Visitors to Malaysia who have an amateur interest in history should not give visiting the historical city of Malacca a miss. The history of the town goes back to around 1400, when it was founded by a Javanese prince who began the Malacca sultanate's 100 year reign. Subsequently, the town experienced three European colonial periods, beginning from the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British.
Those who are particularly interested in historical Dutch influences would be surprised by the many architectural remnants of Malacca's Dutch past that can still be found in this idyllic but cosmopolitan little town. In many ways, the town's architectural influences and its demography still echoes to the time of its Dutch colonial days.
In the centre of the city is Malacca's famous Dutch Square. It is also known as the Red Square because of the crimson coloured old buildings that surrounds the area. There, the majestic Stadthuys and Christ Church dominate the surroundings.
The Dutch Square has become a familiar tourist landmark and is even a popular photo shoot for newlyweds seeking that perfect backdrop for their wedding portrait. Having a wedding photo with the striking red buildings in the background seems particularly a favourite with the Chinese Malaysians, especially since in the Chinese culture, red symbolises luck.
Christ Church was formerly the Dutch Reformed Church of Malacca. It is the oldest surviving Dutch church building found outside the Netherlands. Located opposite the Stadthuys, it was once situated within the fort walls of the old fortified town of Malacca. The fort walls, however, were demolished by the British at the beginning of the 19th century.
Christ Church at Malacca
In 1741, in commemoration of the centenary of the Dutch capture of Malacca from the Portuguese, the Dutch burgher community there decided to build a new house of worship to replace their old and decaying church - the Bovenkerk - located at the summit of St. Paul's hill.
The 'first stone' for the new church was laid by the Malacca born Dutch burgher named Abraham de Wind at 9am on 18th February 1754. He acted on behalf of his father, Claas de Wind, who was too ill to partake in the historic ceremony. Class de Wind was a prominent burgher during his time serving the VOC in Malacca and he rose through the ranks to become the secunde of the town.
It was planned for their new church to be a grand structure and a symbol of the pious Christian faith of the Dutch people in Malacca. It took workers a staggering 12 years to build the magnificent new Church. Its construction was finally completed in 1753.
The layout of the Church is a simple rectangle of 82 feet by 42 feet. However, the ceiling rises to 40 feet above the ground and is supported by a span of immense wooden beams that were each cut from a single tree. The roof was covered with Dutch tiles. The massive walls were raised using Dutch bricks built on local laterite blocks and coated with an everlasting Chinese plaster.
The granite bricks which pave the floor in the Church were brought to Malacca as ship's ballast and the incised letters found on some of them are evidently storage marks. It was said that, in those days, construction bricks were loaded into the haul of Dutch ships sailing for Malacca. These bricks served as the ship's ballast and was for the purpose of keeping the ship upright and afloat as they rode with the ocean's wind and waves.
Upon reaching Malacca, the sailors would be ordered to unload the bricks to be used for construction there. The ballast was replaced with commercial merchandise for their continued journey, sailing either to Indonesia, to other Dutch colonies in Asia or back to the Netherlands.
Within the Church, there exist a number of Dutch, Armenian and English memorial plaques. Many of the epitaphs on those plaques haunts the casual visitors of forgotten tales that could be told from those who once existed in a bygone era. They were the forgotten sons and daughters who had found their way so far from their fatherland. Yet ironically, it was thanks to people like them that Protestant Europe's trade flourished during its age of prosperity.
The epitaphs on those memorial plaques also gives testimony to old Dutch families that formed part of the close knit community of the town which also served as the garrison and colony there. Names such as de Wind, Westerhout, Neubronner and Koek are the ancestors of the same families who still exist in Malaysia and Singapore today.
The old Malacca Dutch community had an elaborate church administrative organisation. 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 Malaysian National Archives in Kuala Lumpur.
The Church also has in its possession a fine collection of extremely rare silver vessels that goes back to the early Dutch period. However, this priceless collection is now kept safe in a vault of a bank and it is hardly ever brought out to be exhibited for the public's eye. The risk of losing these priceless pieces is simply unimaginable.
Malacca remained under Dutch control for a far shorter period than Indonesia. Therefore, Malacca was fortunate to be spared the post VOC era that was so tyrannical and turbulent as the Dutch amended their administrative methods and ideology pertaining to colonialism in the East Indies.
The Anglo-Dutch treaty of 17th March 1824, which affected an exchange of Dutch and British possessions in India and the East Indies, reassigned Malacca to Great Britain. This agreement made by people so far away and without an inkling of the effects it had on local communities, effectively caused the divide of the Malay world and eventually the definition of autonomous state boundaries in time to come. Malacca was traded by the Dutch for Bencoolen (now Bengkulu) at Sumatra. The British occupied Malacca at the beginning of April 1825 and the town was then placed under the direct authority of the English Bengal Government.
In 1838, the Malacca church ceased to be the Dutch Reformed Church and the Bishop of Calcutta, India consecrated the church to the rites of the Church of England and it was renamed as Christ Church. Its maintenance was finally taken over by the British Government of the Straits Settlements in 1858.
Under the new colonial administration, the church building had undergone some minor changes. Its original Dutch windows were reduced and ornamented during the British occupation. The porch and vestry were built only in the mid-19th century. Otherwise, the building presents the same outward appearance as when it was first built by the Malacca Dutch community.
During the Dutch rule of Malacca, the church, like many other Dutch buildings in South East Asia were painted white. However, in 1911 the Christ Church and the Stadthuys were painted red by the British. The reason for the change of the colour scheme for these two buildings now remains forgotten. However, since then, Malacca's red buildings have become a hallmark of the Dutch influence in the town.
On 13th December 2003, the Anglican parishioners of Christ Church, headed by Pastor Batumalai, celebrated the church's 250th anniversary. The celebration began with a spiritual thanksgiving service and followed by a grand dinner in the ballroom of a leading hotel in Malacca, hosted by the church. Amidst their religious celebration on that historic day, the past contributions of the Dutch community who founded the church, Abraham de Wind who laid the first stone and those named on the memorial plaques surrounding the congregation were circumvented as the present proprietors of the church joyously offered their thanks to God.
Dennis De Witt is a Dutch Eurasian from Malacca who as a hobby studies the history of Dutch influence in Malaysia and the surrounding region. He is currently the Project Co-ordinator of the Malaysian Dutch Descendants Project, a community effort working to bring together the forgotten Dutch descendants in Malaysia. For further information, please visit www.dutchmalaysia.net