On a Secession

In 1834, in the then isolated and remote village of Ulrum, Reverend De Cock was unhappy with the increasingly Enlightenment-influenced ideas that permeated the Dutch Reformed state religion, and with the church board he seceded. Eventually, his secession lead to a split in the Dutch Reformed Church, and reverberated through to the USA. Before that, De Cock was relieved of his function by the government, forbidden to preach, and another pastor, Reverend Smith, was called in. Writer, traveller and local gadfly Marten Douwes Teenstra wrote an anonymous pamphlet (with some italics mine)…

The Dutch Reformed church in Ulrum

(…)Sunday (12 October) morning ships full of hungry souls arrived in Zoutkamp (the next village, a harbour) to come to Ulrum with their dirty linen; more than a hundered carriages and a legion of pedestrians gathered in the streets of Ulrum, of which many went to the Widow Koster (in whose pub the secessionists met), who poured them gin, then left without paying – well, that was for De Cock and the landlady to solve; to pay is worldly and to pray and sigh is heavenly. It was mostly unknown faces who looked at each other in bewilderment. “O, if only these could be the last days of such violence,” others sighed.

At 10 o’clock, Reverend Smith went to the church, which was already full of people, both natural children of Adam as those who (as they felt) were reborn and had seen the light and belonged to the chosen flock. (Here Teenstra’s want of an editor becomes apparent, as the text becomes mired in smug allusions which, 185 years later, become unreadable. Suffice to say: De Cock was busy conspiring with his church council, and sent a friendly preacher, Scholte, to the church to try and preach. As designated preacher, Smith refused to forego his sermon.)

The pub of the widow Koster, meeting place of the Secessionists, early 20th c. photo

Reverend Smith, climbing off the pulpit, was asked again by Scholte to be allowed to preach in the church that afternoon. On being refused again, as Reverend Smith had received a message from the Provincial Church Council in Groningen to not only refuse it but to prevent it with suitable means, De Cock and his Xantippe started lambasting his sermon. Now the plebs started thronging more and more. Reverend Smith, almost 66 years old, was squeezed and punched, especially in the underbelly, so that his supporting girlde broke. The elderly preacher, almost breathless, would have collapsed in the pushing and pinching mass (amongst which Mrs De Cock shouted out: “Now is the time!”) if not for the few men, who also associate our own work and labours with religion, who supported him in getting out. Now the Game Cock put up his feathers (quo quis indoctior eo impudentior – the more stupid, the more brazen) and shouted to the people: “Stay in the church! Stay, people! Anon Reverend Scholte will speak.” Then some verses from Psalm 25 were sung. Later, however, De Cock and his cronies were driven out of the church by police officials, in name of the church elders and the local governors, after which the church was closed.

Reverend Hendrik de Cock, and his Act of Secession

Now we come to the main events of Sunday 19th October.

G.J. Van Polen, police officer from Appingedam, had already arrived early, as well as the constables of the neighbouring villages of Leens, Kloosterburen, Baflo, Warffum, Usquert and Kantens in Ulrum, and, with Ulrum’s constable, guarded the doors of the church. Two of them placed themselves at the pulpit, and two others accompanied J. van der Helm, reverend of Niekerk and Vliedorp, whose turn it was to preach. Coming in the church towards 9:30, it was already filled with participants and onlookers. The constables helped the preacher to get through the crowd and reached the step to the choir, close to the choir fence; here they got so much push-back that they had to retreat a little; while one Klaas Pieters Ritsema (commonly named after his wife, Klaas Wietskes), day labourer in Ulrum, being warned against pushing back by the constable of Leens, called in a loud voice: “Reverend Van der Helm will not get on the pulpit, but De Cock will.” – The constable of Leens called for help from the constables at the pulpit, but they called back that they couldn’t push through: Reverend Van der Helm, while hearing many sniggering comments, had to leave the church.

