Unknown slavery stories behind famous Rembrandt paintings

Translation of spoken column in 2018. Read the original in Dutch at Over de Muur

We know Rembrandt van Rijn mainly for works such as The Night Watch and The Jewish Bride, but in the course of his career he also painted and drew various black women and men. He was able to do this in his masterly way because he lived in a multicultural seventeenth-century neighbourhood in Amsterdam: the area around today’s Jodenbreestraat, where dozens of people of African descent also lived. People he encountered on the street and could invite to his studio.

The highlight of Rembrandt’s ‘Black’ oeuvre is of course the painting Two African men – appropriately enough – in the collection of the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Appropriate because, like Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, most of the Africans who lived in Rembrandt’s neighbourhood had a history in Dutch Brazil, albeit on a very different rung of the social ladder. Not only did all kinds of returning colonists take enslaved men and women as servants to Amsterdam, but a group of black sailors and soldiers settled here as well. Men who had often been in the service of the West India Company. Some of these sailors knew the entire Atlantic World, from Angola, Brazil and the Caribbean to New Amsterdam, today’s New York.

Two African men, by Rembrandt (1656/1661), Mauritshuis

But not only paintings with black sitters can tell a story about slavery and related themes. Other Rembrandts also lend themselves perfectly to this. Anyone who has visited a bookshop in the Netherlands the past two years will undoubtedly be familiar with the portrait of Jan Six from 1654, which features prominently on the front cover of Geert Mak’s popular book. Whether Six had anything to do with the VOC or WIC I do not know, it could well be that he had shares in that direction.

We know very little about what specific Amsterdammers actually experienced when they went out on the streets, let alone how often someone like Jan Six encountered a black townsman. Did he have friends with black servants in the house?

Jan Six, by Rembrandt (1654),
Collectie Six

There was at least one important moment when, in the sources, the life of Jan Six crossed that of a young black boy. On Friday 10 February 1668, in the Oude Kerk, in the presence of mayor Nicolaas Tulp, Jan’s son was baptised. Both father Jan Six and grandfather Nicolaas Tulp were painted by Rembrandt, mother Margareta Tulp by Govert Flinck. A chic baptism, therefore, of a member of the highest echelons of the Amsterdam patrician class.

Baptisms Old Church, 10 February 1668, Stadsarchief Amsterdam

On the same day three other children were baptised, who did not belong to the upper class at all. After Jan the girls Maria and Hester were baptised. The last one to be baptised that day was Dominicus: “A swart [black] about 10 or 12 years of age”, who lived with Claes Philipsoon on Oude Waal; I imagine that Dominicus sat at a distance watching the babies Jan, Maria and Hester being baptised, before it was his turn.

Even the portraits of Marten and Oopjen, the other two Rembrandts, which have received a lot of attention in recent years, can tell several stories that touch on the history of slavery. Marten Soolmans was the son of a wealthy sugar trader and refiner who had settled in Amsterdam after the fall of Antwerp. The relationship between sugar and slavery is not worth explaining here. After the death of Soolmans, Oopjen Coppit remarried to WIC captain and Brazil veteran Maarten Daey.

Portraits of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit, by Rembrand (1634)
Rijksmuseum / Musée du Louvre

While researching documents about Dutch Brazil, I came across Maarten Daey in a journal of the Reformed Church in Paraiba. In it, the moving story of the black woman Francesca was recorded. Francesca, we read, was captured and locked up in Captain Daey’s house. Francesca was raped by Daey. When it appears that she was pregnant, Daey sent Francesca out of his house, because he wanted nothing to do with the child. Would his son Hendrick Daey, who later owned these two paintings, have known about his Brazilian half-sister Elunam, who was almost twenty years older?


This is a translation of a spoken column in 2018. The story of Oopjen is now part of the exhibition Slavery. Ten true stories in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

Op schaatsen uit Ouderkerk

Jan Beerstraaten, Wintergezicht Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, 1659.
Collectie Amsterdam Museum.

Nieuwjaarsavond 1653 schaatste Abraham Chamis van Ouderkerk a/d Amstel naar Amsterdam. Omdat hij bang was dat hij de stad niet meer in zou komen – ’s avonds werden de poorten gesloten – klopte hij aan bij Hilletje Jans buiten de Regulierspoort.


De stadswal met de tweede Regulierspoort. De houten poort werd in 1655 vervangen door een nieuwe poort van steen, Reinier Nooms, 1652-1655. Collectie Stadsarchief Amsterdam.

Het kostte Chamis enige moeite om Hilletje ervan te overtuigen, maar uiteindelijk mocht hij daar logeren en heeft hij er gegegeten, geslapen en de volgende ochtend keurig betaald. Blijkbaar waren er geruchten ontstaan naar aanleiding van deze avond. Want twee maanden verklaarde Hilletje het bovenstaande bij een notaris. Bovendien ontkende zij met klem de valse beschuldiging dat Abraham in haar huis met een zekere ‘lichte vrouw’ Anna geslapen zou hebben.

Black History Month

During #BlackHistoryMonth everyday a tweet about Amsterdam’s Black History.

