Sunday, 21 August 2016

An African baptism in Delft, 1794

"Baptism of a negro lady from the Coast of Africa"

In the collections of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, there is an image of a baptism ceremony of a 'negro lady from the Coast of Africa.' The caption further reads that the ceremony took place in the Remonstrant Reformed church of Delft on 24 September 1794. In pen is added that the ceremony was performed by the Rev. Pieter van der Meersch, and that the the ceremony was set to Ephesians 5 verse 8: "For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light." On the pulpit a reference is made to Psalm 36, but it is unclear if this has bearing on the ceremony.

The image is detailed, with the African lady kneeling, the minister performing the baptism and a man and a woman assisting. A considerable congregation is looking on. However, except for the name of the minister, nobody is mentioned by name. Apparently the maker of the print and caption was more interested in the rarity value of the occasion - an African lady being baptised - than in the human aspect of it, in terms of a social occasion.

As the date and location of the baptism are mentioned in the caption, it is possible to look up the original registration of in the records of the Remonstrant Reformed Church of Delft. As it happens these have been digitised and can be found here.

"An African young daughter [...] named Maria Zara Johanna"

The registration is very elaborate and runs as follows:
"The 24th of September on Wednesday night was baptised in this church, by Rev. A. van der Meersch, an African young daughter, who was named at Holy Baptism Maria Zara Johanna. As witnesses stood the overseer Johannes Guus, and Ms. Zara Turfkloot, wife of Rev. Van der Meersch, who also led her to Holy Baptism. According to her own information she was born in Zoogwoin, on the Coast of Guinea, a day's travel from St. Elmina [sic], and probably circa 24 years old. Her father's name is Cajo Sainquo Niabi, and her mother's name is Masa Oribo. She was repatriated from Demarara in America with Mr. Hekker, who bought her there as a slave, in public auction. His Honour refused her to be inducted in the Christian faith, and when the Church Council of the Remonstrant Reformed Church found out about this, it assisted her in this, finding her to be a Religious and honest soul, too noble to live in an un-Christian state of slavery any longer. Oh, could her miserable fellow-sufferers enjoy freedom with her, and the Christians be less Barbarians, and Slaves!"
The text tells us a lot about the young lady's identity, background, and the process that led to her baptism.

The most striking element in the report is the detailed information about Maria Zara Johanna's African background. She recalls her birthplace and its approximate location, the names of her father and mother, and her approximate age. It is therefore probable that she was enslaved in her teens or as a young adult. Unfortunately, the African names are phonetically spelled in such a way that it becomes quite hard to identify them properly. Location of birthplace and some elements in the personal names seem to indicate an origin in the Akan cultural and political area of today's Ghana. Her father's first name, Kajo, could well read as the Akan first name Kwadwo (also Kojo, or Kodjo), for Monday-born. The other names could also well be Akan in origin.

Equally interesting is the story of her arrival in the Netherlands: she was enslaved in Ghana and sent to the then Dutch plantation colony of Demarara (now Guyana), where she was bought in auction by a Mr. Hekker, presumably a plantation owner. He took her to the Netherlands, where, according to the report, she remained in slavery, until the Remonstrant Reformed Church took pity on her and brought her into the Christian fold. Not mentioned is how this helped her to gain her freedom from Mr. Hekker. Possibly the church council records may hold a key here.

Further research and invitation to assist

This blog limits itself to the registration of the etching and the identification of Maria Zara Johanna. It is likely that additional research can bring forth a lot more information about her life history. A quick search online gives her death record, for instance:
Maria Sara Johanna Kajo Sanchonia, died The Hague 26 October 1834, 68 years old,  born in Demarara, no further information.
Only the index to this record is digitally available, so perhaps the original has more information. Writing from Ghana I do not have access to this currently.

The age given at baptism and her age at death put her birth year at circa 1766/1770. At death she apparently used a form of her father's first names as her surname. The baptism record gives no surname. However, the 21st-century index maker listed her surname as Niabi, also a name given to her father.

So far nothing further is known about Maria Zara Johanna's life, or that of her former owner. Contributions to that effect are most welcome and will be included in a follow-up to this blog. In the meantime a note has been sent to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to amend the description of the etching and identify the characters mentioned in the baptism record.



Update 27 August 2016: Death record

George Homs was so kind to provide a copy of the death certificate of Maria Zara Johanna. It confirms the information from the index quoted above, and has some added information as well.

