Francesca, free black woman in Amsterdam, Easter 1632

At the time when Rembrandt settled on Jodenbreestraat (7), dozens of people of African descent lived in the area. An important neighbor was Francisca, who lived with several black men, women and children in a basement near the Leper House (2) .

Several notarial deeds regarding Francisca have been preserved. They were prompted by a fight in front of the residence of the sugar trader Manuel de Campos on Easter Sunday, 11 April 1632.

What exactly had happened before the skirmish isnot clear from the documents, but on Easter Sunday a group of five black women and two black men went to the house of De Campos. Rocks were thrown and sticks were brandished, resulting in injury to De Campos’ daughter.

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Maps of eastern part of Amsterdam (south up), 16

Two days later, Tuesday, 13 April, De Campos had several witnesses to the incident testify before a notary public. The various statements give detailed information about Francesca’s life as seen through the eyes of her neighbors. We learn that she was living with different black men, women and children in a cellar dwelling. Francisca clearly played a pivotal role in the formation of the black community at that time. According to one of the witnesses, Francisca would ‘receive in her house all the black men who come to this city and pair them off with black women.’

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Rembrandt, Study of a Standing African Woman, c. 1642. Present location unknown (Montreux, E.J. Reynolds Collection, until 1932).

The names of several of the inhabitants in her cellar are mentioned, including the women Hester and Dina and a man, Franscisco. Naturally, the statements were intended to discredit Francesca and her company, yet they also show us  an interesting picture of a free black woman in the 1630s, who successfully built up a community.

Mark Ponte

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