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.