Materials: Ceramic, salt glaze
The history of an object, how it moves from place to place over time, can teach us a great deal about a culture. It can tell us about trade, intermarriage, and, in general, how people and societies interact with one another. This jug is a fascinating case study of how an object can reveal an incredible story. It was purchased on the island of Sumatra in western Indonesia in the 1960’s-1970’s from a street vendor at a camp near the capital city of Pekanbaru.
This stoneware jug is made of hard, dense clay that is glazed using a method known as salt glazing. Salt glazing occurs when salt is introduced into a kiln when firing a ceramic vessel. It results in a glassy, mottled surface that makes the vessel impermeable to liquids. This jug is decorated with the image of a “bearded man” figurine, indicating it is a type of vessel known as a Bartmann (or Bellarmine) jug. Originally from the Frechen region of Germany, Bartmann jugs mainly date to the 16th and 17th centuries. They were used for transporting liquids and were traded widely across Northern Europe and the British Isles. The “bearded-man” figure represents a wild man from Northern European folklore and was thought to be a protective figure that warded off evil. In fact, sometimes these jugs were used as a charm against witchcraft!
So, how did a German jug for transporting liquids end up in a market in Indonesia, over 6,000 miles away? One possible answer is The Dutch East India Trading Company. One of the first multinational corporations in the world, The Dutch East India Trading Company routinely transported goods from Europe to Indonesia, which was then called the Dutch East Indies, between 1600 and 1800. The islands of Sumatra, Java, Madura, Borneo, Celebes, Maluku, Bali, and East Timor (among others) became the Dutch East Indies, known as the “Spice Islands” for their production of exotic spices such as nutmeg, cloves, pepper, and cinnamon.
When these islands came under control of The Dutch East India Trading Company, the company developed world-wide monopolies on these highly desired spices. The city of Pekanbaru was an important trading port for imported objects such as this jug. However, by 1800, mismanagement and bankruptcy resulted in the end of The Dutch East India Trading Company. The Dutch retained control of these culturally and agriculturally rich islands until the mid 20th century, and Indonesia did not become its own country until 1949 following a national revolution.
Today, Indonesia represents a crossroads of culture and trade between the Indian and Pacific oceans with more than 300 distinct ethnic groups and more than 700 languages still spoken. This object is a fascinating example of worldwide trade, the introduction of multinational corporations onto the world stage, the spread of cultural ideas, and the legacy of a colonial power.
Take a look at the video to learn more about the history of Indonesia and the Dutch East India Trading Company:
[Stephanie Lynn Allen]