Esaias Boursse was born in Amsterdam on 3 March 1631, and was the son of Jacques Boursse (died before 1648) and his wife Anne de Forest. In the will of his mother, dated 23 July 1658, his brother Jan (died 1671) was made the sole heir, as he had supplied money to the children from both his mother's marriages, 'mitsgaders aen Esajas, int leeren ende oeffenen van de schilderkonst, alsmeede desselfs reijse naar Italien-' (and to Esaias, for learning and practising the art of painting, and also his journey to Italy), document, Municipal Archives, Amsterdam (Bredius, op.cit., p. 124). It is possible to conclude from this that Jan financed Esaias' training as an artist and his visit to Italy, unfortunately no other details about this are known. Although Bode and Bredius (op.cit.) described him as a pupil of Rembrandt, this seems uncertain. Esaias is known to have entered the Amsterdam Guild of Saint Luke circa 1651. So far, we only know Boursse's rare paintings of domestic scenes, which are comparable with those of his contemporary Pieter de Hooch (1629-circa 1685). Only three of these are dated: his Woman cooking beside an unmade Bed in the Wallace Collection, London, is of 1656; the Woman scraping Radishes, present whereabouts unknown, is dated 1658; while the Interior with a Woman at a Spinning Wheel in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, is of 1661, P. Sutton in Masters of 17th Century Dutch genre Painting, exhibition catalogue, Philadelphia, Berlin, London, 1984, pp. 155-6. Undated pictures are in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin; the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam; the Landesmuseum, Bonn; and the Fondation Custodia, Paris. As Sutton (loc.cit.) observes, Boursse 'scarcely can be considered a slavish imitator of the Delft artist' de Hooch: some of his pictures 'prove that he was an innovator in the domestic genre field' and in these he was able to create 'a hushed atmosphere, and a concern for still-life detail'. Recently three of his pictures were shown in the Stedelijk Museum het Prinsenhof, Delft (M. Kersten, D. Lokin and M. Plomp, Delftse Meesters, tijdgenoten van Vermeer, exhibition catalogue, Zwolle/Delft, 1996, pp. 182-4, pls. 181-2b).
The articles by Bode and Bredius and by Valentiner of 1905 and 1913 (op.cit.) indicate an early interest in Boursse's oeuvre, hardly known until then. Since the album was first mentioned by Bode and Bredius in 1905, this has been cited as a proof of Esaias' travels to Ceylon, although its whereabouts remained unknown until now.
Previous to its reappearance, the album was only known because of the reference in the inventory of the estate of Esaias' brother Jan, taken by notary J. de Winter, dated 24 November 1671 (Municipal Archives, Amsterdam, notary protocol no. 2410, part 17, p. 185). The album is mentioned as 'Een kunstigh teyckeningh boeck van de Indische natien op Ceylon gedaan door Esaias Boursse naet Leven' (a beautiful album of drawings of the Indian nations, done at Ceylon by Esaias Boursse after life, see fig. 1). Apart from a number of pictures, a figure study and a drawing of 'Cabo de bona Esperanza' (The Cape of Good Hope) by Esaias, the inventory also lists a picture, two figure studies and two albums with drawings and the complete etchings by Rembrandt. In Amsterdam Jan lived on the Anthonies Breestraat, which becomes the Jodenbreestraat, where Rembrandt lived from 1639 until 1658, now the site of the Museum Het Rembrandthuis. It may be assumed that both Jan and Esaias Boursse knew Rembrandt.
In his will, drawn up on 15 September 1661, Esaias is mentioned as being about to embark as a naval cadet with the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (V.O.C.) on the ship 'Amersfoort' to sail to the East Indies (notary protocol no. 2729, pp. 1051-2, Municipal Archives, Amsterdam). His signature on this will corresponds exactly with that on the titlepage in the present lot (see fig. 2). His picture dated 1661 (see above) therefore must date from before his departure.
As mentioned by J.R. de Bruijn, F.S. Gaastra and I. Schöffer (ed.), Dutch-Asiatic Shipping in the 17th and 18th Centuries, Outward-bound voyages from the Netherlands to Asia and the Cape (1595-1794), The Hague, 1979, II, p. 138, no. 0956.4, the cargo boat 'Amersfoort', built in Amsterdam for the Chambers of the city in 1655, sailed from Holland on 13 October 1661 and arrived at The Cape on 13 February 1662. She continued her journey on 21 February, reaching Batavia in the East Indies on 21 May 1662. The 'Amersfoort' apparently never called at Ceylon, neither when she sailed to Batavia, nor on her return to Holland which began on 26 December 1662, arriving at Vlieland on 18 July 1663. In the archives, the voyage is described as unsuccessful as it had been intended to discover the island of New Helena, which in fact did not exist.
