Dundee, West of Java

One of our volunteers, Jaap Jacobs, tells us the story behind a document he found in a box of council legal records.

Sometimes finding a document can spark off a long journey from the searchroom of the Dundee City Archives, to the other side of the world and back. The document itself is odd enough. It does not fit in with the other documents in a box with municipal old documents from 1776 to 1890. Most of these relate to public streets, paving, flood protection, boundary walls, and the like. All important matters that concerned the citizens of Dundee, but some pretty standard stuff. But one document is different. It is not a petition to the authorities, but a certificate awarded to an individual. It is not in English, but in Latin.

James Brown
The mysterious document found in the box of “Municipal old documents”

So what is it? It is in fact a certificate of membership of a masonic lodge to a Dundonian by the name of John Brown. And curiously, the lodge which awarded the certificate was located in Surabaya, in the Dutch East Indies.

Now, I can’t resist an archival puzzle like that. Who was this John Brown and what was he doing in Surabaya? How did the document get to Dundee? What more could be found about this man?

Notice that John’s name is spelt as Johannes, which is the Latin form of the name.

The starting point obviously was the document itself. It is dated 8 November 1814 and contains the year and place of birth of John Brown (Dundee, 1782) and his occupation: ‘Portus Magister’ (port or harbor master). Despite being just 32 years old, John Brown must have been an experienced seafaring man. He must also have been of good standing, as that was a requirement of admission to a masonic lodge. It fits in with the professional positions of other members, some of whom signed the certificate. The lodge itself was still new in 1814. Founded in 1809 with the name ‘Friendship’, it opened its building in 1813. It was a strongly international lodge, with Dutch, English, and French members, each with their own chairman. One of the members of the lodge was Sir Thomas Stanford Bingley Raffles, who was admitted in 1813. He was the Lieutenant-Governor of the Dutch East Indies from 1811 to 1816, during the British interregnum.

Signatures at the bottom of the document.

All which shows that John Brown from Dundee had moved into high circles. John Brown probably left Surabaya in 1817. He must have returned to Dundee at some point in time, carrying his certificate of membership with him. And he brought other memorabilia as well. At an 1893 exhibition in Dundee two Indonesian daggers (‘Crease’ or ‘kris’) were on display, both labelled as gifts to Brown from the Sultan of Maduara, of whom he had become an intimate friend. One of the daggers was from the Albert Institute Collection, now the McManus Galleries.

So, there we are, travelling with John Brown from Dundee to Surabaya and back. The searchroom of the Dundee City Archives may not have any windows, but the collections allow the visitor many vistas, both in time and in space.




One thought on “Dundee, West of Java

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  1. Found a John Brown, born 21st July 1782 in Dundee (only entry for that year). Son of Kinnaird Brown and Helen Lyon. I wonder if that’s him ? Haven’t found any marriage or death certificates yet. It would have helped if he’d had a more unusual name !!


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