Dutch Colonial Betel Box with Silver Mounts
Batavia or Sri Lanka
length: 18.6cm, height: 7cm, depth: 12.5cm
This fine Dutch colonial betel or sirih box is from eighteenth century Batavia in the Dutch East Indies or Sri Lanka (Ceylon), and is composed of bevelled wood, possibly teak, with silver mounts. The main silver mounts comprise pierced corner plates to the lid, the sides of the box and the heart-shaped key-plate. The corner mounts are all decorated with flower and leaf motifs. The key plate is beautifully engraved with leafy scrolls.
The centre of the lid is decorated with an unusual oval pieced silver plaque with a bar design that appears to be designed on those of a portcullis, but with a central flower motif.
The box sits on four silver feet shaped as scallop shells. The small bolts used in the construction of the box are hidden by silver studs shaped as petalled flowers. There are six of these on the top cover and two on the back of the box.
Fine, solid-cast silver handles engraved with floral patterns are attached to each side.
Prominent metal hinge flanges are attached to the inside of the box. These attach the lid or cover to the base.
The Javanese and Sri Lankan habit of chewing betel was adopted by the local Dutch and exquisite boxes to hold the nut, the betel leaf and the other accompaniments were commissioned by the Dutch. The Dutch realised early on how important betel was to the indigenous people and how it was an essential part of hospitality including with the indigenous rulers. They quickly incorporated betel use with their dealings with local elites. Paintings that show the wives of Dutchmen at the time often show betel boxes prominently displayed. One such seventeenth century painting by J.J. Coeman which today hangs in the Rijksmuseum shows Batavia’s Cornelia van Nieuwenroode with her husband Pieter Cnoll and two of their nine daughters, one of who is shown holding a jewelled betel box (Gelman Taylor, 2009, p. 42).
The fashion for luxurious betel accoutrements and other finery saw the governor-general in Batavia Jacob Mossel issue a decree in 1754 stating that only the wives and widows of the governor-general, the director-general, members of the Council of the Indies and president of the Justice Council were permitted to
use gold or silver betel boxes adorned with precious stones, (Zandvlieyt, 2002, p. 206).
There are no apparent maker’s marks to the silver on the example here.
The box is in fine condition. The lock mechanism is no longer present. There are no splits to the wood and the box sits evenly.
Eliens, T.M., Silver from Batavia/Zilver uit Batavia, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag/W Books, 2012.
Krohn D.L. & P.N. Miller (eds.),
Dutch New York Between East and West: The World of Margrieta van Varick, Bard Graduate Center/The New York Historical Society/Yale University Press, 2009.
Furniture from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India During the Dutch Period, Foundation Volkenkundig Museum Nusantara, 1985.
Asian Art and the Dutch Taste, Waanders Uitgevers Zwolle, 2014.
et al, Zilver uit de tijd van de Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, Waanders Uitgevers, 1998.
UK art market
Inventory no.: 2826