The death of Maria Sara Johanna Kajo Sanchonia is registered by Hendrik de Nijs, 65 years old, death announcer ('bidder'), and Hendrik Zoomerveldt, 50 years old, cobbler or shoemaker, both living in The Hague. De Nijs was a professional, while Zoomerveldt could be a friend or neighbour, but also a passer-by. The two listed the address where Maria Sara Johanna's died as Quarter W3 ('Wijk W3') in The Hague, which may also have been her residential address, and that she was without occupation.

The next stop will be the Municipal Archives in The Hague (Haags Gemeentearchief) to see if anything can be found about her there in non-digitised records.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Elmina in 1865: New photographs discovered

Pictures of Elmina

Photographs of the town of Elmina in the Dutch period, i.e before 1872, are quite rare. There are some, and there are depictions of the town in the form of drawings and lithographs, but on the whole, one does not find many clear pictures.

You can imagine my surprise and elation therefore, when my colleague and friend, and comrade in arms in the Dutch history of Elmina, Natalie Everts, pointed me towards a fantastic find this morning.

The website of Mystic Seaport: The museum of America and the sea harbours a large collection of historical photographs, mainly of ships. However, hidden in the long list of ships called "Elmina", there are three photographs of the Ghanaian town of Elmina. They were taken by a man called John F. Brooks, whom I believe to be one of the American ship's captains that frequented Elmina, dated circa 1865, and made in the photographic technique called ambrotype.

With this firm date of 1865 attached to them, these images of Elmina are among the oldest surviving photographic townscapes on record.

I have ordered high resolution scans of the images, but found this discovery too important to let it wait. So here are the low resolution small-sized reproductions as they can be found on the Mystic Seaport website, with a brief description of what we see.

When the high resolutions scans become available, I will return here with a more complete description and analysis.


View from St. Jago Hill

The first two pictures, identical or almost identical, show a familiar sight: the Castle of St. George d'Elmina taken from Fort Coenraadsburg on St. Jago Hill opposite. The castle flies the Dutch flag from a very tall mast, and stands out brightly whitewashed. In addition to the castle we see the roadstead with three merchant ships, the Benya Lagoon with bridge, a part of the old town of Elmina with stone houses, all destroyed by the British in 1873, and part of Liverpool Street to the left and centre, with the row of new, flat-roofed, luxurious merchant's houses dating from the 1840s.

What is special here is that the photograph shows, more than any other known picture, a fair part of the old town of Elmina.

These images link here.

Reference: Mystic Seaport Image ID m024429
Reference: Mystic Seaport Image ID m024429-01

View of High Street

The second picture is a view of what is now called the High Street in Elmina, from an elevated point, overlooking the bay on the left, with a clear view of the castle, and with Fort Coenraadsburg on St. Jago Hill dominating the right-hand side of the picture. We see the white houses in Liverpool Street in the middle, as well as some other buildings. And below the vantage point we see the street, not much more than a sandy path, some mottle and swish houses, a larger building on the opposite side of the street which seems under construction, and a walled yard of some sort in the middle, right below where the photographer stood.

Although this needs more research, my first guess would be that the photographer stood inside the house known as Mount Pleasant, built by the Elmina merchant Carel Bartels in the early 1850s.

This image links here.

Reference: Mystic Seaport Image ID m024428


A thorough search of the Mystic Seaport database brought to light one other image from the Gold Coast, namely of the British fort at Dixcove, dated 1862. The entry has no image attached to it. Th picture is also an Ambrotype by John F. Brooks, which may mean that the date for the Elmina pictures has to be pushed back three years too, to 1862.

See the link here.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

'The White Man's Grave': A suicide in Elmina, 1749 (2)

Last week I wrote about the case of the Dutch West India Company sergeant Pierre Richer, who deliberately killed himself while on duty in Fort Coenraadsburg on the Hill of St. Jago in Elmina, shooting himself in the head. The blog was inspired by the curt entry in the governor's journal, reading:
'Tuesday 15 [April 1749] This morning around 6 o'clock, the sergeant on the Hill of St. Jago, Pierre Richer, has shot himself in the head, and was subsequently buried on Gallow's Hill.'
Considering that suicide was a crime, the thought occurred that there might have been a (posthumous) murder inquiry and criminal court case in the court of the Netherlands Possessions on the Coast of Guinea. And indeed, fiscal (read: public prosecutor) Huibert van Rijk made a case that went to court.

Page 1 of the sentence on Pierre Richer
In the minutes of the sessions of the director-general and Council, which acted as the highest legal authority, we find the sentence. Prosecutor Van Rijk had put forward a report on his initial investigation of the case, a summons, and sworn statements by ten 'irreproachable' witnesses, all members of the garrison on St. Jago Hill.

