Colonial revolving matchlock with Vietnamese decoration
This item has been sold.
Overall length

154.5 cm

Barrel length

Breech to muzzle 110 cm

Without cylinder 90.4 cm

Caliber

11 mm

Weight

6300 grams

Materials

Iron, steel, wood, silver, gold, copper

Origin

Dutch Colonial

Probably made for the Vietnamese King Nguyễn Phúc Lan

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Description

A fine and unusual colonial gun. It features a five-shot cylinder that was pre-loaded and pre-primed. Every next shot could be made by twisting the cylinder and opening its priming pan, for five quickly successive shots.

All iron parts are decorated with overlay. The barrel has silver overlay on the underside and silver overlay with fire gilding on the top, showing designs of dragons among foliage, and a series of cross-shaped designs. The cylinder is decorated in the same manner, also with dragons but instead of the crosses it carries auspicious symbols like flowers and flaming jewels. The front and back of the cylinder are done in plain silver overlay, just like the underside of the barrel.

 

A look at its design features

The matchlock mechanism and "banana" shape of the lock plates suggest Dutch manufacture or at least ordered according to Dutch specs.

The plain silver overlay is applied over a crosshatched background, executed in two directions. This specific technique was used in India, China, and Vietnam. (The Japanese preferred a three-directional cross-hatched background, as did the Tibetan iron workers in Derge.) Using silver overlay that was then fire-gilt is primarily a South Indian trait, most other cultures would apply the gold directly to the iron.

The designs of the dragons, at first glance, have a Chinese feel, but zooming into the details, their heads and claws are off. Their claws are more like cat paws, unlike the widely spread claws that were typical for Chinese and Japanese work. You tend to see this only in Vietnam. The shape of the dragon's heads also points towards a Vietnamese origin. These design features, including the crosses seen on the barrel, resemble the decoration of the old Nguyen capital of Hue. Any minor differences are probably due to the fact that Hue only became the Nguyen capital in 1802, its palace was built in 1803, while this gun is much earlier.

Some impressions of the imperial city of Hue. From Léopold Michel Cadière; L'Art à Huế:

Page from L'Art a Hue

Léopold Michel Cadière; L'Art à Huế: 1925.
 

Cross on barrel

Cross on the barrel of our gun.

 

L'Art a Hue

Léopold Michel Cadière; L'Art à Huế: 1925.

 

Dragon on revolving gun

Dragon with paw-like feet within scrollwork on our gun.

 

L'Art a Hue

Léopold Michel Cadière; L'Art à Huế: 1925.

 

Manes on dragon head

Paw-like feet and radiating wavy manes on the dragons on our gun.



Historical setting

Northern Vietnam was of great interest to the Dutch VOC in the early 17th century. They supplied relatively cheap silk and deerskin, which could be sold at great profits in Japan. So in 1637, the VOC opened an office on the west bank of the Red River near the capital with permission of the Nguyen King. Their position was secure if only they kept bringing the king enough presents. The silk trade reached a height in the mid-17th century, but came to a standstill around 1663, after which the VOC closed its office. 

The office was re-opened on the request of the King in 1665. As trade was less brisk, the presents presented to the Nguyen court became of lesser quality, which lead the king to imprison VOC chief Jacob van Loo several times. In 1799, the VOC decided it was more hassle than it was worth and pulled back entirely, and on February 8, 1700, the Tonkin personnel arrived in Batavia.

 

A diplomatic gift

This revolving gun, quite a feat of engineering at the time, would have probably been one of these gifts meant for the king. It was a piece of very expensive and high-tech equipment at the time, and so must have been among the better gifts presented to King Trịnh Tráng during the height of the trade in the 1630s and 40s.

It was probably made in the VOC post of Sri Lanka, where Dutch and local gun makers produced high-quality weapons for royal presentations. The designs appear typically Nguyen imperial, which suggests they either worked from templates provided or that the decoration was done later by Vietnamese craftsmen. However, the techniques used, done in silver and then fire gilt, is more South Indian than Vietnamese. So that makes it likely it was done in Sri Lanka, or one of the Dutch trade posts on the Coromandel coast.

Trịnh Tráng obtained many weapons from the Dutch during this period, including cannons and modern Dutch ships, which he used in the assault of 1642 in the Trịnh–Nguyễn Wars. Dutch guns and ships gave his forces a considerable edge over the Southern Nguyễn army.

 

Carbon dating

I sent a sample of the gun's wooden stock to a lab for carbon dating. Due to irregularities in solar activity, carbon dating doesn't always yield results as exact as we would like to. In this case, however, we got lucky. The C14 half-life value of 293,28 years was calibrated to produce two peaks of plausibility. One in the early 1500s and one in the early 1600s.

The 1500s is too early for this kind of technology, and there was no contact, so we can safely rule that out. That leaves a rather narrow peak with its apex in the 1630s and 40s, the height of the VOC silk trade with Vietnam and the period in which the most expensive presents were exchanged.

 

Carbon dating of gun

Calibrated C14 dating results from Vilnius Radiocarbon lab.


Provenance 

This is one of only two known examples with the same configuration and decoration. Both guns came from the estate of a Frenchman who resided in Vietnam during the period of colonial rule in Indochina (1860-1946, approximately). They were sold separately by his descendants. The identity of the family, or information on how the pieces were acquired in Vietnam (or exactly when) is not available.

The other gun, in lesser condition with more losses to the overlay, was purchased in France in 2015. Its owner consigned it to Sotheby's New York, who auctioned it in their auction Important Chinese Art, March 23, 2022, lot 286. Sotheby's marketed the piece as 18th-century Qing Imperial, which it clearly was not, and it remained unsold.

The present example was consigned to Czerny's auction house in Italy and sold in 2016. The current owner obtained it directly from its Israeli purchaser.

Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king
Dutch colonial revolving matchlock, probably made for the Vietnamese king

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