Interior of the church in Ulrum, 1925

Now De Cock, in full regalia, climbed on a bench within the choir fence, after having tried himself to get to the pulpit, now being stopped by Van Polen, whom he asked: who gave you the right to refuse me; to which Van P. answered: my superior, that is, the Officer of Justice. Upon this, De Cock, who did not want to answer to any worldly powers, read openly the ACT OF SECESSION.

(…) After reading this so-called Act of Secession – of which we could hear little, and so don’t know where De Cock ended, so we have included the whole thing (though I’m not) – Van Polen once more asked with the utmost sweetness, if it were praying and begging, to no longer rebel against the government – quoting once more the Officer of Justice, to which De Cock replied: “that the Officer didn’t have a say, and that he came in name of God, the King of Kings,” after which he called to the crowd: “Shall Van der Helm climb the pulpit? – No! No! Away with that Baal-priest! Away with the papist! Away with the idolator! Away with Satan’s sermon!” and adding: “The church is ours, we have seceded!”

Van Polen letDe Cock know in soft and modest terms that he was rousing the crowd and was heating tempers, to which De Cock replied: “I do nothing except for God, and should you use violence against me, than you will find your death; because I do not fear any worldly power of government.” A new attempt (by De Cock) to reach the pulpit failed, and the crowd started singing from the 118th Psalm, after which De Cock did a very noisy prayer. (…) We felt sorry for the man: his long, straight hair hung over his hollow eyes and pale cheeks, as if he was drowning. (…) We hoped that Van Polen would let him continue, thinking as the father of a madhouse: “leave the mad to do their talking.” But of course! He was again urged to obedience by Van Polen. De Cock said: “God should be obeyed sooner than people. There are no earthly powers who can stand against this,” and he started reading the community something from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Another caution from Van Polen again was fruitless and the gospel exercise lasted until 11:30, closing with an announcement that the service in the church would continue towards 1. Then De Cock left, the crowd thinned, those who remained were driven from the church, the door was closed and the church was surveilled by the constables.

Hotel/village hall of Ulrum, early 20th century

(…) Wednesday evening, 22nd October, De Cock and church elder J. J. Beukema, the first decent in black and wearing a tricorne hat, the other, as a crippled Vulcan, with coloured stockings, knee breeches with the buckles undone, and a blue sleeping cap on his head, appeared in the village hall. Here they immediately (as if to shoot burning soot from a chimney with a two barrel gun) announced officially that they had seceded and now were independent; requesting protection, instead of opposition, from the Council, because they had to follow God’s holy laws instead of the worldly.

(…)”What shall it be tomorrow?” was the question going round on Saturday 25 October. All sorts of rumours spread here: Reverend de Cock, Reverend J. van den Helm, the constable of Ulrum, called Jan Koster, and also the other constables present, as well as the earlier mentioned Klaas Wietskes had been summoned to appear in Appingedam at the courthouse on Friday the 31st; (…) Others said, that in Zoutkamp more than 40 ship’s mates, all big followers of their preacher Du Cloux of Vierhuizen, would appear armed with crankshafts, to help their reverend, whose turn it was, to the pulpit. One of the main Cock-friendlies (sorry, it’s what it says) said (and I have heard this myself): that opposition made matters worse, and if the constables had started anything, then it wouldn’t have stopped with the eight people (who had been summoned to Appingedam), and what would they have done against it? (…) followed by a much-meaning nodding of the head. He meant that a small force was like a drop of water in a coal fire, only stoking the heat. The sailors from Zoutkamp would not help either; because on Sunday the 26th so many people would come from Friesland, from the other side of the canal, from here to Delfzijl, to help De Cock in the pulpit, that nothing would stop them.

