About a decade ago I started researching Black Amsterdam in the 17th century. In the marriage registers I discovered a small but significant Black community.
Yesterday ’the Mirror Room’ of the Old Church was reopened after restauration. Until 27 October 1656 everyone – rich or poor – who wanted to marry in the city of Amsterdam had to pass the ‘roodeur’ to the Mirror room to register their intend with the ‘commissioners of marital affairs’. (From 28 October 1656 onwards the registers were kept at the new city hall at ‘de Dam’ – Damsquare)
The first African couple – not the first Africans – to register their marriage there, were Bastiaan (27) and Lijsbeth (28) from Angola in 1616. In the decades afterwards tens of Black couples registered there marriages in the city. They came from Angola, Brazil, Cabo Verde, Portugal, Congo and other places across the Atlantic.
The Amsterdam marriage banns – that have been used widely for population and migration research – prove the intimate ties between the various Black families in Amsterdam in the mid 17th century. The lines on the fifth image show how they were related, as witnesses at marriage and baptisms.
Mark Ponte, ‘Black in Amsterdam around 1650‘ in: Kolfin and Runia ed., Black in Rembrandt’s Time (W Books/Museum Rembrandthuis 2020) 44-61.
Mark Ponte, ‘Al de swarten die hier ter stede comen’ Een Afro-Atlantische gemeenschap in zeventiende-eeuws Amsterdam’, TSEG/ Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History, 15(4), pp.33–62. DOI: https://lnkd.in/eEvRw32X
In 1656, the city of Amsterdam is more powerful than ever. The Republic has convincingly defeated England in the First Anglo-Dutch War and in 1655 the gigantic new City Hall is inaugurated. Merchants from all over the world come to the city to trade at Hendrick de Keijser’s renowned stock exchange. Some bring enslaved servants, not only merchants and ship captains from Dutch ‘colonies’ in South America and Indonesia, but also from the Mediterranean. Like Joan Elias, from Aleppo.
Dam square, 1656, Johannes Lingelbach, on the right merchants from the Ottoman Empire (Amsterdam Museum)
On Wednesday 22 November 1656, eighteen-year-old Huvedi Dimitri appears before Amsterdam notary Adriaen Lock in Warmoesstraat. Dimitri is originally Polish, but he has been living in slavery in Turkey for eight years. He does not speak Dutch. So Jan Pietersz (who signs as ‘Joao Pedro’) and Jurgen Pauwels are called in. Pietersz and Pauwels speak both Turkish and Dutch and act as interpreters. Furthermore, Magerdiets Aseroen, Caplaen Keijserlie and Mirse Sulfalie, ‘all Armenian merchants’, are present at the notary’s office.
In the presence of all these witnesses, Dimitri recounted that he had been enslaved in the Ottoman Empire for about seven years bevore he was sold for 140 ‘pieces of eights’ (Spanish sillver dollars) to merchant Joan Elias of Aleppo some 15 months ago in Smirna (now Izmir). Smirna was an important multicultural port city in the Ottoman Empire, Aleppo one of the most important cities of the Levant in the same Empire. The Syrian merchant had then brought the Polish boy with him to Amsterdam ‘and taken with him (…) to serve him’.
Huvedi Dimitri explained all this at the request of Joan Elias, the merchant who had bought him as a slave. What was behind this? Huvedi’s explanation shows that he heard that there was no such thing as slavery in the city of Amsterdam. He had spoken to the Greek merchant Augustus de Miter, ‘de welcke hem (…) wijs gemaeckt & geseijt heeft dat hier een vrij lant was’ (‘who made him (…) aware and told him that it is a free country here’) , and that he was therefore not obliged to stay with Elias, serve him, and leave with him back to Smirna, where Elias would thus sell him again (‘for slaef soude vercoopen’).
Augustus the Miter actually insisted that Dimitri should walk away. Whenever Dimitri was in the street doing a job for Elias, the Greek would address him, saying words like ‘wel lijt thou hijer noch? Het gaet tegens de winter, gaet van uw meester wech’ (‘what lijt thou still here. It’s almost winter, go away from your master’). The Miter was even willing to give Dimitri 15 rijksdaalders to travel back to his family in Poland. But instead of running away, Dimitri had apparently told – or had to tell – Joan Elias everything.
Portrait of a man with a headscarf, according to D. Mandrella painted by Sweerts during his sojourn in Syria in 1662 (Rkd)
A day later, De Miter and Dimitri met in the street, De Miter dragging the enslaved Pole ‘with force’, Dimitri later states, to the Roman Catholic church, perhaps the house ‘Moyses’ in Jodenbreestraat. There he had ‘ses kaerssen (…) doen opsteecken & den priester het Nieuwe Testament gegeven’, upon which Dimitri, ‘after everything had been interpreted to him, lied by hand and declared by oath to be true’.
On Saturday 25 November 1656, a few days after the first declaration, all of them, with the exception of Sulfalie, returned to notary Lock’s office. After Augustus de Miter had heard of the statement made earlier, he said in the presence of the witnesses that he was willing to reimburse all the expenses Elias had incurred if Huvedi Dimitri confirmed the whole story to a priest under oath. That was why he had dragged Dimitri to the church. Apparently, Joan Elias was quite willing to let Huvedi Dimitri go, but wanted to be fully reimbursed for the expenses he had incurred, including the amount he had paid in Smirna to buy the boy.
