Zabynaja – a play

On 2 March 1648, the première performance of the theater play Zabynaja took place in the Stadsschouwburg (City Theatre) on the Amsterdamse Keizersgracht. Zabynaja is a black woman, referred to in the play as both a moris and a swartin. She is enslaved by a the Portuguese nobleman called Claudio. The play was translated from Spanish by the alderman Gerard Pietersz Schaep and adapted by the author Jan Zoet. Aside from Bredero’s Moortje, it was probably the only play with a black woman in the title role.

Engravure of the Playhouse Van Campen in 1658 by Salomon Savery

Spanish theatre was very popular in Amsterdam. Gerard Schaep made the striking choice not only to translate the names, but also to move the place of the action from Spain to Amsterdam, more specifically to the island of Vlooienburg, near Jodenbreestraat. That was surely no coincidence, as Vlooienburg was home to many Spanish and Portuguese Jews, some of whom had black servants in their households. Apparently, this was a recognizable image to Amsterdam theatre public in the mid-seventeenth century.

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Vlooienburg (5)

The play also refers to Rembrandt, who lived in the same area. Two men – Claudio and Pedro de Burgos – are trying to seduce Dorothea, who is married to Bonifacio. But neither one has yet succeeded. When Zabynaja sees what her ‘master’ is up to, she devises a trick.

Jan Zoet - Zabynaja - 1648

Dorothea is a buyer of gold and silver thread. Using money from Claudio, Zabynaja pretends that she has been sent by a Spanish noblewoman and that she is an artist who embroiders with such skill that she ‘overshadows the paintings of Rembrandt himself with her needle, which serves as a brush with which she paints in gold. The lady [Dorothea] is thereby so ‘inflamed’ that she would like an opportunity to speak to her about art’.

The trick works; Zabynaja persuades Dorothea to come first to a party at Claudio’s house and then, with sweet wine and flattering words, to Claudio’s bedchamber – where the two of them are caught and arrested on the charge of adultery. Zabynaja is ultimately able to buy Dorothea’s freedom with Claudio’s money, and Claudio is released because he is unmarried.

The theatre’s accounts show that the play was performed only three times, on 2, 5, and 9 March 1648. The role of Zabynaja was probably played by a man in the theatre’s regular, all-white ensemble. But the accounts show that not only white people performed in the city theatre that year; On 30 July 1648, five guilders was paid to a black woman singer: ‘to a Moorish girl for singing 20 times

Mark Ponte

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

Mixed marriages in Amsterdam

Mixed marriages have been part of European cultures for centuries. Here you’ll find some examples first published in a Twitter thread (december 2019).

In 1593 Bastiaen Pieters from the kingdom of Manicongo in Africa maried the widow Trijn Pieters from Amsterdam.

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On the 5th of january 1658 Agnietje Cornelis from Lippstadt (Germany) and Anthoine Zanderts from Angola went to city hall Hall (now the Royal Palace) to registered their marriage in Amsterdam.

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In 1761 Augustinus Schut from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) married Aaltje Veld from Amsterdam. In 1752 he was baptized together with the Surinamese Johannes van West and Maria Magdalena in De Nieuwe Kerk at Damsquare.

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In 1806 Willemina Balk married Justus Gerardus Swaving in Amsterdam. Willemina was the daughter of a planter in Berbice (Guyana) and a free black woman. In the drawing she prepares a West-Indian meal for painter Christiaan Andriessen.
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In 1824 Johannes Charles married Elisabeth van Eijbergen in Rotterdam. Later they moved to Amsterdam. Charles was born in Ghana, sold in to slavery in Suriname, and came as a free servant to the Netherlands.

Mark Ponte

Children of Johannes Charles and Elisabeth van Eijbergen

Lea van Bali (ca. 1668-1738)

A life in documents

Lea was born or sold in slavery in Asia, but lived almost 50 years in Amsterdam. She arrived with Jan Parvé and Ida Castelijn from Batavia (Jakarta) in Amsterdam. Most probably in 1690 when Parvé was admiral of the VOC return fleet. In 1691 Lea lived with Ida Castelijn at the Keizersgracht, probably as a servant.

On 21 december 1691 ‘Lea van Balij gewesene slavinne’ (‘former slave’) is baptized in the Westerkerk.

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Doopinschrijving Lea van Balij
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Nieuwe Kerk Amsterdam

It is not clear how long Lea stayed in the house of the Parvé/Castelijn family, but 17 year later she was living in the Leidse Dwarsstraat. In 1708 she marries Nicolaas Baltus from Ambon (Maluku Islands). Lea is then about 40 years old. A month before their daughter Hester is baptized in the the ‘Nieuwe Kerk’ at Damsquare. Interesting enough the witness Esther Jans van Bantam is also from Indonesia.

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31 July 1708, baptism of Esther

On 17 august 1712 daughter Elisabeth is baptized in the same church, again witnessed by (H)Ester Jans.

Nicolaas Baltus died a little more then six years later, in 1719. On the 12th of January Nicolaas was buried at the Karthuizer cemetery. According to the registry the family was living in the Goudsbloemdwarstraat in the Jordaan at that moment.

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Karthuizer cemetery, 1728

Almost a year after the dead of her first husband Lea van Bali marries Jan Davidse van den Heuvel from Amsterdam.

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Lea’s second marriage
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1728 is a sad year for Lea. In February, her second husband Jan dies and in July her daughter Hester. The family then lives in Goudsbloemstraat, between Brouwersgracht and the Eerste Bloemdwarsstraat. Jan leaves three children, probably from his first marriage.

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Brouwersgracht and the Eerste Bloemdwarsstraat

Ten years later, 31 march 1738, almost 50 year after her forced migration to Amsterdam, Lea passes away. She is buried at the Noorderkerkhof.

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Registration of the burial of Lea van Balij, 31 march 1738.
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Noorderkerk and cemetery

This post was first published as thread on Twitter (ook in het Nederlands)