When the VOC sailors came home, people were very attentive. Nowadays, everybody has an idea about what the world is like due to the television, Internet and images in books and magazines even from a young age. In the early years of the VOC books, images and paintings were only for the richest people.
Mermaids and monsters
Furthermore there were so few Dutch people who had been to the Far East that they just had no idea of what could be seen there. The sailors told about weird nations and religions, about elephants, monkeys, giraffes and all kinds of other animals that the Dutch people had never seen. They looked in awe at the storytellers and wondered if it all was true. Although many sailors mixed up everything and spiced their stories up with fabrications about mermaids and monsters, there were others who had a good memory and gave good descriptions. Draughtsmen and painters liked to listen to them, they made sketches and asked for approval, after which they applied changes if necessary, much like a police artist who makes a sketch based on witness statements. Unfortunately there were far too few sailors who could draw well or artists who travelled to draw what they saw on their journey. Moreover the VOC did not need nosey parkers; they would keep everything safe, out of fear of the competition.
After an old VOC servant, named Georg Rumphius had drawn and described in great detail and accuracy plants, shells and other items on the Moluccan Islands, his work was seized and placed in a safe. It would take years before the information was published in a book. The directors were kept fully informed of all that happened in the VOC branches. The whole day, clerks were writing down what was bought and sold. There were registers accurately kept, a kind of diary. Sometimes this involved exciting stories about wars and attacks, but more often than not the days were monotonous and all that was written about was the heat and loneliness. The sailors kept journals on board, not only of the events but especially data from the route, the currents, the storms, the contact with the different cultures and avoiding dangerous places. The greater public wasn’t bothered by those affairs, but showed more interest in the exciting stories like the one of sailor Bontekoe from Hoorn, who didn’t have much success in his career. Several times he lost a ship at sea and at the pinnacle of his career a fire broke out on board. The fire wasn’t properly put out and it flared up again and reached the ammunition storeroom. This blew the ship to smithereens and a few dozen sailors survived the accident. After a harsh journey, the survivors finally reached Batavia. Governor-general Coen was angry at his town mate and punished him by making him sail coral stone to build the forts in Batavia. Demoted Bontekoe would still grumble about it when he was back in Hoorn. A handy printer asked Bontekoe to tell all about the unhappy journey. He made it into a book, which directly became a bestseller; it is still in print today.
An imagined story was the one of the Batavia. The ship (that is beautifully reconstructed and can be viewed at the shipyard in Lelystad) fared off the coast of Australia. Most sailors managed to reach land and stored a part of the goods and other material on board. With a barge some of them went to get help in Batavia. When they stayed away too long, the ones who were left behind became desperate. A group of sailors were very wild, they stole, they killed and raped. Finally the saviours were back and the criminals were punished. Except for the prints and stories about exciting events, images of people and animals became much more accurate and everything else that could be found in the Far East. However, it would take till the 19th century before some good draughtsman and painters were sent to India to record what they saw for the folks back home. After the invention of photography, photographers went on their way with plates of glass and chemicals and everything that was needed to print their photographs.
text: Ruud Spruit
translation: Lisa Peeters, RSG Enkhuizen, tto-junior