Remarkably, this was the second time that month that Adriaan Lock’s notary office had a case about slavery. At the beginning of the month, Portuguese merchant Eliau Burgos explained that the enslaved Juliana he had brought from Brazil and now wanted to take to Barbados had run away from him. She too had heard from other Amsterdammers that she was free here: ‘others who made her wise that she was free & unrestrained to serve him (…)’. Juliana decide to leave and do what she had heard and had run off, never to return to Burgos (see Ons Amsterdam, July 2020).
Both deeds make it clear that it must have been fairly common knowledge in Amsterdam that slavery was not allowed in the city. Whether Nicolaes de Miter actually allowed Dimitri to travel back to Poland is not known, but another declaration, with another notary, has been found. In it, the same Joan Elias from Aleppo declares ’to set his slaeff again in freedom (…) relieving him of all servitude & slavery’. It looks like poor Dimitri obtained his freedom in Amsterdam after all.
Arabisch signature of Jan Elias, christian merchant of Aleppo.
How to cite: Mark Ponte, ‘Leave your master’, an Enslaved Polish man in Amsterdam (1656)’, voetnoot.org, 8 Februari 2023; Translation of: Mark Ponte, ‘Gaet van uw meester wech’, Ons Amsterdam, februari 2023.
In the archives, we often stumble across fragments of human lives: declarations, authorizations, or contracts that demonstrate the existence of a person otherwise absent from the historical record. Many thousands of Amsterdam men took to the sea in the service of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), Dutch West India Company (WIC), or merchant marine. This undoubtedly also applies to black Amsterdammers. Some of them probably never visited a public notary or served as a godparent at a baptism. For a few of them, some traces of their lives have been preserved. A case in point is the married couple Lijsbeth Pieters of Angola and Pieter Claesz Bruijn of Brasil.
Marriage bann of Pieter Claes Bruyn from Brazil and Lijsbeth Pieters from Angola, 6 November 1649.
Shortly before four o’clock on 23 March 1640, Pieter Claesz Swart of Brasil entered the office of Henrick Schaeff, behind WIC headquarters on Haarlemmerdijk, accompanied by Willem de Keijser of Middelburg. Schaeff was both a notary and a clerk for the WIC, and the boundary between his two roles was often blurred. Thousands of sailors on the verge of departing for the Atlantic region – territories ranging from West Africa and Brazil to New Amsterdam and North America – visited him for various purposes, such as signing letters of debt to the many local innkeepers, thus pledging away much of their pay. Both Pieter and Willem worked for the WIC, and they had accumulated debts of 50 and 100 guilders respectively to Jan Pietersz Santdrager and his wife Anna Jansz in Amsterdam.
De Hollandse Tuyn and other ships have returned from Brazil under the command of Paulus van Caerden, painting by Hendrick Vroom.
Pieter Claesz Swart was a man of colour. He was a bosschieter – an able seaman – from Brazil, and in 1640 he was about to embark on a new voyage on the WIC yacht Goerree. One of the two notarial deeds that Pieter Claesz signed that day describes him as speaking the Dutch language proficiently. Four years later, Pieter Claesz was back in Amsterdam, where he again accumulated a debt to the keeper of a hostelry in the Jordaan district, this time amounting to no less than 124 guilders, easily a year’s salary for a seaman. This time, interestingly, he is referred to as Peter Claesz Bruijn van Brazilië. (Swart means ‘Black’ and Bruijn means ‘Brown’.) This is the name under which he was later known. In January 1644, he went to sea again, this time on the WIC vessel Mauritius.
Map of Vlooienburg / Jodenbreestraat Area, 6 is House Moyses, 7 Rembrandt’s studio.
At that time, Pieter Claesz was not yet in touch with the small black community around Jodenbreestraat. He accumulated his debts in inns for white people, and the witnesses to his notarial deeds were white. By the late 1640s and 1650s, this situation had changed. In November 1649, when Pieter Claesz was 44 years old, he registered to marry to Lijsbeth Pieters of Angola, whom the notarial deed listed as living in Jodenbreestraat. He probably moved in with her. It is not clear whether he returned to sea after that or remained in Amsterdam. What we do know is that he was in Amsterdam in 1659. In August and October he was a witness to the baptisms of black children in the Catholic house church in the Huis Moyses in Jodenbreestraat. The first of these children, Pieter – undoubtedly named after Pieter Claesz – was the son of Alexander van Angola and Lijsbeth Dames. The second child – Catharina – was the daughter of Louis and Esperanza Alphonse. That same day, Nicolaus, the son of Emanuel and Branca Alphonse, was also baptized. The witness was Lijsbeth Pieters. She had also acted as a witness a few years earlier, in 1657, at the baptism of that couple’s first child Lucretia, as well as for Lucia, the daughter of Bastiaan and Maria Ferdinandes. These are all names of people from the small black community in and around Jodenbreestraat, of which Pieter and Lijsbeth had become important members.
How to cite: Mark Ponte, ‘Pieter Claesz Bruijn and Lijsbeth Pieters’, in: Elmer Kolfin and Epco Runia ed., Black in Rembrandt’s Time, W Books / The Rembrandt House Museum, Amsterdam 2020, 60-61.