The evidence first of all showed that:
'[...] Pierre Richer of Paris, while stationed as sergeant in Fort Coenraadsburg, had dared to take his own life with a musket, on the 15th of April 1749, around 6 o'clock in the morning [...]'
So the facts of the suicide were clear. But how about the reason? The sentence report continued:
'[...] without [anybody] so far having been able to detect the reason for this enormous fact.'
This uncertainty could call into question whether Pierre Richer's death was indeed a suicide? Could it not be that he had been cleaning his musket and accidentally fired it, killing himself? This question is not asked by the court, nor is there any reference made to the witness statements that may shed some light on possible circumstantial evidence pointing towards or explaining suicide.

The court had no doubts. It is considered a case of suicide, and therefore,
'the cadaver of the delinquent was, according to custom, clandestinely buried under the gallows, having perpetrated the crime of suicide and the crime of desertion, as far as it concerns his oath-bound position, as an officer on an important post.'
So, in the eyes of the prosecutor and the court, Richer had not only committed the crime of murder, but by killing himself he also deserted his post as sergeant on active duty. And this, the court decided was a dangerous affair:
'All these [suicide and desertion] are matters that make for such dangerous examples in the depopulated remote domains of the State, with regard to the other few militiamen, and the harshest punishment is not even enough as a deterrent.'
Sentence was passed, and Pierre Richer, deceased, was punished with the 'forfeiture and seizure' of his complete estate insofar it was within the jurisdiction of the West India Company, including his clothes, salary, allowances, et cetera.

Whether this 'punishment' was really a deterrent for others to follow Richer's example is doubtful, I would think. And moreover, the instances of suicide among Europeans were rare in any case. The court, however, had done its duty, in the name of the the Honourable Gentlemen the States General of the United Netherlands, and the Chartered West India Company.

For the full text of the sentence (in Dutch):
Sentence in the case of the suicide of Pierre Richer (PDF)

National Archives of the Netherlands, Archives of the Netherlands Possessions on the Coast of Guinea (access no. 1.05.14), inv. no. 110, Elmina journal and correspondence with the outer forts, 1749, journal entry 15 April 1749 (Scan 769).

Ditto, inv. no. 9, Minutes of the meetings of the director-general and Council, 1742-1758, p. 289-290 (Scan 319 and 320)

Saturday, 5 March 2016

'The White Man's Grave': A suicide in Elmina, 1749 (1)

The coastal areas of West Africa were long known as 'The White Man's Grave' due to its harsh climatic conditions and the endemic occurrence of deadly diseases including malaria, dysentery, typhoid fever and the like. Obviously this affected the indigenous population as well, but as in so many cases, the view of Africa encompassed in the phrase 'The White Man's Grave' strongly reflects a Eurocentric bias.

In any case, before the advent of modern medicine and principals of hygiene in the latter part of the nineteenth century, mortality and morbidity were high. For any arriving European it was a matter of surviving the first year and subsequently keeping a keen eye on a style of living that was as healthy as possible. And in some cases, personal physique and genetic make-up assisted survival as well.

But this is about physical health. What about psychological health? Living in West Africa was not easy on the mind either. However, this is a subject much less studied. For the Dutch presence on the Gold Coast we have one clearly documented case, that of the Asante Prince Kwamena Poku in 1850 (Doortmont & Smit, 2007: 268). He was brought to the Netherlands in 1837, with his cousin Kwasi Boakye, who went on to become a planter in the Netherlands East Indies. Kwamena Poku, a potential heir to the Asante throne, returned to the Gold Coast where he stayed at Elmina as guest of the governor. He was shunned by his uncle, the king of Asante and dissuaded from returning to Kumase, however, and subsequently found live unbearable. After lunch on 22 February 1850 he returned to his room, took a gun, and blew his brains out.

This is a case of an African gentleman returning to his own country and experiencing a severe inverse culture shock, together with utter social abandonment by his family. For Europeans, documented examples of suicide are scarce.

Elmina Journal Entry for 15  April 1749

The Elmina Journal for 1749 mentions a suicide by a European sergeant named as Pierre Richer:
'Tuesday 15 [April 1749] This morning around 6 o'clock, the sergeant on the Hill of St. Jago, Pierre Richer, has shot himself in the head, and was subsequently buried on Gallow's Hill.'
The director-general, who wrote the journal, made short shrift of the occurrence. Suicide was a crime, and hence the hurried burial on Gallow's Hill, the burial place for convicted criminals. Nothing about the possible reasons for the suicide, the poor man's state of mind in the days and weeks before he killed himself, or anything else. It happened, he was buried, and that was the end of it.