So, what did happen? Saturday afternoon, about 2 o’clock, an infantry company of the 10th division, one hundred men strong, not counting the officers (and Captain Vrij), came marching along the towpath from Mensingeweer to Ulrum, having come with three barges from Groningen city. (…) The soldiers were quartered with the villagers, and the night from Saturday to Sunday remained peaceful. (…)

The Ulrum rectory, 1925 postcard

Mr De Cock had not been forgotten in this respect, having aside from twelve men quartered in, also a guard at his house. Further there were no or few exceptions; all villagers, whichever denomination, were tasked with housing soldiers, of which butchers, bakers and pub landlords had the most profit: however much bakers were the main cause of the circumstances (Beukema, main church elder, was a baker and owner of half a dozen properties in the village). The girls too, being pious yet greedy, rejoiced, that Ulrum was enriched with a garison.

(…) Sunday morning, the 26th October, heard aside from the rumbling of clocks also the beating of drums. More than a thousand strangers (many out of sheer curiosity) came to Ulrum. This was the end of the handwringers’ mutiny: Soldiers who had withstood the siege and bombardment of the citadel of Antwerp in 1831, stood in line and received orders to loosen their ammunition belts. (…) The church was occupied and the reverend A.P.A. Du Cloux climbed without any opposition into the pulpit.

(…) De Cock wanted to go outside in the morning, telling his guard that he wanted to preach. (…) The guard simply kept him in the house and De Cock was not allowed to preach or go out. (…) Then came a crowd of Cock-friendlies to the rectory, and twenty were admitted, and now started a service in the presence of an officer, who quickly put an end to it.

To the south of Ulrum some of the pious gathered to hear a certain Roelf Medema, farmer in Adorp, in a field, while others played church on the sides of a ditch – then this crowd was soon disbanded.

(…) The soldiers muttered about the lady who’d have them sleep on straw, though they’d managed to get themselves beds, pillows, etc.

Reenactment soldiers at the 175-year anniversary

De Cock was now inaccessible under house arrest; and the guard at the rectory said: “He (De Cock) is not allowed out and nobody can visit him; if he has to go somewhere, an armed man goes with him, as well as with the missus, and even the maid is followed closely. All his papers have been sealed and moved away, so that he doesn’t even have a napkin left.” It goes without saying, that this was said in an exaggerated tone; only those papers were taken by the constable which had to do with his correspondence.

Everything is peaceful and quiet for now. Many poor villagers, who are not looking towards the coming winter without worry, are concerned that in their poverty they will be eaten out of bread and home, and complain about their guests. And also, these are soldiers from Holland (the west; Ulrum is in the far north), and they are not used to such guests. The soldiers guarding the rectory were also jealous that Mrs De Cock outdid them in swearing and cursing.

(…) Ulrum, 28 October 1834.

The Farmer, at the Grave of his Horse

The farmer’s life isn’t an easy one; Ymke’s father, in The Red Man, would agree with that.

As a farmer, Marten Douwes Teenstra drew the shortest straw. In 1819 he started farming on ‘Arion’, the farm his successful father bought for him. However, profit margins had collapsed due to cheap imports from the Americas, and he didn’t manage to make the farm a going concern. After five years of hard work, he threw in the towel. He became a civil servant, travelled to the colonies and wrote important travelogues and works on folklore.

In the early 2010s Teenstra’s home village of Ulrum saw some development; a new road was laid around the village for heavy traffic. The plan was that businsesses would be built alongside it. Someone suggested naming it “Teenstra Road,” but this was quickly shut down. Surely a road couldn’t be named after a failed farmer! As of 2020, only fields of potatoes and some lazing horses line the Industry Road.

Teenstra could be long-winded; make a punchy point, and then spend paragraphs, pages, diluting its impact because he couldn’t rein himself in. This was a particular problem in his own magazine, without the restraining hand of an editor. As shown by this short piece from a Frisian almanac from 1845, Teenstra at his best writes from the heart, with a shovelful of social conscience and a whiff of pity.


Here lies my loyal nag, who stiff and old of days
Till the end of its life, shackled in its harness,
pulled the plough through fields – ’till finally this beast,
hollowed out by hunger, gave up the ghost under the knacker’s knife.

