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 handwash 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 (with 500 slaves) and a Surinamese Creole slave, and her betrothed, Johannes Ellis, son of Abraham de Veer, the Dutch governor of the African Gold Coast, and his concubine, a Ghanaian black slave named Fanny Ellis. Here’s a shot of the photo in full, as taken from another website.
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 jungle colony of Suriname – but also about the complexities of kinship in the globalized world of Dutch colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade, where “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 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. The photo itself also functions as a time capsule, 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 collection is a copy – a modern reprint of a photo 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…