Now, some 267 years later, Pierre Richer, just another anonymous West India Company servant, becomes the first known example of a European suicide in Elmina.

Doortmont, Michel R. & Jinna Smit, Sources for the mutual history of Ghana and the Netherlands: An annotated guide to the Dutch archives relating to Ghana and West Africa in the Nationaal Archief, 1593-1960 (Leiden / Boston: Brill 2007), p. 268.

National Archives of the Netherlands, Archives of the Netherlands Possessions on the Coast of Guinea (access no. 1.05.14), inv. no. 110, Elmina journal and correspondence with the outer forts, 1749, journal entry 15 April 1749 (Scan 769).

Ditto, inv. no 367, Journal 1849-1855, journal entry 22 February 1850 (Scan 45)

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Famine on the Gold Coast, 1749

One of the prevailing images of Africa as a continent is that of natural disaster, especially drought, and crop failure, more often than not resulting in severe famine and loss of human (and other) life. Currently, Southern and East Africa and the Horn are hit by the fall-out of El Niño, seriously threatening the existence of millions of people ('El Nino threatens "millions in east and southern Africa"', BBC World News Africa website, 15 November 2015).

Severe drought and crop failure are normally not connected to Ghana as a matter of course, but rather as an exception. In living memory, the year 1983 stands out, when the results of drought and crop failure early in the year were exacerbated by the influx of over 1.5 million Ghanaians flowing into the country from Nigeria, which had expelled them (Editorial Staff, '1983 A Year Ghana Would Prefer to Forget', African Globe 22 Jan 2013). 

Historically, information about famine in Ghana is sparse, although sources reporting on them are available, as it turned out, when I scanned the archives of the Netherlands Possessions on the Coast of Guinea. This collection is in the National Archives in The Hague, but was recently also made available as high definition scans in an online repository (Archief Nederlandse Bezittingen ter Kuste van Guinea).

The particular record series I studied were the letters of the Dutch director-general (governor) at Elmina to his superiors in the Netherlands, reporting on important affairs. In his letter of 15 July 1749, director-general Jan van Voorst wrote about the dire state of the Dutch possessions, highlighting the lack of personnel and provisions, and the poor condition of trade with the hinterland. As usual in this period, he referred to warfare and the blockade of trade routes as an important reason. However, near the end of his letter, almost as an afterthought, Van Voorst pointed at another serious reason for the poor state of affairs:

'[...] Also, in the last six months [i.e. since January 1749], such a sad and serious famine visited the whole Coast (caused by an extraordinary drought in the past year, which made the cereal crops fail), that many natives died daily from hunger. Had I not had some victuals in store during that time, and having had the opportunity to buy some for the maintenance of the garrison, truly, [Your Honourable Gentlemen], the fate of the white people would have been miserable, because the natives would not sell provisions for gold, and thus the transportation of victuals [to the Gold Coast from the Netherlands] is highly necessary.'

In summary: 1748 had seen a serious drought on the Gold Coast, in which the crops had failed; cereals are mentioned, but most likely vegetables and other food-crops were affected too, not to mention livestock. In the following dry season of 1748-1749, this led to severe shortages in food supply, and eventually to a famine that affected large parts of the population, including those (the Europeans mainly) that could secure access to imported foodstuffs. 'Many' - dozens, maybe hundreds of - people died on a daily basis. And we have to keep in mind here that the figures are those Van Voorst registered from his immediate surroundings, so one can hazard to guess what the situation in the hinterland of the coastal settlements was like.

Thus, a social economic disaster visited the Gold Coast in that year, most likely with immediate geo-political consequences, as well as a fall out of several years to come.

It is just a note in a letter, easily missed. However, a source of importance for our knowledge of the social-economic and political history of Ghana, and – in terms of methodology – a pointer to a source that may yield more information on the subject.

Addition (15 March 2016):
Further scrutiny of the Elmina journals brought to light an entry by director-general Van Voorst on 11 September 1748, in which he warns the captain of the Dutch West India Company slave trading ship De Maria Galeij, that he has to take into account that he cannot get any fresh drinking water at Elmina, 'because of the excessive drought, [which continues] since some time.' This confirms that the rainy season of 1748 was extremely dry. All ships are sent to the port of Shama, on the estuary of the River Prah, to take in fresh water.  

