A Current of News
Daniel Tham | Curatorial Lead, National Museum of Singapore
In the lead-up to the commemoration of Singapore’s Bicentennial this year, I have been busy planning for a special exhibition that will open at the National Museum on 21 September, titled An Old New World: From the East Indies to the Founding of Singapore, 1600–1819. I thought to kick off this column by reflecting on one of the earlier-dated artefacts i am planning to feature in the exhibition.
The artefact, which comprises a few pieces of paper, helps to set the context for the intended scope of the exhibition. Rather than look at the 200 years of Singapore since 1819, the plan is to focus instead on the roughly 200 years leading up to 1819. This would not just put the events surrounding Singapore’s founding as a British East India Company entrepôt in its historical context, but also locate it in a narrative that is broader both historically and geographically, with a view of the East Indies as the larger domain of which Singapore was a part.
Dated to 8 February 1622, the artefact is a printed pamphlet titled A Courante of Newes from the East India. Just about 200 years before 1819, and around two decades since the establishment of both the English and Dutch East India Companies (respectively the EIC and VOC), this pamphlet captures from an English perspective the fierce contest for the Banda islands. Located some 2,000 kilometres east of Java, these islands were part of what became commonly referred to as the Spice Islands, owing to their abundance of highly sought-after spices like nutmeg and clove. The demand for these spices led to the establishment of the EIC and VOC, with both companies engaged in a fierce battle for trading rights at the point of the pamphlet’s publication.
Detail from the front page of A Courante of Newes from the East India, 1622. National Museum of Singapore Collection. 2017-00888.
There is much to say about the contents of the pamphlet, but I have found the medium of the courante to be particularly fascinating, and in a sense, related to some of the other streams of thought that have surrounded the exhibition’s conception thus far. The courante or coranto is the name given to broadsheets published from around the 14th to 18th centuries serving as an update of news – the term “newspaper” would only emerge in 1670 – to a wider targeted audience. The context of this particular coranto is the report of the capture of the islands Lontor (Great Banda) and Pulo Run from the English by the Dutch in 1621, with much focus on describing the purported sacking and violence committed by the Dutch with the forcible removable of local inhabitants to the newly-established Dutch settlement of Batavia, or what is Jakarta today. In short, it was a complaint to rally support back home against the Dutch.
News was never just news, and in the 17th century it was of great importance that such reports found their way back to Europe in the hope that popular support and political will would enable reinforcements for the greater battle for a foothold in the highly lucrative spice trade in the East Indies. This would culminate in what became known as the Amboyna Massacre of 1623, with the torture and execution of 20 men from the EIC and Japanese and Portuguese Traders by agents of the VOC.
Detail of engraving titled The Torments inflicted by the Dutch on the English at Amboyna, 1744. National Museum of Singapore Collection. 2017-01008.
It is especially poignant that the words “courante” and “coranto” most probably owe their origins to the French word “courir” (meaning “run”, and from which the fast-paced French dance “courante” is named), and in turn from the Latin word “currere” from which the English word “current” derives. What was reported in corantos like the one I am planning to display in the exhibition was breaking or current news. In this day and age, when multiple coverages of news are broken instantaneously over social media, it might be difficult to imagine the time taken for such reports to be handwritten in Asia and endure months at sea before reaching Europe (if it all!) to be typeset, printed and eventually distributed. Yet, the existence and indeed survival of such materials to this day testify to the important role the print revolution played in waging a paper war in Europe while company agents fought over spice trading rights half the world away, and ensuring that by 17th-century standards, such updates of breaking news was indeed “current”.
I like how the idea of “current” also captures the idea of movement, such as that in “sea currents”. The coranto was meant to be “current” in capturing the latest news of the day, but was also meant to travel, to convey through great distances news that needed to be spread. In this way, the coranto, both the artefact itself and the idea of “currency” it bears, captures nicely what I hope the exhibition will be able to accomplish. As an artefact, the coranto is a material witness to the importance of the East Indies that attracted European trade (and soon colonialism) to our shores in the first place. At the same time, it captured through its text what was “current” in that day and, through its medium, the distances travelled – literally through sea currents – for it to eventually serve its function.
For the upcoming exhibition, I hope these questions of “currency” might be fleshed out in greater detail. What was “current” in the times of Raffles, for instance, that might help us better understand and evaluate the background and meaning of his actions in signing the Treaty of Friendship and Alliance with Sultan Hussain and Temenggong Abdul Rahman on 6 February 1819? I also hope that the question of “currents” might be made evident as well in different ways: how would an understanding of the seas, particularly the straits surrounding Singapore, shape the way we view the history of Singapore and the region; and how have the “currents” of trade, information and migration been a central part of that history?
More questions at this points than answers, but for now at least, that’s what I am currently looking at and thinking about. Stay tuned for more!
About the Author
Daniel Tham is Curatorial Lead at the National Museum of Singapore. He joined the museum as Assistant Curator in 2010, when he curated and set up in the following year the new Goh Seng Choo Gallery featuring the William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings. Specialising in paintings, prints and photography, Daniel has curated special exhibitions at the museum such as A Changed World: Singapore Art 1950s–1970s, and was centrally involved in the revamp of the Singapore History Gallery in 2015. He is currently curating An Old New World: From the East Indies to the Founding of Singapore, 1600s–1819, a special exhibition commemorating Singapore’s bicentennial.