1 – Franciscus Thomas from Sierra Leone


On 1 february 1698 Franciscus Thomas from ‘Sierra Liona in Africa’ and Truijtje Hendricx from Amsterdam posted their banns in Amsterdam. Two weeks later they married in the Old Church. Franciscus Thomas was working as a ‘droogscheerder’ in the textile industry. He lived in the Egelantierstraat in de Jordaan area. #1

2 – Francisco from Angola – ensign in Brazil


Francisco from #Angola was a vaandrig (ensign) in the Dutch army in #Brazil, after the Portuguese takeover in 1654, he settled in #Amsterdam, where he lived in the Jodenbreestraat on the corner of the Markensteeg, ‘under the angel’. He died in January 1659. #2

3 – Alida Clara Carles from Berbice


On 25 December 1784 Alida Clara Karles/ Charles was buried at St Anthonies Cemetery in #Amsterdam. She was born in the Dutch colony of #Berbice, her mother was the free black woman Quassiba. Together with her husband she ran a bar in Pieter Jacobszdwarsstraat. #3

4 – Swarte Klaas


‘Swarte Klaas’ (Black Klaas) was a famous street figure in #Amsterdam in the 18th century. Klaas was a Black man who had lost his legs, maybe as a sailor. He was portrayed by different artists. Klaas died around 1800 in Amsterdam. #4


5 – Pieter Claesz Bruin and Lijsbeth Pieters

In 1649 44-year old sailor Pieter Claesz Bruin from Brazil married Lijsbeth Pieters from Angola. They were an important couple in the small black community around de Jodenbreestraat in Amsterdam. They were the godparents of different Black children born in the area. Like Pieter, the son of Alexander van Angola and Lijsbeth Dames and Catharina, the daughter of Louis and Esperanza Alphonse. The children were baptized in the House Moyses.

Read more about Pieter Claesz Bruijn and Lijsbeth Pieters in ‘Black in Rembrandt’s Time‘ and in Dutch in TSEG.


6 – Francisca

In the 1630’s Francesca clearly played a important role in the the formation of a Black community in #Amsterdam. According witnesses, Francisca would ‘receive in her house all the black men who come to this city.’

7 – Theatre

"Dito voor drie morijanen in Salomon f3"

Monday 11 April 1650 three Black men were paid a guilder each to perform in the play ‘Salomon’ in the Municipal Theatre. Unfortunately their names were not registered, but entries like this show that Black people performed in theatre in C17th Amsterdam. The anonymous performers were almost certainly members of the same community as Pieter Claesz Bruin and Lijsbeth Pieters.


They were ‘extras’ in the play, but were paid considerably more than the 10 soldiers in ‘De gestrafte kroonzught’ (La crueldad por el honor) later that month. The 10 soldiers had to share 3 guilders, earning only 6 nickels each.


8 – Louis Zamore van Wicky


This is Louis Zamore van Wicky (1778-1805) hours before his early death in #Amsterdam in 1805. Louis Zamore was a draughtsman born in the plantation colony of #Berbice (now part of #Guyana).


Louis was the son of a Black woman and plantation owner Emanuel de Correvont. The name of his mother is unknown. He had a sister in the Netherlands named Lisette, who is almost certainly watching over het brother’s deathbed in this drawing.


In 1802, Louis Zamore enrolled at Municipal Drawing Academy. He was a student of painter Jurriaan Andriessen and lived with the Andriessen family. In July 1805, Louis suddenly contracted a severe fever and died two days later. He was buried at the Zuiderkerkhof cemetery.


As far as I know, no artworks by Louis Zamore van Wicky are known. Zamore van Wicky was one of the main characters in the @Stadsarchief exhibition ‘Amsterdammers and slavery’ in the summer of 2020.

9 – The Charles Family

Maria Santje Charles (1838-1914) and Hendrik van Guinea Charles (1827-1899). Maria and Hendrik were children of Johannes Charles (1793-1872), survivor of the transatlantic slave trade.

Their father was born in (present day) Ghana, as a child he was captured, enslaved and taken to Suriname, where he was sold to a merchant. In 1817, J. Charles was emancipated to move to the Netherlands as the servant of Majorin Elisabeth Bijval, herself born in slavery in 1776.

Majorin Elisabeth Bijval was a sister of Jacob Beeldsnijder Matroos. Jacob Beeldsnijder Matroos is buried at the @OudeKerkAMS on September 27, 1817.

Johannes Charles had to leave his two-year old son Gideon and hist wife Charlotte in Suriname, where they lived in slavery until januari 1863. Half a year before the legal abolition of slavery in the Dutch colony.

In the Netherlands, Johannes Charles married Elisabeth van Eijbergen from Rotterdam. They settled in Amsterdam and had ten children. Thanks to several letters that survived, we know that Gideon, who was left behind in Suriname, was in touch with his family in The Netherlands.

A few years ago the Charles Family brought Gideon’s letters, some of them written when he was still enslaved, the photo’s and othere family documents to the @stadsarchief. The letters are digitized and are available for research.

10 – Dominicus


On 10 February 1668 Dominicus, “a Black out about 10 or 12 years of age”, was baptized in de Oude Kerk in #Amsterdam. Dominicus lived with Claes Philipsoon on Oude Waal.


We don’t know much about Dominicus. Was he brought to the city as an enslaved child? Was he a child servant in the house of Claes Philipsoon? Like this boy in Haarlem, painted by Frans Hals?


On the same day in the same church a son of Jan Six was baptized, in presence of mayor Nicolaas Tulp his grandfather. Both Jan Six and Nicolaas Tulp were painted by Rembrandt, mother Margareta Tulp by Govert Flinck. Did they see Dominicus in the church that day? What did Dominicus think?