The Great Suriname Exhibition, in 2019 in De Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam, featured a modest painting with an impressive and exceptional scene in Dutch painting. It bears the title De Slavendans, and is painted in 1707 by Dirk Valkenburg. Because the work is small and there was a lot to see on this show, people may have missed it. It was grouped under Life on the plantation and combined with Winti (religious) attributes.
In itself an understandable choice because a ceremony or festivity can be seen in this work of art. The artist has depicted the large group of ‘partying’ people in great detail and in a varied way. Much attention is paid to the shiny bodies, the female breasts, and to the clothing, bracelets and differently knotted and colored headscarves. The people are smoking, drinking, kissing, dancing, watching and sitting. Different individuals are captured in the detailed faces. Valkenburg himself may have witnessed this event. Or it is a compilation of events he saw during his stay at the Palmeneribo plantation. He knew these people personally.
One of the elements that has intrigued me for a long time about this work is the woman with the bra on the far right. Did they already exist then? Did she invent it (I secretly hope so). Is it African? There is so much to see in this work and still so much to explore and to discover about what is depicted but also about the work itself.
That does not mean that this painting has not been written about in the past and regularly depicted in books about slavery. In a small circle this small modest flat painting with a scene that could fill a room, is world famous. And for that reason a number of museums in the Netherlands have wanted to show in the past. But until De Great Suriname exhibition, all loan requests were rejected. This was also the case for another exhibition in the Nieuwe Kerk: Black is beautiful. Rubens to Dumas in 2008, which I curated.
In addition to the above-mentioned qualities and the beautiful execution of the work, This small painting is important for more reasons. For example, it is one of the very few early paintings depicting enslaved people in Suriname in the 18th century. The only works with which this painting can be compared are the paintings by Frans Post, who ‘recorded’ plantation life in the Dutch part of Brazil in the seventeenth century. But his works are more general scenes and sketchy depictions. Another special aspect in The Slave dance is that documents have survived on exactly this period and on exactly this plantation. The work most likely represents the inhabitants of Palmeribo. As a result, more is known about the individual characters who are probably part of the scene. They are described because it seems to be composed in the period in which enslaved people on the sugar plantation Palmeneribo revolted.
Linguist Margot van den Berg published an article in 2001 in OSO: ‘Mingo, joù no man’; her focus is Sranan (Surinamese language) in the interrogations and court reports about this revolt. OSO is a magazine for Surinamese linguistics, literature and history. And historian Frank Dragtenstein wrote an essay in OSO (jr 23/2004) entitled ‘De opstand op Palmeneribo’: the revolt of Palmeneribo. In it he gives a detailed account of the rebellion of enslaved people and mentions a large number of names of people who may be seen in Valkenburg’s painting.
At the plantation lived and worked in 1707, when the uprising broke out, 156 enslaved people from African descent and three white Europeans. One of the three was Dirk Valkenburg. He was appointed by the Amsterdam owner, Jonasz Witsen, on Palmeneribo as the plantation’s bookkeeper, writer and artist. Witsen was curious about his possessions and gave Valkenburg the order to record them during the four years that his assignment lasted. His contract stated: ”van alles daer hij syn Const en diensten als boven soude mede kunnen verrigten, namentlijck doeck, pen(s)eelen, verf en Oly, ook sal hem toegevoegd worden een jongen ten synen diensten, te tracteren niet als Slaaf maar als een kind en over delseve niet hart te syn’: In English: with everything he could perform his art and services with namely canvas, brushes, paint and oil, he will also be assigned a boy for his services, to be treated not as a ‘Slave’ but as a child, and not to be too severe for this one.
Although you would think from the above instruction about the boy that Witsen wanted the people he owned to be treated humanely, this was not the case. He ordered the regime on the plantation to be stricter and people were given fewer opportunities to move around freely. This led to the revolt that Valkenburg witnessed and report to the board.