And so this is my fate! What benefits me all my toil?
When another harvests the fruits for which I’ve had to plough,
When they milk, pick, shear, yes, skin my life away; I am
Worse off even than my horse, as it already lies dead by its grave.

Ulrum, 15 July 1844 M.D.T.

There Has To Be Flour

More from M.D. Teenstra’s “The Fruits from my Labours”, about his 1825 stay in South Africa.

A certain rich lady told me: “Over the mountain I have a big farm, and you should visit it – I’m breeding a lot of cattle and slaves there.” The slaves are not allowed to marry, though they are multiplying in abundance; many mothers have 8, 10, 12 and more children, each from another father – in which the English play a main part.

The prison and customs house for Cape Town in Teenstra’s time, called de tronk.

Then I walked to the tronk, or prison, and punishment place for the slaves, at the lower or north side of the Strandstraat. We shall not stay here for long, as I’m positive that you, like me, would soon get bored there. Picture that you’ll first pass through some barracks, where you find these unfortunate creatures locked up, almost naked and sometimes chained. You’ll find many in one barrack, and the filthy slaves and the Hottentots who smear a mixture of fat, oil, etc in their hair create an unbearable stench, while they lay on the ground like senseless creatures. Worse, yes much worse, than animals are these inhabitants of the country treated.

Christians, is what you want to call yourself, you white Europeans, who want to see yourselves as enlightened. Africaners, descendants of Europeans, get a hold of yourself and look at your poor slaves with compassion! Are they not your fellow creations? Are they not our brothers? And are they not with us the children of the same God and Father? Remember that after our days they will be equal to their master and the mightiest king. Remember that while you bury them at a different place than your own graveyard. Remember, I tell you, that they will stand in front of one and the same Judge, and will be in everything the same as you!

Then, looking closer at this prison, and going further into these barracks, my heart shrank at the screaming of a maid, who they had tied to a post in the courtyard, and gave her there a pack at the request of her owner; a pack consisting of 39 hits with a bundle of 5 or 6 thin reeds or with an end of rope. See, this is after the Jewish punishment laws: According to the Mosaic laws, one cannot give more than 40 hits. Only 39 were given, out of fear to have miscounted. This then happened at the request of the owner, without any juridical trial. Whatever the request of sir or madam was based on, the maid or boy would get a pack. And if you really were fed up with slaves, you’d send them to the treadmill, or present them at a sale, as we’d bring a horse to a market or public sale.

Then we finally come to the so-called treadmill, where we are met with the unpleasant smell of sweat. Here 10 or 12 slaves, wearing nothing but trousers, are pedaling on the wheel as punishment. This wheel is a cylinder of 6 or 7 meters long, and 2 meters in diameter. 24 or 25 thin boards have been placed round, like the ribs on a treshing roll, on which 10 to 14 slaves can be seen climbing upwards, holding themselves steady with a stick placed above the wheel. A police servant, called Kaffer, usually slovenly clothed, big drinkers and unfeeling creatures, keeps an eye an eye on this. The treading lasts from 7 in the morning till sundown, or the evening’s canon shot from the old castle, with some short breaks and a break from noon till 1. I saw some come off it who couldn’t speak a word, while their naked breasts and bellies were heaving like bellows. Some slave owners send unwilling slaves there for 6 or 8 consecutive days.

The worst thing of this is that it is necessary to always have enough slaves to operate this flour mill. The aforementioned servants of justice are wont to, especially on Saturday and Sunday evening, round up some drunk, rowdy or fighting slaves or Hottentots from the streets. Because without criminals the miller would not mill flour, and he wouldn’t be able to pay the rent to the government. And, of course, there has to be flour.

At The Body Of A Child

M.D. Teenstra’s anger is palpable and his pen is dripping with sarcasm as he reports a trial of a group of South African slaves who killed their masters, and the attitudes that lay behind it. In 1825 a slave named Galant led a revolt that consisted of twelve slaves and Khoisan labourers in the Koue Bokkeveld. They killed his master and two other whites before fleeing into the surrounding mountains. A commando was dispatched from Cape Town and captured Galant and his supporters. The below is edited from Teenstra’s fifth letter, of 22 June 1825, as published in his book The Fruits of my Labour. 