National Archives of the Netherlands, Archives of the Dutch Possessions on the Coast of Guinea (acc. no. 1.05.14), inv. no. 265, Letters to the directors of the Dutch West India Company, doc. no.: letter by director-general Jan van Voorst, Elmina 15 July 1749 (link).

National Archives of the Netherlands, Archives of the Dutch Possessions on the Coast of Guinea (acc. no. 1.05.14), inv. no. 109, Elmina Journal and correspondence with the outer forts, 1748, Journal entry 11 September 1748, with letter by director-general Jan van Voorst to captain Herloff of the W.I.C. ship De Maria Galeij in the roadstead of Elmina (link).

Editorial Staff, '1983 A Year Ghana Would Prefer to Forget', African Globe 22 Jan 2013.

'El Nino threatens "millions in east and southern Africa"', BBC World News Africa website, 15 November 2015.

See also:
Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World (London: Verso Books 2001).

Late Victorian Holocausts. (2016, February 14). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 11:39, February 17, 2016.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Marriages between White and Black in the Netherlands: Legal and social issues from the early nineteenth century

Regulating interracial marriages

In the Netherlands, interracial marriages were not uncommon in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. And in most documented cases such liaisons did not encounter much attention, either legally or socially. A telling case in this respect is that of the Africa-born Christiaan van der Vegt, who married the Dutch girl Kaatje de Bas in the Dutch Reformed church of the town of Weesp on 8 May 1779. A young man from Africa, only baptised two years before, and a young local working class woman. A black man and a white woman. So how did this work; legally, with the church, socially? (Hoe heette Christiaan?)

This is a question which invites a varied set of answers. The fact that the marriage was celebrated in the Dutch Reformed church indicates that the church authorities (formally) had no problem with such a marriage. And in the eighteenth century the Dutch Reformed church also represented the State in matrimonial matters, so we can deduce that the civil authorities equally had no problem with mixed race marriages in the eighteenth century.

Were interracial marriages ‘normal’ then? Dutch historian Dienke Hondius discusses the issue in her book Blackness in Western Europe, and indicates the complex European attitudes towards non-white people throughout the ages (Hondius 2014). In her arguments she emphasises how Europe, differently from the United States for instance, never saw the substantial presence of groups of black people. For Dutch historian Natalie Everts and the author this was reason to speak about ‘Invisible Africans’ (Doortmont & Everts 1999). This invisibility must be regarded as a sociological phenomenon, because individuals could be quite visible physically, as was the case with Christiaan van der Vegt. In her blog on her African ancestor, Annemieke van der Vegt lists numerous public accounts in which skin colour played a role. And also with the children of Christiaan and Kaatje skin colour played an important role in their lives (Hoe heette Christiaan?).

Still, we can state that interracial marriages were ‘ordinary’ in the Netherlands in a variety of ways. For one, there was no legal structure governing these marriages, at least not between free persons. And in known examples of interracial marriages colour blindness seems to be the rule with all people concerned. So were interracial marriages socially accepted then? This is a question that asks for a qualified answer. In the eighteenth century several dozens of African children, many from interracial relationships between (senior) Dutch West India Company officials and African women came to the Netherlands from West Africa. Many stayed here and married with Dutch men and women (Doortmont, Everts & Vrij 2000). What is striking is that most of them married below the social class of their (European) fathers, especially men. They either married women from a considerably lower social class, or women with a social ‘defect’. One can think in this respect about (young) widows with children, who needed a father and breadwinner, or older spinsters, for whom a ‘normal’ marriage with a man from their Dutch peer group and age was no longer an option. For African women in this group of immigrants the same was probably true. It has to be noted that in many cases the African partners in these relationships will often have been of a rather light complexion, because they were already the product of a mixed-race relationship themselves

In France, the situation was more complicated than in the Netherlands. Here the eighteenth century (‘the Age of Enlightenment’) saw a continuous debate – with accompanying legal measures – about the status of African slaves and interracial marriages. The French revolution with its institutionalised approach to equality for all did not change that (Heuer 2009). So it could happen that in the aftermath of the Dutch incorporation into the French Empire in the period 1810-1813, French legal regulations about interracial marriages started to play a role in the Netherlands. And not only during the three years of incorporation, but also in the decade after, when the Netherlands was reinventing itself as a constitutional monarchy.

