Samuel, Mahamet and Hamet

Moroccans in seventeenth century Amsterdam

Translation of ‘Samuel, Mahamet en Hamet’ published in Ons Amsterdam, May 2021.

Amsterdam has been a migration city since the sixteenth century. The arrival of Moroccans – now one of the large migrant communities in the city – goes back to the early 17th century.

Drawing by Rembrandt

Many Moroccan migrants who settled in Amsterdam in the 17th century had a Jewish background. The most famous representatives were the Pallache (or Palache) family. They were also literal representatives, for Samuel Pallache (c. 1550-1616), his brother Joseph (c. 1570-1639 or 1649), his sons and his nephew David (1598-1650) acted as emissaries of the kings of Morocco.

Samuel Pallache was born in Fez to a Jewish family from Spain. The Pallaches were true cosmopolitans: they spoke Arabic and Spanish and travelled back and forth between North-Africa and Europe, formally as jewellery traders, but also as diplomats, spies and privateers. In 1605, Samuel Pallache offered his services to the King of Spain as an informer. He and his brother Joseph must have considered converting to Catholicism in order to settle in Spain, but in 1607 they had to leave Spain. They travelled on to the Netherlands and settled in Amsterdam a year later. Their families also made the journey north.

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Rembrandt, circa 1640

Because of their ties with the Spanish court, the two Pallaches were initially not welcome in the Republic, but Samuel and Joseph managed to be appointed representatives of the Moroccan sultan Muley Zaydan (Zidan Abu Maali, ?-1627), then an ally of the Republic in the conflict with Spain. They played an important role as intermediaries in the relations between the Republic and Morocco and in the liberation of enslaved sailors in North Africa. After Samuel’s death in 1616, Joseph took over the ambassadorship; his son David often acted as his representative.

The Pallaches and other North African Jews must have stood out in Amsterdam for their dress, especially their turban, even though the population was diverse in the trading city. All kinds of ‘exotic’ appearances in the street scene inspired Rembrandt and others to make drawings of people in ‘oriental’ attire. A merchant wearing a turban can be seen in paintings of Dam Square.

Rembrandt's Orient: An Exhibition in Basel and Potsdam - CODART
School of Rembrandt, circa 1635,
National Gallery of Art, Washington

Contraband

Moroccan immigrants also turn up in the archives of Amsterdam notaries. On 24 December 1672, two Moroccans make a declaration before the notary Dirck van der Groe, Mahamet Benbarck and Hamet Bin Hamet from Salé. Interpreter is the ‘Portuguese merchant’ Joseph Galaco; Galaco was also born in Salé and has a command of the ‘Nederlantse & Moorse spraecke’ (Dutch and ‘Moorish’ language).

Benbarck and Bin Hamet make a statement at the request of the skipper Gerrit Jansz. A few days earlier they had boarded the ship the Koning David, which was to take them to North Africa. The ship lay at anchor on the Rede van Texel, waiting for the skipper, who was still ashore. One Monday, around ten o’clock, the two passengers and almost the entire crew were below deck when they noticed that the ship began to sway and drift.

Mahamet and Hamet rushed upstairs, where they found the helmsman and an axe lying on the ground. Both anchors appeared to be unshackled and the jib unbuttoned. Bin Hamet shouted to the helmsman: “What kind of a helmsman are you, cutting the anchors? Let us go ashore”, to which the helmsman had replied: “Go and eat below”.

Apparently the mate and the ‘hoogbootsman’ Isaack had some nefarious plans. Possibly contraband was involved: according to the Moroccan passengers the mate had “a packet of good in his hand without being able to say what it was”. In any case, the journey was cancelled for the time being. The passengers and crew left the Koning David, after which the ship was left with “only the dog and the cat”.

Signatures Hamet Bin Hamet and
Mahamet Benbarck

Rage

Relations between North African Jews and other Jews were generally good, as were those between North Africans and other Amsterdammers. But there were sometimes tensions in the streets. A confrontation between Samuel Pallache’s nephew David and one ‘Moses Rosado’, in all likelihood Moses Curiel Rosado (1614-1678), is striking. On Monday 2 May 1639 David Pallache was attacked by Rosado in broad daylight on Vlooienburg. While shouting “Oh, Turk!”, Rosado punches him in the face and hits him with a stick and a sabre.

Rosado was arrested and sentenced to two months in the Rasphouse, but a year later he was again the instigator of skirmishes. In June 1640 he assaulted Pallache’s servant in Jodenbreestraat and there was also a confrontation in Ververstraat, during which the servant and Pallache’s nephew fled into a tailor’s shop. Again Moses Rosado is convicted.

Convicts in the Rasphouse, 1663


Another Moroccan – “a certain Moor named Achma” – was handcuffed by the sheriff on 20 August 1656, because he had “committed great violence & misconduct on the street”, according to a deed. Achma, apparently drunk, had attacked butcher Thomas Lodewijcksz near the Turfpakhuizen (now: the Academy of Architecture, Waterlooplein). He had pulled Lodewijcksz.’s butcher’s knife from his quiver, “in order to take his life with it”.

It did not come to that: a bystander had come to the butcher’s aid and taken the knife from Achma. Achma moved through the streets, so furious “that everyone fled from him and made a great shouting & roaring noise along the streets, yes so that the people fell over each other and kept lying on the street”. Witnesses mentioned several wounded; Jacob Bueno, at whose request the deed was drawn up, was supposedly beaten so badly that he could hardly stand on his legs and was still in bed a day later.

Bueno’s statement may well have been a little exaggerated. The confession book of the sheriff only mentions that the 35-year old Hamet Bar “from Salé in Barbary” had been arrested for the uproar. The notarial document was translated into French for Hamet Bar, but he denied everything and that was the end of it for the authorities. A year later, however, he was arrested again for knife crime. He was clearly not a sweetheart, with his bad temper.

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.

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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.

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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?

Exhibiton

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.