15. Not for all the tea in China…

To celebrate the Chinese New Year on Saturday (Year of the Snake) we are taking a look at a cultural revolution: not the ‘Great Leap Forward’ of the 20th century, but the impact of trade with China in all sorts of ways prior to the modern era.

This week’s wreck is the Zeelelie or Sea Lily, lost among the Isles of Scilly in 1795. With her cargo of tea and porcelain she was the quintessential East India wreck, reflecting the huge change in European habits of consumption and associated artefacts, namely porcelain vessels and dinner services. She was also one of the last Dutch East India (VOC) vessels to return to Europe, for within the next few years the VOC was extinguished due to its financial difficulties.

Part of those financial difficulties related to war: the global reach of trade meant that the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars were effectively ‘world wars’ as the European powers harassed each other’s shipping and fought for control of overseas territories. The declaration of the Batavian Republic in the Netherlands, aligned with the French Republic, was seen with disfavour by the British, and this was the background to the Zeelelie’s ultimate fate. It took her 4 and a half months to reach the Cape of Good Hope from China, arriving in May 1795; in June she was captured off St. Helena, along with other Dutch vessels, and sent for Ireland, arriving in September. When she was finally dispatched for London, she struck among the Western Rocks off the Isles of Scilly, where her cargo ‘went to the bottom’.

It was noted in the Times that: ‘The accident is said to have been wholly occasioned by the obstinacy of the person on board having the command, and who was in time, by those on board, apprized of the immediate danger, told what the light was, and that the land breakers were running a-head.’ Such a fate was not uncommon for prizes, often because of lack of familiarity with the area to which they were sent, or tensions between the prize crew and the original crew.

Scattered porcelain and guns are said to lie off Crebawethan, but this wreck has also been reported off the Crebinicks. This remains a site for which finds have been regularly reported, but without a corresponding charted or published position (as far as I know). For that reason the Zeelelie is one of those hybrid database records in which finds are included in a casualty record based on documentary evidence, because of the apparent lack of a reported position.

Porcelain from this wreck would date to the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (Ch’ien Lung) who reigned over much of the 18th century, presiding over an artistic flowering in China – and abroad. Much of this porcelain was decorated for European export, sometimes through orders including European lettering or coats of arms which were not always accurately copied. An excellent example is this image which, commissioned directly by a merchant, commemorates a Dutch East India ship in a recognisably Chinese, rather than European, style.

Conversely, also in the 18th century, Chinese wallpapers inspired European imitations, and the asymmetric decoration favoured in Chinese artefacts influenced the Rococo in both England and France, developing into “chinoiserie”, while Chinese themes also inspired that French school painter par excellence, François Boucher. The cultural influence of the East Indies at an earlier date should not be underestimated, however, since without the wealth from Indonesia and further afield it is arguable that the Dutch Golden Age would not have flourished as it did, as it trickled down through the social classes.

English Heritage owns a portrait of the 17th century Dutch VOC captain Pieter van den Broecke, who was painted by his friend Frans Hals – his weather-beaten features and tousled hair give away his profession immediately, but his wealth is apparent in his beautifully embroidered lace collar and cuffs. Dated 1633, his portrait postdates by just a few years our earliest known wreck of a ship from China, the English East Indiaman Moon off Dover in 1625.

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