So what is the case in hand? On Nivôse An XI, according to the French Republican Calendar, or 8 January 1803, the French ‘Grand Judge, Minister of Justice’ sent out a circular in which he wrote that it was the intention of the French government to prohibit marriages between black and white people (‘que l’intention du Gouvernement est qu’il ne soit reçu aucun mariage entre des blancs en des négresses, ni entre des négres et des blanches’).

The effects of this circular for the Netherlands in the period of the Empire (1810-1813) are still a matter of conjecture and need further research. For the period after 1813 it is known that the municipal commissioners for marital affairs of several Dutch towns tried to block marriages between black and white people on the basis of the French circular. In at least five cases this led to a petition to the King for redress. The first known petition dates from May 1814 (only five months after the institution of the new independent State) and the last is from 1823. The municipal governments that were obstructive were Amsterdam (twice), Hoorn, The Hague, and Veendam.

Opposing the prohibition of interracial marriage

On the basis of the first petition from 1814, the King asked advice from the foremost legal mind of the Kingdom, C.F. van Maanen, First President of the Supreme Court of the United Netherlands. Van Maanen did some research and was crystal clear in his legal opinion on the matter:

‘The same circular [from 1803] is in no way grounded in any law, but can only be regarded as an order made by [the French] Government, which can not be found among the Laws and Decrees which were made obligatory for these Lands [i.e. The Netherlands in 1810], and thus were not binding in this Country, even under the French Government.’

In other words, the 1803 circular was never law in the Netherlands, not even in the period 1810-1813. And to be sure, Van Maanen knew what he was talking about, because he had been the president of the Imperial Court of Justice in The Hague between 1811 and 1813, responsible for the implementation of French law in the Netherlands.

King Willem I accepted the advice. An important conclusion was then that no decision needed to be made nor decree promulgated on the 1814 petition, because in law it was moot: permission for the marriage was not required, so could also not be given. In all further known petitions the same principle was applied and the arguments were repeated time and time again. The documents show, in text as well as in between the lines, the frustration of the officials around the King, and possibly the King himself, when the same issue comes up time an time again. However, this did not result in a new circular, directed at the municipal governments to explain the situation and their standing.

Although the matter was legally undisputed, this did not prevent all interested parties to include social and cultural arguments in the discussions. Van Maanen continued his legal advice with the remark that interracial marriages had not been prohibited before [i.e. before 1803] either, so that there was no historical basis to plead for an interdiction, ‘especially in those cases where the black person has embraced the Christian Religion.’ And indeed, religion was a point of attention. The petitioners of 1814, 1819, and 1823 all indicated that both partners were of Christian faith and put this forward as an important argument for the acquisition of a marriage permit. Strangely enough, nobody submitted an affidavit by their church to support their position.

Individual arguments

In the 1814 case, between the Curaçao-born Jan Andries Machielse and the Dutch Gerardina Hellendoorn, two additional arguments were put forward. Van Maanen considered that as ‘the petitioner and his intended Bride, had both passed the age of 50, there were no considerations in their case, which might have been a reason for the French government to prohibit this type of marriage.’ So the lawyer who had just, without qualms, thrown the 1803 circular into the rubbish bin, now engaged himself in second guessing the social reasons the French government might have had to prohibit interracial marriage, namely the formation of a mixed-race population. Obviously, in this consideration about French motives Van Maanen was right (Heuer 2009). However, in the Netherlands, governments, from local to national, had never made this an issue. So why would Van Maanen want to do this?

The final argument Van Maanen puts forward is that ‘the parents of the petitioner and his intended Bride are all deceased, and consequently the desired marriage can not give the parents any displeasure.’ Apparently an interracial marriage was not so ordinary in the Netherlands that the couple’s environment and / or family might not take exception to it. Live and let live, negotiate and arbitrate until consensus is reached, but not without grumbling. In that respect not much seems to have changed in Dutch society over the last two centuries.

In 1819 the Amsterdam-based Anthon Paul petitioned the King with a request for permission to marry the Curaçao-born Celestina Martina Vesta. She had arrived in the Netherlands from Curaçao in 1793 with the retired navy captain Lodewijk Wiedeman, when she was about twelve years old. Here she was employed in Wiedeman’s household, and after his death she served his widow for many years. Paul had lived in Amsterdam for a long time, but was originally from Bohemia.

