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Tiles and Tales on the High Seas: A History of the Majolica Tile

January 14, 2014

Art nouveau antique tiles found adorning Chinese- Peranakan homes and shop houses in Malacca, Malaysia are known as Majolica tiles, and were primarily imported from England between the late 19th and early 20th century.

These beautifully glazed tiles each hold a story dating back five hundred years; a story of maritime trade and a fierce struggle to control the Strait of Malacca, one of the most important shipping lanes historically and today.

Today the 50,000 ships per year that sail through this waterway connecting the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea glide over countless wrecks hidden below murky waters. One of the oldest discovered shipwrecks is the Nassau, a Dutch ship that sunk in the gruesome Battle of Cape Rachado in April 1606, a fiery conflict involving a fleet of eleven heavily armed merchant ships owned by the Dutch East Indies Company and some twenty Portuguese ships.

Known in Dutch as Vereenigde Oost-Indische Companie or VOC this chartered company was established in 1602 to carry out trade in Asia. A public company that even issued stock, it had quasi-governmental powers including the power to wage war and set up colonies. Some historians say that it even eclipsed its famous competition, the British East India Company, in the amount of merchandise it moved across oceans.

The sailors aboard the Nassau and its sister ships were told that they were on a trading mission, but it was in fact the first attempt by the Dutch to oust the Portuguese from this important port on the Strait of Malacca. Cannon fire from the bigger Portuguese fleet of twenty ships burnt the Nassau, which then sunk, cargo and all, to the bottom of the Strait of Malacca. Some 150 Dutch were killed in this battle and countless more wounded, but the Portuguese suffered more, and the Dutch would eventually seize control of Malacca thirty years after the sinking of the Nassau.

But wait, you say, battles on the high seas are fascinating, but what about the tiles? Where do they fit in? Well, wreck divers and treasure hunters recovered Northern European ceramics, most likely Dutch from the Nassau, and this is where our story of tiles begins. The history of Majolica pottery from Delft, Netherlands is intimately entwined with the Dutch East Indies Company and battles it fought on the sea.

The word “Majolica” comes from the word “Majorca,” an island on the shipping route between Spain and Italy, and describes the process of using an opaque tin-glaze. While tiles of all kinds had been produced in the Islamic world for thousands of years, the production of Majolica tiles in Europe only began sometime in the 14th century, and in Netherlands in the 16th century.

While the Dutch began making Majolica tiles more than a hundred years before the Dutch East Indies Company was established in 1602, it was in 1602 that the first blue Chinese kraak porcelain found its way to Amsterdam. Known as “kraak” because much of it came from captured Portuguese trading ships commonly known as “Carracas,” this blue Chinese pottery was highly coveted in Europe. Dutch potters in the town of Delft began imitating it and the famous blue Delftware was born.

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, Delft potters made an estimated eight hundred million tiles in this style. Many of these tiles made their way to Dutch colonies in Asia as well as to China and Japan, often serving as ballast cargo for ships sailing from Amsterdam to Asia via the Cape of Good Hope dubbed the Cape of Storms, Cabo das Tormentas by the Portuguese.

The merchant shop houses built during the 1700s in Malacca were likely decorated with blue and while Majolica Delft tiles, but as times, styles and colonizers changed, the tiles used to embellish shop houses in the 1800s were increasingly imported from Britain.

This was partly because Henry Minton, a British citizen, mechanized and patented the making of tiles, which helped kill the Dutch tile trade that still used a laborious handmade process, and also because the British took control of Malacca and imports into Malaysia after it signed the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824.

In England, tiles, expensive and delicate, that had been previously reserved for palaces and cathedrals, were now accessible to a rising middle class, and in England, Majolica tiles decorated walls of municipal buildings, fireplaces in restaurants and even the occasional butcher shop.

In Malaysia, however, tiles imported from England were expensive, and were still reserved for the very wealthy. Chinese merchants embraced them, decorating their homes, furniture and even tombs with them. These tiles made between 1850 and 1910, showcased stylized designs inspired by nature. The curves and flourishes of the lilies and roses that adorned these tiles were a response to the increased industrialization in the Western world. Dubbed “Art Nouveau”, the designs came primarily from the British Arts and Crafts Movement led by William Morris, which revered nature and craftsmanship.

The Majolica art nouveau tile is an integral part of the unique and quirky Straits Eclectic architecture which combines style elements from the Portuguese, Dutch, British and Chinese, and each six-inch square Majolica tile tells a tale of battles fought and won, and of countless ships that sailed the high seas.