It is probable that on this journey to the East Indies Esaias drew both the view of The Cape and the studies at Ceylon in the present lot mentioned in his brother's estate of 1671. It is not clear what Boursse's tasks were as a naval cadet with the V.O.C., or if he returned to Holland with the 'Amersfoort', though both Hofstede de Groot and Brière-Misme, op.cit., p. 28, presumed he did. If so, the period between its arrival at Batavia and its departure from there would have given him seven months to travel to Ceylon and back to Batavia with one of the many ships that sailed between Batavia and Ceylon, and would date the drawings to 1662. Alternatively, he could have travelled directly from The Cape to Ceylon and vice versa, from there sailing back to Holland.
It is uncertain when Esaias returned to Amsterdam, but he was back in the city when his brother Jan died on 9 November 1671. He inherited thirty florins, but owed sixty to the Amsterdam brewer Arnout Valkenburgh. He still owed the latter the other thirty florins when on 11 October 1672 he again had a will drawn up before embarking on the ship 'Rhenen' destined for Ceylon (notary protocol no. 42809, Municipal Archives, Amsterdam). According to Bruijn, Gaastra and Schöffer, op.cit., p. 178, no. 1234.1, the new 'Rhenen', an Amsterdam pinnace, left Texel on 21 October 1672, arriving at Ceylon on 24 June 1673. Esaias never reached his destination: he died at sea, before seeing The Cape or Ceylon again, on 16 November 1672, only 26 days after leaving Holland, aged 42. No pictures from his journeys are known.
The first Dutch contacts with Ceylon, important for its cinnamon, date from 1602. These developed only slowly, but were stimulated by the King of Kandy, Raja Sinha II (1635-1687), who contacted the V.O.C. in 1637 in an attempt to find allies to free Ceylon from its occupation by the Portuguese. Holland was interested in the opportunity to acquire the cinnamon monopoly held by the Portuguese, allies of the Spanish, and in 1638 the isles of Trincomalee and Batticaloa, east of Ceylon, were conquered. The strategic town of 'Punto do Gale' was captured by Willem Jacobsz. Coster on 13 March 1640, a day still commemorated in Ceylon. Negombo, north of Colombo, was captured in the same year, lost, and taken again in 1644. Galle became the temporary seat of the V.O.C. and in 1656 Colombo was captured by the Dutch, followed by Jaffna in 1658. In 1659 the seat of the V.O.C. was established at Colombo. The V.O.C. installed a government partly following the traditional administration, which was in contact with the King of Kandy, who stayed in power and reigned in his own part of the island, causing many governmental problems. He partly controlled the production and export to Europe of eight to twelve thousand bales of peeled cinnamon, each year; the production of timber, which was sold internally; and the sale to Indian Princes of elephants captured in the south-east of the island.
The drawings in the present album depict many aspects of daily life in the young V.O.C. establishment. Colombo was largely a Portuguese colonial city, likewise probably Galle and Jaffna. One of the drawings may depict the Portuguese church of Saint Francis (illustrated p. 75), which remained in use in the fortress, or alternitively the Portuguese governmental building, destroyed in the 1660s.
The Ceylon population outside the cities was Sinagalese, that in the towns was European or Eurasian. Already in 1646 an orphans' court was established in Galle for the descendants of V.O.C. staff. Boursse depicted a number of Mestizos, descendants of Portuguese-Asian origin, mostly living in Colombo. The album also includes a number of drawings with slaves, used by the Portuguese, but also the Mestizos and Europeans in their homes, as shown in the last drawing in the album (illustrated p. 75). The depiction of figures from various angles gives an unusually detailed impression of the clothing and finery of those portrayed, as well as of their work or function. The subjects include a bearded man holding a talipat palm, probably a Kandyan chief also called Mudaliyar; two show men carrying cinnamon, called pingo carriers.
The album comprises the earliest known drawn records of the V.O.C. settlement at Ceylon, hitherto only known from prints after Philippus Baldaeus published in 1672 and Albrecht Herport's the book of travels of 1669. There is a strong European influence in Baldaeus' prints, causing these to seem less reliable, while Herport's information would seem to correspond with the impression given by Boursse's drawings. Later images known are the prints in Johann Wolfgang Heydt's book of travels of circa 1736 published in 1744, and the drawings by Jan Brandes done at Ceylon on his way to Europe in 1786 (now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, De Silva and Beumer, op.cit., pp. 3, 352, 407 and 464, illustrated pp. 200-201, 234-5, 267 and 350).
We are grateful to Drs. Mieke Beumer and Dr. Lodewijk Wagenaar for their help in researching this album.