Look down if you walk around in the Oude Kerk. Centuries of Amsterdammers are buried under the church. The etched gravestones include: Saskia van Uylenburgh, wife of the famous 17th-century artist Rembrandt; Jacob van Heemskerck, a 16th-century admiral who fought the Spanish; and Wilhelmina van Merken, an 18th-century poet, playwright, and novelist who was called the Dutch Sappho. (For writing reasons, not romantic ones.) Another headstone is for a man born into slavery.
Much of Jacob’s story has been lost to time, but his descendants are working to uncover his story. One, Patricia Kaersenhout, is an impactful Amsterdam artist whose work reflects on the kind of questions Jacob’s story raises. Only traces of his life survive and some of them are contradictory. They’re spread between handwritten records in Amsterdam and Suriname, as well as his gravestone here. This is what we think happened.
Jacob and his twin brother Ernst were born to an enslaved woman named Betje. In a year or two of their birth, their father Wolphert bought manumission papers for his sons and their mother. The boys were baptized and named after Wolphert’s uncles who were in the West India Company, which ran the slave trade in present-day Ghana and the Caribbean. Jacob and Ernst were sent to the Netherlands for schooling when they were quite young. Wolphert was then briefly Governor of Suriname, but he returned to the Netherlands when the boys were around 10 and died three years later in The Hague.
When Jacob was around 18, he returned to Suriname’s capital city, Paramaribo. In 1811, when Jacob was about 32, a census in Suriname included the free Black population in Paramaribo. Jacob is there, listed as having five children with a woman named Lucia. His mother Betje appears in the register as well. Baptismal records make it seem like she’d just been baptized at around age 68. What brought her to get baptized at that point in her life?
And what brought Jacob back to Amsterdam? He made a will in Paramaribo when he was ill in May 1817 and traveled soon after. Was he hoping to get medical treatment in Amsterdam? His burial record lists his residence as Logement de Doelen, a lodging house that’s a 10-minute walk down this canal. He wasn’t staying with family, but someone arranged for him to be buried in the Oude Kerk, even though its days as a burial site were almost done. The glimpses we get of this story tell us how much we’re missing.
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