Marij en Hillegonda

Blog post 007: The journey of the Dutch trading ship Marij & Hillegonda to Nagasaki in 1836

Looking at various ships in Kawahara Keiga’s folding screen, one ship in particular draws the attention. It is the Dutch trading ship Marij & Hillegonda, at anchor in the bay.

The white letters of her name have rubbed off somewhat, but can still be distinguished in the red pennant flying from the main mast. The ship’s name has been important in dating the painting. It helped in finding out when this ship was in Nagasaki, which was in 1836. It was, in fact, the only year that this ship sailed to Japan. Additionally, the captain’s number 294 on the flag atop the mizzenmast could be matched to the then captain, Dirk Arij de Jong (1802-?).1 With this information, we can conclude that the screen cannot have been painted before 1836. The depiction of the ship must have been rather important to the commissioner, as it is painted with even more finesse than the rest of the already very detailed painting. The history of the Marij & Hillegonda, sometimes written Mary & Hillegonda, is a story in itself. In this blog, we recount her journeys.

Across the world in four months

When the Marij & Hillegonda left The Netherlands at the end of 1835, she was one in a long series of ships that sailed for Batavia, now Jakarta, Indonesia. The Dutch East India Company, which had long controlled the Dutch trade in East Asia, had closed its doors in 1800. Yet, Dutch ships continued to set sail to East Asia to trade in valuable goods such as precious metals, spices, various types of wood, silk, and porcelain. The Marij & Hillegonda was a wooden frigate ship built in Rotterdam in 1834 for the company E. Suermondt & Zoonen & Co. from Rotterdam. This type of ship was common in the nineteenth century and could cross the long distance to Asia relatively quickly. That was helped by the copper-clad hull. The green oxidation of the copper plates prevented barnacles and algae from attaching themselves to the hull, ensuring smooth and swift sailing. That detail, too, is minutely captured by Keiga. The Marij & Hillegonda had a crew mustered predominantly from the surroundings of Rotterdam, but various crewmembers came from elsewhere in The Netherlands, and one came from Batavia. 

These men each traveled to Rotterdam for different reasons, in order to embark on trading ships that sailed the world. This is also true for Dirk Arij de Jong, captain of the Marij & Hillegonda. He was born in 1802 on the Dutch island of Vlieland. He grows up on the island and it is probably also there that he learns his profession. He meets his future wife there, Grijtje Walburg, and they marry in 1827. But then disaster strikes. Grijtje dies within a year, in July 1828, from childbed fever. Dirk’s father dies the same year, and his mother a year later, in 1829. It appears Dirk left Vlieland after these tragic times. A few years later, he resurfaces in the archives as captain on Rotterdam trading ships on which he sails all over the world, the Marij & Hillegonda being one of them.

The build sheet for Marij & Hillegonda’s hull, as constructed in Rotterdam (1834). Technical drawing on paper, Maritiem Museum Rotterdam, inventory number T301.

Marij & Hillegonda leaves the port of Rotterdam on 1 January 1836 with 38 crewmembers, several passengers, and a cargo bay full of goods, and sets sail for Batavia. The Cape of Good Hope is rounded without trouble and three and a half months after departure, on 15 April 1836, the ship safely enters the port of Batavia. For many trading ships, that is where the actual journeys began. The revenues of the East India Company, and later of the Dutch Trade Company (Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij, NHM), mainly came from Dutch trade between different Asian countries. The trade route between Asia and The Netherlands actually contributed to a much smaller portion of the total trade. After a quick assignment in Surabaya, Marij & Hillegonda sets sail for Japan at the end of June, where she arrives in the Bay of Nagasaki around a month later. 


Detail of the 'muster roll' (crew list) of the Marij & Hillegonda. Next to the crew list is a transcription of the text. This crew list is kept at the National Archive in The Hague, 'Band met Monsterrol van Mary Hillegonda', 1836 (archive no. 1.04.21, inv. no. 1457). 

A Dutch trading ship in Japan

After arrival in Nagasaki, the ship had to be checked by the authorities before entering the bay. This was carried out near the so-called ‘Mountain of Papists’ (Jp. Takaboko; ‘Papenberg’ in Dutch), a pointy little island prominently situated at the entrance of Nagasaki Bay. Japan strictly regulated foreign contact in an attempt to prevent ‘undesired goods and persons’ from entering the country. For this reason, the ship had to identify itself by handing over a tailor-made secret flag that was given to the departing vessel of the previous year. Besides, all hand weapons, the gunpowder for the cannons, and Christian objects (such as crucifixes and bibles) were put under lock and key by the Japanese authorities. Only if they were satisfied could the ship continue to Deshima, where (part of) the crew could disembark and join the other residents of the island. 

Dutch trading ships transported large quantities of goods of great variety, and the Marij & Hillegonda was no exception. From her inventory list, we can see that she carried substantial amounts of sugar, spices (pepper, nutmeg), tin, textiles (cotton, cashmere), ivory from elephants, and above all, great piles of wood. Not timber, but sappan wood, often sourced in Thailand, which in grated form produces a relatively cost-effective red or purple dye (for textiles). On the return journey, the ship was laden with copper – some 75% of the total cargo weight – and Japanese silk, lacquer ware, rice, mats, brooms, soy sauce, sake, and other goods. Sometime during her four months’ stay in Nagasaki, Keiga paints the Marij & Hillegonda in minute detail. The painter must have had the opportunity to study the ship up close, since even the smallest details on the screen - such as the attachment points of the rigging - match with the build sheet. Eventually, the Marij & Hillegonda leaves Japan on 6 September. Dutch ships could only leave Japan in winter, because that is when the half-yearly monsoon winds once again changed, enabling the return towards the south.   

The passenger list for the return journey records a passenger of considerable significance to our story: Carel Hubert de Villeneuve (no dates). This draftsman was sent to Deshima in 1825 to aid Von Siebold in his documentation of the Japanese flora and fauna. De Villeneuve eventually stayed in Japan much longer than Von Siebold. During his ten year stay on Deshima, De Villeneuve held the ranks of warehouse master and accountant of the trading post, and he has demonstrably worked with Keiga on many drawings. It is likely that Keiga learned Western techniques such as drawing a line perspective with one or more vanishing points outside the composition through De Villeneuve. Another feature of the list of passengers for the return journey is that several enslaved persons, called ‘servants’, are recorded. They are listed behind the name of their respective owners, and only with their (European) given name. These notations are a reminder of the practice of slavery that was a part of life on Deshima, although it is not often discussed.

The Rotterdam ship sets sail for The Netherlands only on 21 February 1837, after several further assignments within the then Dutch East Indies. After another five months at sea, on a total of more than a year and a half of traveling, the ship arrives back in Rotterdam on 17 July 1837. During this journey, the crew of the Marij & Hillegonda sailed to the other side of the globe and back. They visited a country that only very few Dutchmen could got to see, and along with all the cargo, they will have no doubt brought back some fascinating stories.


Examples of goods shipped from Japan by Dutch trading ships such as the Marij & Hillegonda. Bars of copper (top left, RV-360-7875) were the principal export item. Other goods were Japanese silk (top right, RV-360-2938), lacquer ware objects (bottom left, RV-360-5792) and camphor wood and oil (bottom right, RV-1-2560).  

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Curator East Asia Daan Kok and Research Associate RCMC/Japan Davey Verhoeven write about the restoration and the results of their research of the folding screen every month. Those blog posts can be found on this overview page