I’ve just come back from a holiday to Amsterdam, which was great. But even though I was not supposed to be working, I couldn’t stop myself from seeking out animal histories. Visiting the Rijksmuseum I learned about early-modern Indonesian piggy-banks, having stumbled across this one.
It would probably have been used to store Chinese cooper coins that circulated within the Majapahit maritime empire, which ruled much of the Malay-world from the island of Java between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. Like the modern piggy-bank, it has a little slot on its back for the coins to go in. Many terracotta piggy-banks like this have been found in Java. They took the form of many different animals—but pigs were most common, apparently because of an association made between the animal and prosperity.
There are many suggestive interconnections here. Whilst these Javanese piggy-banks pre-date the appearance of pig-shaped piggy-banks in England (the ‘pig’-bit apparently deriving from the Middle English word ‘pygg’ for clay pot), the common and lasting association between pigs and wealth is interesting. It might be a part of the long history of pig breeding (discussed by Sam White in a provocative article) that saw the introduction of Asian pigs into European and American pork production from the early-modern period onward, because of their genetic propensity to gain weight. That the Rijksmuseum has this piggy-bank speaks to the history of Dutch imperialism in Java. It offers just a little glimpse of how animals—both as symbols and as living beings—were be bound up with the history of empires.