Notes from my research diary, October 2014:
Sunday morning in Zaandam, just two train stops out of Amsterdam. Last night, I’d planned for a quiet morning of reading before a train trip into Leiden to the university library.
This morning I woke to the sound of running water and thought to myself that the apartment owners (who live upstairs) were having a lovely, long bath. That was before it occurred to me that many Dutch homes don’t have a bath. And before the frantic knock on the door and the apologies from the owners (as I stood there in my pyjamas with my hair in all directions). And before they opened up the door to the cellar and discovered a few feet of water with ever more spilling in. And before they walked past all the handwashed underwear I had draped over every available surface.
Something had obviously gone wrong. Time to call the plumber. So much for my quiet Sunday morning.
Before their arrival, I was thinking through photography, identity and ways of seeing. More specifically, I was reading through this book, The First Photograph from Suriname, which I picked up at the Rijksmuseum on Friday.
On the cover is a photograph dating from 1845, of a young couple at their engagement: Maria Louisa de Hart, the daughter of an Jewish Amsterdam merchant and later major Surinamese plantation owner and enslaver (with 500 slaves) and an enslaved Surinamese Creole woman, and her betrothed, Johannes Ellis, son of Abraham de Veer, the Dutch governor of the African Gold Coast, and an enslaved Ghanaian woman named Fanny Ellis. You can see a shot of the photo in full in this post by Hinde Haest.
It’s a fascinating historical artifact that tells us much, not only about the history of photography – the author notes that the daguerreotype process only emerged in 1839 and had, within six years, already made it to the tiny colony of Suriname – but also about the complexities of kinship in the globalized world of Dutch colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade, where notions of “family” moved well beyond the nuclear model so common in Western societies today. When this photo was taken, slavery and the plantation system were in decline, but the institution of slavery wouldn’t be abolished in Suriname for another 18 years, and even then, it would be followed by a ten year transition period. Following this, the plantation owners would rely on four decades of indentured labourers drawn from China, India, and Indonesia.
The family histories of the couple captured in this photo span three continents, and mark many kinds of journeys across the Atlantic Ocean – the journeys of a moneyed elite travelling for work and leisure, and those of enslaved peoples, on whose bodies the wealth of the de Hart family was based. In this way, it also points to the complexity and trouble of colonial intimacies. Further, we might consider the photo itself, which functions as a time capsule of fashion, revealing dress, hairstyle, posture. And more than all of this, it opens us to what John Berger would call a “way of seeing” – it teaches the viewer about the eyes that took the photo.
The oldest photo in my personal collection of family photos is a copy – a modern reprint (that I took!) of a photo originally taken in 1911 of my grandmother, then a baby, in Suriname. She’s wearing a white, lace-trimmed dress, her brown toes sticking out the bottom. Her mother – presumably – is holding her, her face serious, her pose stiff. Both are posed in front of an idyllic pastoral painted backdrop that resembles no photo of Suriname I have ever seen. It’s a wonderful, curious photo that’s filled with stories I have yet to discover…
Boom, Mattie. The First Photograph from Suriname: A Portrait of the Nineteenth-Century Elite in the West Indies. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum, 2014.
Stoler, Ann Laura. Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
(c) Sonja Boon, 2019.