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?