Dragtenstein describes, using documents, in his essay the cause and consequences of the uprising. He also mentions a large number of participants. It all starts with the assignment that the new manager Christiaan Westphaal received from Witsen to increase the sugar production. Wally, one of the enslaved, later stated that they did not want to get up any earlier and he had stopped others from going to the sugar cane fields. In addition to this assignment trafficking between plantations was minimized, and with this last order shit really hits the fan. Because now the route was cut off for a number of young men to their wives or girlfriends on another plantation. Westphaal was subsequently unable to impose these new regulations due to a lack of the support of enslaved people. Nobody wanted to punish with whips on his behalf, they drew a line in the resistance. Three brothers, Mingo, Wally and Baratham took the lead in this. Mingo, in particular, had an extraordinarily rebellious and strong character and was not impressed by whipping. Certainly not now he no longer was allowed to visit his wife. Something that wasn’t a problem before.
The rebellion of these brothers and a few others would lead to a revolt on June 19, 1707. Later, Mingo would be designated by the directors as the instigator. He came into conflict with Jan Visbeek, director of the Surimombo plantation, about visiting women. Visbeek hit Mingo in the face, after which the tension grew so high that Westphaal chopped Mingo’s canoe (the canoe with which he could travel from plantation to plantation) to pieces. Mingo then threatened to commit suicide. The next day, the enslaved people gathered in front of Westphaal’s house and demanded compensation for the destruction of Mingo’s canoe. Westphaal felt threatened and shot one of the plaintiffs, Charle, in the legs. The enraged group then started to throw stones. Valkenburg was called in to help Westphaal. He would later report in his report that Mingo and Wally were the biggest troublemakers. The latter was hit in the face by Valkenburg during the skirmishes.
Everyone was questioned after this including the rebels. Their stories did not differ much from those of the supervisors, possibly due to coercion. After the interrogation, Mingo, Wally, Baratham, Charle and Joseph were sentenced to a slow death by burning. Above all, the punishment had to take a long time and hurt. Baratham was pardoned for cooperating well during the interrogations. Whether this horrible conviction was actually carried out is not entirely clear in Dragtenstein’s essay. After all, there was a pardon for the people of the plantation, but whether these young men were also included?
With this knowledge about the events at Palmeribo, contemporary viewers may look differently at the people on painting by Valkenburg.
Valkenburg left Suriname a year after the riots on the plantation. He should have stayed for four years, but could not last more than two years. Later, in an auction catalog of an heir of Jonasz Witsen, a total of twenty-one works with a Surinamese subject by Valkenburg were offered, including ten paintings. Six views of Paramaribo were part of this. And one had the title: Ceremony among the Negroes. furnished with a crowd of people and children.
The painting will be on display again at the Rijksmuseum’s Slavery Exhibition opening May 2021. Hopefully more research will have been done.
Another work by Valkenburg with a Surinamese subject was bought by the Rijksmuseum in 1963 from A French art trader.
Between the palms you can see the house of the plantation owner and in the foreground some of the indigenous inhabitants of this area.
In 2008 I was guest curator of the exhibition Black is beautiful. Rubens to Dumas. Important advisors Elizabeth McGrath (Rubens and colleagues, Warburg institute Image of the Black in Western Art collection), Carl Haarnack (slavery in books), Elmer Kolfin (slavery in prints and paintings) en Adi Martis (contemporary art). Gary Schwartz made his research for The Image of the Black in Western Art available to me.
In 2012 my Anniversary book: 100 years Schiller 1912-2012 was published. Initiative, idea, text and editing (ES). Design and photography Monica Schokkenbroek.
In 2013 my book Cobra aan de gracht / Cobra on the Canal was published by Samsara publications.
In 2014 my essay ‘Painted Blacks and Radical Imagery in the Netherlands (1900-1940)’ was published in The Image of the Black in Western Art Volume V (I). (ed. David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates jr.)
(About f.i. On the terras, by Nola Hatterman but also Jan Sluijters, Kees van Dongen, Irma Stern and more)
In 2017 I published a book (only in Dutch) about the black servants at the Court of the Royal Van Oranje family. More than a thousand documents have been found about their lives. Info on this site, also in English.
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