The social-economic status of his intended bride and the Roman Catholic faith in which she was raised gave Paul reason to remark: ‘that she […] could only be regarded as a useful member of society.’ He indicated that he had known Vesta for some time as a ‘well-behaved’ girl and that he had lost his heart to her. So he wanted to marry her. The Commissioners for Marital Affairs in Amsterdam prevented this, however, 1803 circular in hand, which was indicated (again) to be the law. Paul argued that the French laws were no longer in force. He added that he was well aware of ‘the Humanity of the incumbent Sovereign Prince, who looks upon all God’s creatures, whomever they may be, with respect, and who does not allow any distinction to be made between people, the more so because Celestina Martina Vesta has embraced the Christian Religion.’

Again, we notice a contradiction between an assumed legal obstacle for the marriage, combined with a call for humanity and clemency, with a Christian identity being highlighted. New in this case is the direct reference to the equality of all men before the law, be it packaged in a reference to the well-known humanity of the King himself. It looks as if Paul was supported by a good lawyer. Although it remains unclear why that lawyer apparently did not have knowledge about the jurisprudence in earlier cases. The King formally ordered a check on the correctness of the information, but furthermore limited himself to a reference to the Royal Decree of 1814 in the Machielse case. No permission was necessary.

The case from Hoorn in 1815, described by Toes, concerns another Curaçao-born man, and a Dutch lady, both in their twenties. Striking in this case in the fact that the mayor of Hoorn wrote the letter, and he did this directly to the President of the Supreme Court, C.F. van Maanen, rather than to the King. The letter had the form of a request for a legal advice, and that was what Van Maanen gave him. From the advice it becomes clear that the circular was only a small obstacle on the road to marriage for this couple. The groom, Joseph Bartholomij Comina was a drum-major in the Dutch Marine Corps, who had no family, nor any capital. These latter elements were the greater obstacles. Van Maanen advised the mayor to be discrete about the case, to enable him to apply the ‘current laws’ with ‘careful diligence’, in the interest of the requesting parties, and others like them (Toes 2001: 314-315).

The last known case, from 1823, fits the pattern. Here the petitioner is a certain Jan van Oost, who arrived in the Netherlands from the Dutch East Indies around 1810. He travelled in the custody of a Dutch army officer, who settled in the town of Veendam. In the East Indies Van Oost had been a slave, se he reported himself. In Veendam he was a free man. His petition stipulated that it was impossible for him to identify himself, in the absence of a birth certificate, parents, grandparents, or acquaintances who had known him long enough to be able to identify him legally. The result was that he could not marry. The King solved the issue quickly, by acknowledging the identification problem and invoking his powers as highest authority in the land to confirm Van Oost’s identity, thus removing the hindrance on this point. On the point of race, Van Oost had added the argument that he was not black to begin with, but rather a ‘mulatto’, or a person ‘of colour’, because of his yellow and brown complexion. The King’s response was identical to the earlier ones, be it that he now simply referred to the 1814 and 1819 cases as relevant jurisprudence.

Whether the 1823 case was the last one dealing with the uncertainty about the legal validity of the circular in as yet unknown. Possibly further research will unearth more of these cases. The motivation of the Commissioners for Marital Affairs to repeatedly prohibit interracial marriages remains an enigma. The possibility exists that in the same period dozens of interracial marriages were celebrated without the 1803 circular ever being invoked.


In conclusion we can say that the 1803 French circular is an important historiographical document, in that in shows us the way in which local Dutch authorities dealt with the issue of race in the Netherlands in the early nineteenth century. Local governments believed that the prohibition of interracial marriages was an acceptable practice. The 1803 circular was regarded as a legal framework for this opinion, despite valid arguments to the contrary by both the president of the Supreme Court and the petitioners.

In Van Maanen’s arguments the purely legal (and formal) point of the circular’s invalidity is linked to social and cultural arguments. In the latter an apparently ‘deficient’ skin colour – although one does not speak in those terms – can be corrected by civilisation. And civilisation in the early nineteenth-century Netherlands means having an honest and stable job and be of Christian faith. In one case the fundamental human rights of the individual were invoked, declaring that all men (and women) are equal before the law. Legally and socially this principle was first codified in the National Constitution of 1798, in which article 3 read: ‘All Members of Society have, without distinction of birth, property, social position or rank, an equal claim to its benefits.’ In later constitutions, including those of 1814 and 1815, the position of the individual citizen or subject was less clearly defined, but the principle did not disappear. C.F. van Maanen must have had this in mind when he formulated his first legal advice in 1814, to repeat it over the timespan of a decade after. The French circular was not only invalid on formal grounds, but also because it stood diametrically opposed to the fundamental human rights that the Netherlands had embraced since the 1790s. Moreover, the formalisation of human rights in the national state befitted the culture of tolerance, including racial tolerance, which marked Dutch politics and culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Notes on the sources:
The 1803 circular was researched by Dutch legal historian Jaap Toes (Toes 1997 & 2001), on the basis of the 1814 Amsterdam case and the 1815 Hoorn case. Toes concentrates on describing the source, more than on an analysis of the different elements of the deliberations (legal, social, historical). The same holds true for Dienke Hondius, who deals with the prohibition in a few lines and a footnote, without further analysis of its possible meaning. Both of Toes’s articles contain mistakes, including the subtitle of the 1999 article (‘Prohibition abrogated in 1815’), which incorrectly suggests that an actual prohibition on interracial marriages in the Netherlands had existed. For this blog I studied the original archival records of the 1814, 1819, and 1823 cases, with special attention to the tone of voice and inflections, which are indicators for the separate contexts of the legal and social arguments. The case from The Hague mentioned in the blog was reported by Jean Jacques Vrij of Amsterdam, who is engaged in a more comprehensive study of interracial marriages in the Netherlands.

