metropolis m

Ernst Willem Jan Bagelaar (1798-1837), portrait of Wange Hendrik Richard van Bali, the servant of Jan Hendrik Bagelaar, etching and aquatint, h 74mm × b 56mm

In our series of contributions reflecting on the Slavery Memorial Year Nancy Jouwe writes a letter to an enslaved person. Crossing centuries she writes to Naï, discussing his life in Flores and in Delft in the early nineteenth century.

June, 2023, Utrecht

Dear Naï,

It is so very special to realize that you came to Delft around 1810/1813, the city I was born in more than a 150 years later. Your mum was born in Flores, mine in Java.

What did the city of Delft smell like then? I’m asking because you lived beside a canal. When you looked outside of your window, could you discern the VOC Delft sign on top of Oude Delft 37?  The WIC sign on the opposite side of the house you lived in was probably hidden from view by the VOC warehouse. Did Delft offer you a friendly environment? Did your owner?

You know, I met one of your descendants! It really is an honor to know you through your descendant, a friendly elderly man who lives in the Eastern part of the Netherlands and who has served as a public servant. If people meet him today, they wouldn’t think for a second that his ancestor was an enslaved man from current-day Indonesia. He is very proud of you, and curious about you too. It is important that you know this, but I expect you already do. He texted me recently, saying that he wants to stay in the house you once lived in at Breestraat 1, which is now a hotel.

Table Mountain and Cape Colony seen from the sea, Jan Brandes, 1787, pencil and watercolour, h 193mm × b 638mm

Oh Naï, what a life you must have lived. Born into slavery, passed from hand to hand, moving from Flores to Bali to Java as a young boy who grew into a young man without his father, his older brothers, who missed his mother terribly. You arrived on land in France, Europe. I wonder if during the journey, you disembarked from the ship in the Cape Colony. You probably did, unless you were ordered to remain on board. Did you at least see Table Mountain there? Amazing, right? You must have shared some of your stories in your memoir, which is in possession of your family. Did you write your memoir so that it could be shared with a larger audience, even if you could not imagine what that audience would look like? Or was it a way for you to get your remarkable yet painful life story out of your system, as a form of therapy? Or did you simply want your kids to know? I wonder about that.

Do you like the image that was drawn of you? Is it a good likening? Did you sit for it? Your portrait is now stored in the largest and most popular museum of the Netherlands, the Rijksmuseum. One night in 2018, I was invited to give a short talk at the Night of the Museum, a popular yearly event, and I asked if your portrait could stand beside me during my talk. They were kind enough to grant me that request. It was a proud moment for me that I could share the stage with you in this way. I hope you don’t mind. Afterwards, an older Surinamese couple came up to thank me for telling your story. I was very moved by that. It was one of those moments in which we shared the realization that the Dutch colonial slavery system was a global system, that stretched from the Indonesian archipelago to the Indian Ocean and via the Cape colony to the trans-Atlantic.

Kasparus Karsen (1820-96), The market in Delft, h 192mm × b 199mm, Collection Rijksmuseum

The daughter of your owners, Mienette, became a popular feminist. Today, there is a plaque with her image on the front of the building you both lived in. Although I do consider myself a feminist, in this case I’m less interested in her than I am in you. I like to imagine you found love because you got married and lived in the Westerkwartier in the later part of your life. A free man, with your children and grandchildren around you. I saw pictures of your grandchildren: they are beautiful! It’s a strange and difficult juxtaposition to consider, you having been dragged halfway around the world and experiencing so much sorrow. And yet it seems you found a happier life in the latter part of it.

Only last week, a group of researchers, most of them attached to the Delft Archive, published a report on the history of slavery in the town where you passed away and I was born. You can read Dutch, so I hope you feel they did you and the larger story justice.

After slavery was formally abolished in the Dutch East Indies and West Indies, students from those regions would come to Delft. This included many Indonesians, who organized themselves in student associations. During their gatherings, they would hear about the Universal Races Congress that took place in 1911 in London and that was co-organized by famed African-American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois. They also organised a lecture about Kartini, the national heroine of Indonesia, whose brother Sosrokartono came to study in Delft in 1896.


In that same period, in 1892, the Dutch Nationality and Residents Act was implemented in the Netherlands. This law stated that people from Surinam and the Dutch-Caribbean, including formerly enslaved people and indentured laborers, would from then on formally be considered Dutch citizens, whereas in the Dutch Indies, indigenous people, the so-called ‘natives’ and people equal to them (Arabs, Mores, Chinese) would be excluded from Dutch citizenship. In 1945, Indonesia had to fight for four years for their independence, after which the opponents came together in The Hague in 1949. That is also when my parents met, but that’s a story for another time.

For their independence, Indonesia had to pay a very large amount to the Dutch in compensation. It’s a good thing they stopped paying in the fifties. All that violence, Naï. When I think too much about it, it makes my heart heavy. Still, I wish people could hear the echoes of the history you and I are a part of ─ albeit in very different ways ─ in the streets of Delft. I can hear it. I know you do too.

Your humble fellow towny,

Nancy Jouwe

On his marriage certificate, Naï signed his name as Wange Hendrik Richard van Bali. His portrait, on which he is also given this name, is in the collection of the Rijksmuseum. The artist is not known. 

The drawing of Table Mountain (Cape Colony) and the drawings of Delft featured here have been drawn by white artists that lived around the same time as Naï. There are no drawings of Table Mountain or of Delft by artists of colour in the collection of the Rijksmuseum. 

Nancy Jouwe

is cultuurhistoricus en werkt als freelance onderzoeker, schrijver, docent en publiek spreker

Recente artikelen