservation varies, some are rather worn out as a result of excessive use and the others are in better condition. Hardly any information could be gathered on the origin, makers, how they were accrued to this collection and who their owners or donors were.
The tobacco boxes in the collection of the National Museum in Colombo could be divided into six major groupsbased on the subject-matter of illustrations and not of their size or shape including (a) Religious representations, (b) Political and Military representations, (c) Dictums and Proverbs (d) Social and Economic representations (e) Views of Cities and (f) Perpetual Calendars.
It is remarkable that the Sri Lankan identity was also represented in designing and manufacturing of tobacco boxes locally. From ancient times Sri Lanka had inherited several guilds of craftsmen of distinction. John D’Oyly (1774-1824), who was one of the most distinguished British civil servants, studied and delineated the system of government that prevailed in the Kandyan provinces, prepared a work entitled A sketch of the constitution of the Kandyan Kingdom. This work by John D’Oyly carries a vivid description of the divisions, sub-divisions and officers of the KottalBadda or the Artificers Department. According to D’Oyly, the Department of KottalBadda comprised gold and silver smiths, blacksmiths, painters, ivory carvers, working close to the king. The KottalBadda was divided into four workshops referred to as PattalHatara including; (i) AbharanaPattalaya (Jewelry workshop) (ii)OtunuPattalaya(Crown workshop) (iii) RankaduPattalaya(Golden Sword workshop) (iv) SinhasanaPattalaya (Throne workshop).
In the museum collection there are three oblong and two eight-cornered tobacco boxes probably manufactured by the craftsmen of the guilds mentioned above. The Dutch had frequent diplomatic contacts with the King of Kandy and the chieftains there. At the annual audience given by the King it was a tradition to exchange gifts between the two parties. On the part of Kandy this sort of gift would have been an exception for the Dutch.
These boxes made with brass are elegant works of local craftsmen showing the local motif designs free of any religious touch. Therefore, they could be considered as souvenirs. According to Coomaraswamy “The influence of Portuguese and Dutch in the low-country [the coastal regions of Sri Lanka] in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, on art, costume, and manners was extremely marked…Dutch influence is seen in the brass tobacco boxes, of which Dutch examples are still common, besides the Sinhalese imitations.”
The underside of this box is entirely devoted to depict ten lascorines in uniform in a row marching in one direction carrying guns. Their head gear and facial features are similar to the depictions of lascorines in temple murals in Kandy and even in low-country. The representation of lascorines here indicates a military touch. Reverse etched with Kandyanstyle Sri Lankan motif design.
Dictums and Proverbs are the short wise sayings accepted into current speech and writing. They spring from two sources; one is the conveyance of the practical wisdom of previous generations and the other is reflections of wise men that adopted by the people and attained proverbial usage. The Book of Proverbs in the Bible is one of the earliest collections and had become so much part of ordinary speech that we do not remember their origin. Nevertheless, the proverbs carry knowledge of the ancient world over the generations.It is depicted on the lid two stout persons appear to be a man and a woman in front and far behind two young persons, boy and a girl in between, blowing two horns accompanied by the saying, Goede Oude Songepiepe de Jonge meaning “When the elders are singing the youngsters follow peeping”. The children do the same thing later following their parents.
There are sufficient number of tobacco boxes that could be brought into separate group called ‘Views of Cities’ representing port-cities in the Netherlands, i. e. Amsterdam, Delft, Groningen, Rotterdam and Hamburg in Germany. One depicting the StadHuis or the Town Hall of Amsterdam is an excellent production. This town hall was opened on 20 July 1655, built by Jacob van Campen on 13,659 wooden piles at the cost of 8.5 million guilders. The building material used was a yellowish sandstone brought from Bentheim in Germany. The stone surface outside the building is considerably darkened in the course of time perhaps due to the environmental pollusion. This magnificent edifice in the city center in Amsterdam is now being used as one of the royal palaces of The Netherlands.
The Perpetual Calendar was an essential instrument for seafarers as they spent longer periods involved in voyages to distant lands. The tobacco box was an ideal way out to combine the calendar with handsome portable instrument. Its available space on the lid or on the underside was utilised to place what they referred to as ‘Perpetual Calendar’. The tobacco boxes in this group show how this limited space was economically used for a compact tabular calendar and navigation log timer.
Some boxes served for more than containers for tobacco and were one of the nautical instruments that gained popularity amongst 18thand 19thcentury seamen. At the beginning of 1737, Pieter Holm (1685/86-1776), Swedish sailor working in Amsterdam produced boxes with perpetual calendars and log timers, specially intended for sailors. This was commonly known as ‘Dutchman’s Log’. He engraved a calendar on the cover of each box he issued placing the calendar between the bust of Julius Caesar and the bust of Pope Gregory XIII with the hope of referring to the Julian and Gregorian calendars introduced in 45 B.C. and 1482 A.D., respectively. All boxes are dated on the bottom line of the calendars. The undersides carry a log timer or table to measure the speed of ships. A portrait of Amerigo Vespucci too, was added to it remembering Wespucci’s voyage to the west dated 1497. Frontside engraved “Reght door zee” “Straight ahead see”. Holm’s text is dated 1776.
The tobacco boxes carry no signature but it could be certain that they were made at Iserlohn (Germany) from where they were transported to Amsterdam and sold at Pieter Holm’s nautical school. However, it is not established whether the calendar and nautical information was already engraved on the boxes at Iserlohn or were added later in Amsterdam. The manufacture and sale of these boxes continued long after the death of Pieter Holm in 1776 and the latest known copies dated 1817.
The tobacco boxes discussed here are in many ways an extraordinary collection. It may perhaps be one of the largest extant outside Europe. It represents almost all types of boxes that produced in Amsterdam and Iserlohn in Germany during different years in the 18thcentury. Nevertheless, a great deal remains unclear about these tobacco boxes and needs more research into the aspects like their makers, owners, provenance, original price, the sources of their decoration and how they accumulated in the National Museum in Colombo and elsewhere. They contain a wealth of information into the social practices, attitudes, historical events, inscriptions and the manufacturing techniques. The depictions on the boxes reflect vocations, religious beliefs, patriotic sentiments, or prevailing moral attitudes of their owners.
The writer is a historian and an authority on the Dutch culture. He is the one time Deputy Director of National Archives and has authored many books and contributed widely to international journals.
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