Pieter Claesz Bruijn and Lijsbeth Pieters

Published in: ‘Black in Rembrandt’s Time’, 2020.

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.

An enslaved family on the Nieuwe Herengracht in Amsterdam

Voor Nederlandse versie zie hier

In 1783 Anthony, his wife Magdalena and their son Emanuel were taken from Curaçao to Amsterdam. There they ended up in a house on Nieuwe Herengracht, currently number 105. Anthony was the personal servant of the old merchant Isaac Pardo. Magdalena also worked as a servant. How old Emanuel was and whether he also had to work is not known.

Anthony and his family had lived in slavery on Curaçao, in Amsterdam their status was not so clear. Slavery was not officially permitted in that city. In the lawbooks of Amsterdam, a provision on slavery was included from 1644 onwards. This Amsterdam provision was a literal copy of an Antwerp one dating back to the 16th century. Under the heading ‘Of the state and condition of persons’, it was stipulated that: Within the city of Amstelredamme and its freedom, all people are free and there are no Slaves’. This seems to be a clear stipulation that every person in Amsterdam must be considered a free person. However, the second article states that it was up to those who were held in slavery ‘against their will’ to claim their freedom from the city council. In other words, there was no active investigation.

Nieuwe Herengracht Amsterdam, number 105 marked by arrow.

This legislation was also known to the enslaved people on Curaçao. Some gain their freedom by hiding aboard ships and trying to reach the Republic as stowaways. Mostly in vain. In the course of the eighteenth century, there were hundreds or even a few thousend of enslaved people from Surinam, Berbice and Curaçao, among others, who stayed in Amsterdam for a time but whose legal status remained virtually the same, after their return to the colony. That situation changed when, in 1771, two Surinamese women, after a stay in the Republic, once back in Paramaribo, successfully claimed their liberty. Because of the unrest that arose among the planters of Suriname, the States General decided to restrict freedom. No longer would a slave servant in the Republic be freed immediately, but only after a stay of six months – a period that could also be extended by another six months. If he or she still lived in the Republic after that, he or she became truly free.

How long Anthony, Magdalena and Emanuel served at the Nieuwe Herengracht is not (yet) known. For the time being, we only know this Afro-Curaçao family from one document: the testament of the Portuguese-Jewish merchant Isaac Pardo. This document was drawn up a few months after their arrival in Amsterdam. With three witnesses, civil-law notary Johannes van de Brink travelled from his office on the Rokin to the Nieuwe Herengracht on 8 December 1783. Three instead of the usual two, because ’the testator is blind’, the notary noted at the end of the deed.

Isaac, Anthony, Magdalena and Emanuel had not been in Amsterdam that long, in September 1783 Isaac Pardo paid finta (tax) for the first time. He was taxed in the highest category and was therefore a rich man. After a long career as a merchant in Curaçao, he had decided to settle in the Republic. Perhaps he did so because of the better medical facilities. Pardo was old and by now blind, and probably largely dependent on his servants.

In his will Pardo stipulated that after his death the servant Anthony would be free and discharged from all ‘slave services’. He also instructed his children ’to provide Anthony, together with his wife Magdalena and their son Emanuel, as long as the Antony lives, with board and drink, as well as clothing and lodging in their homes’. For this they had to serve the next of kin ‘as they are at present at the service of the testator [Pardo]’. If either party, including Anthony and his family, no longer appreciated this service, Pardo’s sons had to pay Anthony 400 guilders annually. This yearly payment was not transferable to Magdalena – in case Anthony would die before. However, Magdalena and Emanuel would be allowed to return to Curaçao at the Pardo’s expense, and – very importantly – be made free.

It could be that this was the legal confirmation of an earlier agreement between Anthony, Magdalena and Isaac Pardo. As was the case earlier with the Afro-Curaçaoan Juan Francisco Ado, who arrived in Amsterdam in 1731 with Anna Levina Leendertsz, wife of the former governor of Curaçao and former alderman of Amsterdam Jan Noach du Fay. Even before leaving Curaçao, they had agreed that if the ‘slave could properly serve and guard her […] during the journey’, Ado would be granted his freedom in the Republic.

Isaac Pardo died a year and a half after drawing up his will; on 21 June 1785. He was buried at the Portuguese-Jewish cemetery in Ouderkerk aan de Amstel. A year later his ‘magnifique and distinguished’ household effects were sold. How the lives of Anthony, Magdalena and Emanuel went on, we do not know yet. Did they return to Curaçao? Or did they build their own lives in Amsterdam? Perhaps documents about them will turn up in the future in the archives of the Amsterdam notaries.

The last will of Isaac Pardo, Amsterdam, 8 december 1783. 

‘Wel broer neem jij twee zwarten meede?’

Op 12 juli 1683 ging in de Stadsschouwburg van Amsterdam het toneelstuk ‘De Belachelijke Jonker’ van Pieter Bernagie (1656-1699) in première. Het stuk is een hit en werd in de decennia daarna tientallen keren opgevoerd. Eén van de hoofdpersonen is Joris, die na een carrière van ruim dertig jaar in Azië terugkeert in Amsterdam. In de op een na laatste scene blijkt dat de VOC-veteraan naast goederen en mooie Aziatische kleren, ook twee zwarte bedienden heeft meegebracht, niet voor zichzelf maar voor een belangrijk heer: ‘Wel broer neem jij twee zwarten meede?’ vraagt zijn zus Neeltje aan Joris, ‘Ja, ’t is om aan een magtig Heer Te geeven, zy verstaan ’t geweer , Zy konnen danssen.’  Hoewel het hier om fictie gaat, laat het zien dat de praktijk van het meenemen en weggeven van bedienden een normaal verschijnsel was in de toenmalige Republiek. Zo hebben diverse mensen van Afrikaanse herkomst aan het hof van de Oranjes in Den Haag gewerkt, van wie een aantal als kind ‘cadeau’ werd gedaan aan het Hof.  

