You are leafing through the pages of my travel diary as I document our travel adventures of December 2011 and January 2012. At the moment we are taking a side trip to Melaka Malaysia, as part of an almost week long stopover in Singapore on our way back home to the Netherlands.
Dutch Square in Melaka has me captivated… it’s wall-to-wall tropical heat but here I am, mesmerised by beautiful buildings, culture and a heap of history… what’s not to like?
The latest building to capture my attention is the Melaka Christ Church. Painted in the same pink/red as the Stadthuys on one side and the Youth Museum and Art Gallery on the other, this previously Dutch Reformed church has been through it’s share of changes because it’s now an Anglican church.
I love going inside all historical buildings, and love churches too, but sadly we just don’t have time to see and experience all that Melaka has to offer in one short day trip, especially one that involves six hours of coach travel.
From Wikipedia I learn:
“The church is built in Dutch Colonial architecture style and is laid out in a simple rectangle of 82 feet (25 m) by 42 feet (13 m). The ceiling rises to 40 feet (12 m) and is spanned by wooden beams, each carved from a single tree.
The roof is covered with Dutch tiles and the walls were raised using Dutch bricks built on local laterite blocks then coated with Chinese plaster. The floors of the church are paved with granite blocks originally used as ballast for merchant ships.
The Dutch conquest of Malacca from the Portuguese Empire in 1641 saw the proscription of Roman Catholicism and the conversion of existing churches to Dutch Reformed use. The old St. Paul’s Church at the summit of St. Paul Hill was renamed the Bovenkerk (High Church) and used as the main parish church of the Dutch community.
In 1741, in commemoration of the centenary of the capture of Malacca from the Portuguese, the Dutch burgher community decided to build a new church to replace the aging Bovenkerk.
The foundation stone was laid by the Malacca born Captain of the Malacca Burghers, Abraham de Wind, on behalf of his father, Claas de Wind, a prominent Burgher who had been the Secunde (Deputy Governor) of Malacca.
The church was completed 12 years later in 1753 and replaced the Bovenkerk as the primary Dutch Reformed Church in Dutch Malacca.
With the signing of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, possession of Malacca was transferred to the British East India Company and in 1838, the church was re-consecrated with the rites of the Church of England by the Rt. Rev. Daniel Wilson, the Anglican Bishop of Calcutta and renamed Christ Church.
Originally painted white, the church and the neighbouring Stadthuys building was painted red in 1911 and this distinctive colour scheme has remained the hallmark of Malacca’s Dutch-era buildings since. The original Dutch windows were reduced and ornamented after the British takeover of Malacca and the porch and vestry were built only in the mid-19th century.
The floors of the church also incorporate various tombstones with Portuguese and Armenian inscriptions used as paving blocks. Memorial plaques in Dutch, Armenian and English also adorn the interior of the church. Some Armenian inscriptions provide an interesting panorama of life in the Dutch period:
“Greetings, you who are reading this tablet of my tomb in which I now sleep. Give me the news, the freedom of my countrymen, for them I did much weep. If there arose among them one good guardian to govern and keep. Vainly I expected the world to see a good shepherd came to look after the scattered sheep.”
“I, Jacob, grandson of Shamier, an Armenian of a respectable family whose name I keep, was born in Persia near Inefa, where my parents now forever sleep. Fortune brought me to distant Malacca, which my remains in bondage to keep. Separated from the world on 7th July 1774 A.D. at the age of twenty-nine, my mortal remains were deposited in this spot of the ground which I purchased.”
The church bell is inscribed with the date 1698 suggesting that it was used for another purpose prior to the completion of the church.
The church’s collection of Kerk Boek (Church Book), Resolutie Boek (Resolution Book), Rapporten (Reports) as well as the Doop Boek (Baptism Register) going back to the earliest Dutch times in Malacca have survived through the centuries. These antiquated documents are now being kept at the National Archives of Malaysia.
Silver altar vessels dating back to the early Dutch period are also in the possession of the church but are kept in storage and rarely taken out for display. The altar Bible has a cover made of brass inscribed with the passage from John 1:1 in Dutch.
I love the serenity in the prose that describes Jacob’s date of death: ”separated from the world on… ” .. and I was struck by the fact that he was only twenty-nine years of age. Life back then was apparently tough, … and short.
These days we have creature comforts Jacob could not have even dreamt about, medications not the least of them. We travel with speed and comfort, we can exchange information around the world at speeds almost beyond our own comprehension, we are well educated and we enjoy long life expectancy. I wonder what Jacob would make of us all if he could come back and see us today?
One thing is for sure… Melaka then was probably as much a cross-roads, meeting point and place of vibrancy then as it is today. And in that, Jacob, who sleeps eternally in his little purchased spot in the church, would have felt very much at home.