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Cache of ceased private letters reveals Dutch social history

London discovery significant

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

LONDON - Researchers who are tracing all aspects of the history of the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (United East Indies Company, also known by the acronym VOC) call the batch of 18 private letters between officer Harmanus Kikkert and his wife Aagje Luijtsen of Texel the ’discovery of the century.’ The letters, which were found in British national archives date from 1776 to 1780, when the Netherlands was at war with the United Kingdom. Intercepted by the enemy, the correspondence lifts the veil of love life between marriage partners who because of the husband’s work would not see each other for years.

Stored in one of the many heavy archive boxes with other VOC material, the letters were wrapped with string. Another letter was found elsewhere in the VOC collection. The researchers soon concluded that, for various reasons, the centuries-old letters represented ‘the dream of every historian.’ Perry Moree who found them in 1994 and eventually published them in a book, considers the letters to be of great historical importance.

The letters exchanged between the spouses detail her cares about the health of her children, worries about finances, disagreements between two sisters-in-law, the death of a dog, the arrival of Texel’s new magistrate and the imperfections of this man’s wife, and her personal outpourings about all sorts of matters. At first glance, the letters had no historical importance. However, as the find was further studied and weighed it dawned on the researcher that they were dealing with a very rare collection of letters.

Fearing that confidential information could fall into the wrong hands, the VOC discouraged correspondence between employees and their families. Instead, officers such as Kikkert gave their letters along with people they trusted. Based on the Kikkert collection, researchers could, for the first time, reconstruct how that worked.

The letters also tell a lot about life on the island of Texel, an important last stop for VOC ships from Amsterdam on the way to Batavia in the far flung colonial empire. Aagje's letters to her husband are a good source of local Texel history as well as a rare insight into the female segment of society.According to historians, most sources by far represent the male perspectives.

The discovery of the letters in the U.K. archives is itself of some significance. Tracing information for his thesis on the postal system in the VOC-era, Moree checked the English archives, which are not very well catalogued. He rummaged through boxes which did not seem to have been opened since they were deposited with the archives in the late 1700s. The boxes hail from captured Dutch ships which were stripped of their contents for public auctions. Documents would be perused by translators for sensitive information about government policy and trade, with non-important material bound for the archives. The researcher also discovered a box filled with scribblers, songbooks, booklets, newspapers and numerous letters, all unread and in excellent shape. Moree laments that these letters languish in the U.K., where although accessible, they are too far from Dutch researchers. However, the suggestion to loan them to the Dutch archives was dismissed out of hand.

The chore of readying a book on the letters turned out to be quite time-consuming. The letters were first typed out. While Aagje Kikkert’s handwriting was very legible, it was a challenge because – common in those days - she ignored all the basic rules for writing, hardly any capitals and very little punctuation. An added problem was the inconsistencies in spelling, since the letters predate such standardization. She also used some unknown sayings and often spelled the words based on phonetics which betrayed the influences of her Texel dialect. Even her own name was spelled in different ways, while others she identified with nicknames.

The letters at times were very intimate and go out of their way to ensure her husband of her loyalty and love. At times she also wrote in couched terms, likely only to be understood by Harmanus who traveled as far as China and would be away from home for extended periods of time. In general, the letters took eight to nine months to reach their destination. Harmanus learnt in China he had become a father at a point in time when the baby already had been dead for several months. That update he received in 1781, two months later, when he arrived on the way home at Capetown in South Africa. Shortly thereafter, English war ships surprised Dutch ships at anchor. The sailors escaped capture by fleeing ashore, allowing the enemy to tow away the ships, including Harmanus Kikkert’s ship with the bundle of letters. It is thought that the separate letter – the 19th – was found sometime later on another ship.