Archival sources:
Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Archief Staatsecretarie 1813-1840 (2.02.01)
*cat. no. 22, Exhibitum & Soeverein Besluit 9 June 1814, no. 38, re. Jan Andries Machielse (b. Curaçao ca. 1761) and Gerardina Hellendoorn (b. Emmen), Amsterdam. Interesting detail is that Machielse’s first wife, Curaçao born Dorothea Anthonie, died in 1813 as a result of being hit on the head by a falling chandelier in the Zuiderkerk (South Chruch) in Amsterdam, during a church service she attended.
*cat. no. 887, Exhibitum & Koninklijk Besluit 19 October 1819, no. 91, re. Anthon Paul (b. Nîmes [sic] in Bohemen 1784) and Celestina Martina Vesta (b. Curaçao 1781), Amsterdam.
*cat. no. 1713, Exhibitum & Koninklijk Besluit 30 July 1823, no. 36.
Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, Archief Ministerie van Justitie 1813-1876 (2.09.01)
*cat. no. 2, no. 572: J.C. van Bloquerie aan C.F. van Maanen, Hoorn 17 Jan. 1815, re. Joseph Bartholomij Comina (b. Curaçao ca. 1789) en Elisabeth Dudock (b. Kampen ca. 1793) (cited in Toes 2001: 314n.7).
*cat. no. 2, no. 572: C.F. van Maanen aan J.C. de Blocquerie, Den Haag 30 Jan. 1815 (cited in Toes 2001: 314n.8)

Doortmont, M.R. & N. Everts, ‘Onzichtbare Afrikanen’, in: ’t Hart, M., J. Lucassen, & H. Schmal (red.), Nieuwe Nederlanders. Amsterdam: Stichting Beheer IISG, 1999. p. 81-100.
Doortmont, M.R., N. Everts & J.J. Vrij, ‘Tussen de Goudkust, Nederland en Suriname. De Euro-Afrikaanse families Van Bakergem, Woortman, Rühle en Huydecoper’, De Nederlandsche Leeuw. Tijdschrift van het Koninklijk Nederlandsch Genootschap voor Geslacht- en Wapenkunde 117 (2000), 170-212, 310-344, 490-577.
Heuer, Jennifer, ‘The one-drop rule in reverse? Interracial marriages in Napoleonic and Restoration France’, Law and History Review 27 (2009) 515-548.
Hondius, Dienke, Blackness in Western Europe: Racial patterns of paternalism and exclusion. New Brunswick (U.S.A.) / London: Transaction Publishers, 2014.
Toes, Jaap, ‘Een zwarte bruidegom en een blanke bruid’, Pro Memorie: Bijdragen tot de Rechtsgeschiedenis der Nederlanden 3 (2001) 313-315.
Toes, Jaap, ‘Zwarte bruidegom, blanke bruid. Verbod in 1815 opgeheven’, Oud Hoorn: Kwartaalblad van de Vereniging ‘Oud Hoorn’ 19 (1997), 163.


Hoe heette Christiaan?

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Soccer star Asamoah Gyan in allegations over ritual murder

It has been a while since I added to this blog. It is not the nicest of subjects to continue, but it does connect to the last post on ritual murder in Elmina. Only this week it was confirmed in the news how the idea of ritual murder as means to atone the gods and achieve personal gain remains part of the Ghanaian mindset, with allegations that soccer star Asamoah Gyan ritually murdered his friend, rapper Castro: Asamoah Gyan denies 'ritual sacrifice' of Ghana rapper Castro