Ook in Amsterdam woonden zwarte kinderen in huishoudens. Zo werd op vrijdag 10 februari 1668 in de Oude Kerk Dominicus, “een swart out omtrent 10 a 12 jaar”, gedoopt die bij Claes Philipsoon op de Oude Waal woonde.  En op 16 juni 1673 werd in de Nieuwezijds Kapel Otto gedoopt, ‘een moor’, vernoemd naar Graaf Otto van Limburg Stierum, die zelf getuige was bij die doop.  In 1674 werd de 18-jarige Jan Pick van Angola vrijgemaakt door Alleta Hontum, weduwe van de in Brazilië geboren kapitein van het slavenschip De Prins Oranje te Paard, Laurens de Rasiére.

In de 18e eeuw bleef het meenemen van slaafgemaakte kinderen een veel voorkomend verschijnsel. Een voorbeeld is het Ghanese jongetje Presto, die later als Christiaan van de Vegt gedoopt zou worden. Hij kwam eerst aan het stadhouderlijk hof terecht en werkte later jarenlang bij burgemeester D’Arrest van Weesp in huis.

Collectie: Graphische Sammlung im Städelschen Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main , inv./cat.nr 950

In deze tekening (1763) van een scene uit de Belachelijk Jonker door Jacob Buys uit de ‘Belachelijk Jonker’, zijn twee Zwarte jongens te zien. Waarschijnlijk dienden de bedienden aan het Haagse Hof Cupido en Sideron als model, twee slaafgemaakte kinderen ‘geschonken’ aan het hof.

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.


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.


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.


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.

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

Bewogen Beeld

Op 2 april is in het Mauritshuis in Den Haag de tentoonstelling Bewogen beeld – Op zoek naar Johan Maurits geopend. Aan de tentoonstelling hebben 46 mensen van buiten het museum een bijdrage geleverd, ook ik mocht twee teksten schrijven en zal later dit voorjaar twee lezingen verzorgen.

Sinds de heropening van het Mauritshuis in 2014 is sprake van een bewustwordingsproces rondom het koloniale verleden van Johan Maurits en de manier waarop het Mauritshuis informatie hierover met het publiek deel“, schrijft curator Lea van der Vinde op de site van het Mauritshuis. Nadat er een ruimte in het museum werd ingericht met informatie over Johan Maurits en over ‘Nederlands-Brazilië’ werd in 2017 besloten de plastic replica van een borstbeeld van Johan Maurits uit de centrale hal van het museum te halen. Wat in januari 2018 tot nogal wat tumult in de (sociale) media leidde. “De stroom aan opiniestukken, achtergrondartikelen, interviews en de honderden tweets die aan de zogenaamde ‘beeldenstorm’ werden gewijd, maakten duidelijk dat de wijze waarop musea omgaan met de koloniale geschiedenis van Nederland enorm leeft binnen de maatschappij”, schrijft Van der Vinde. Zo gaf de kwestie een hele nieuwe wending aan de al bestaande plannen voor een tentoonstelling over Johan Maurits. Die tentoonstelling is er nu en ik mocht twee kleine bijdragen leveren.

Ik ben trots en vereerd dat mijn tekst naast de ‘Twee Afrikaanse mannen’ van Rembandt hangt in de tentoonstelling. Vooral ook omdat dit schilderij naar aanleiding van mijn onderzoek is opgenomen in de tentoonstelling.

Over de bijdrage van diverse mensen aan de tentoonstelling schreef Van der Vinde: “Dat kan soms heel persoonlijk van aard zijn, maar ook nieuwe wetenschappelijke inzichten spelen een belangrijke rol. Zo blijkt nu dat Rembrandts Twee Afrikaanse mannen mogelijk ook een Nederlands-Braziliaanse connectie heeft. Recent onderzoek laat zien dat in zeventiende-eeuws Amsterdam een gemeenschap bestond van vrije Afrikaanse mannen en vrouwen.”

Het tweede tekstje dat ik schreef voor de tentoonstelling over Johan Maurits in het Mauritshuis gaat over zijn persoonlijke betrokkenheid bij de slavenhandel. Daarover sprak ik ook met RTL Nieuws. Zij namen ook de verwijzing naar Anton de Kom de kom op, die al in de jaren 1930 wees op de bouw van het ‘Suikerpaleis’ over de rug van tot slaaf gemaakte Afrikanen.

Lees ook de column van Lotfi El Hamidi in NRC: “Het Mauritshuis had op geen beter moment met de tentoonstelling kunnen komen“.

De ‘swarten’ van de 17de eeuw

Onlangs werd ik door Patrick Meershoek van Het Parool geïnterviewd over mijn onderzoek naar Afro-Amsterdammers in de zeventiende eeuw. Het artikel “De ‘swarten’ van de 17de eeuw’ verscheen op 12 mei in Het Parool en is online voor een paar dubbeltjes te lezen via Blendle.

Afro-Amsterdammers in de Jodenbreestraat

Op dinsdag 17 april mocht in het onvolprezen low-budget AT5-programma De straten van Amsterdam op lacatie uitgebreid vertellen over mijn onderzoek naar Afro-Amsterdammers in zeventiende eeuw. We begonnen in de grote schilderkamer van Rembrandt in het Rembrandthuis en vandaar wandelde we door de Jodenbreestraat, langs de Mozes en Aäronkerk, naar de Academie van Bouwkunst. Allemaal plekken die een belangrijke rol speelde in deze geschiedenis. Eveneens te gast was Ashaki Leito van Black Heritage Tours.

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