According to the slave Abel: “My master has always clothed me badly, and he punished me from the inside and outside.” (Meaning, alongside corporal punishment, hunger and thirst were used to punish). “My boss also had threatened my life, and that’s what brought me so far that I wanted to shoot my master. He has not once but three times threatened to kill me. I could try what I wanted, but it was never enough, even if I did all that was ordered; but I never complained, because I saw that whomever complained was beaten. There were six of us there, but now there are only three, the others having run away because of the bad treatment.” Abel added that it was during the harvest that his master had threatened to kill shoot them all. Abel was told however, that surely he knew that the threats of his master weren’t meant, because otherwise he’d have complained; and that, in general, a slave would be as safe in the care of his patron as a child in that of his father.  

Galant said: “I have to speak about my child, who is dead. His name was David, and his mother is the Hottentot Betje. My boss said she had to leave the child behind, who was 12 months old and began crawling through the house, as it was a bother, and the mother had to cook and watch the cattle. Once she found the child tied to a tree, and when she touched him, he began to scream; she looked over his body, and saw that he’d been horribly beaten, etc, and on further asking found out that my mistress had him tied up. My wife took the child in, and when the sores were almost healed and the child began to walk, it went to his mother, to the water. My boss then hit the child with a belt. The water was far from the house, the child was very quiet, and in the evening he died. When the child had died, nobody was called in to examine the body.” 

The Cape Town jurists said to me: “The fruit of our female slaves belongs to us from before the birth, and at a difficult delivery we have the choice which to keep.” See there, reader! How could the father and the mother, Galant and Betje, be angry about the death of their boy David? This child surely belonged to Van der Merwe, who could then, like the pups of a dog, drown it, beat it to death, or otherwise kill it as he pleased? 

All prisoners underwent their punishment and the heads of the three main prisoners were, according to the sentence, put on poles. There were but few people who came out to see this, and the interest was not as big as was expected. This, then was the ending of these unhappy slaves, by their masters mistreated, who committed their horrible crimes in retaliation for the crimes done to them, and were therefore sentenced to the punishment they deserved according to the law. But how far the owners of these slaves were themselves the cause of them committing these murders, I leave to the humble and objective reader. It is true that W.N. van der Merwe tortured to death an innocent child of only a year old; but remember then, that it was only a slave’s child. 

At the body of a child
The crawling caterpillar, tired of crawling
worn out in his narrow cell, 
Broke out of his prison, fluttering 
Beat its wings from the dried out shell.
See it float, see it sail, 
Fled from earthly soil and toil; 
Higher it flies, higher it lives, 
Tired of playing in the lower sky. 
Nurse, dry your wet cheeks, 
Don’t stare at the dead pupa, 
Don’t keep hanging from the web:
the butterfly can’t be caught again:
The angels in heaven take care of it now. 
                 – Hendrik Tollens Cz. 1808

With the Smash of the Hammer

Marten Douwes Teenstra’s time in South Africa was formative. Through what he witnessed there and as a colonial administrator in Suriname, he developed a conscience about his country’s impact on the world. On returning to the Netherlands, he campaigned for the abolition of slavery, which finally happened in 1863. While statues of slave traders are now pulled down in the USA and Europe, Teenstra’s native village of Ulrum has yet to honour him with as much as a memorial bench.

Cape Town, 25 June, 1825 

Something that hit me in particular was witnessing the sale of 19 slaves and children from an inherited estate. Imagine, friend, how in a public sale they were made to step on a table one by one, standing there to be auctioned off; these miserables, coming to the table, looking around the faces of the most interested, fearing that this one and hoping that that one would be the highest bidder, while they also look at the surrounding strangers and approve of them or reject them; and how important must this be for a slave on sale, as he and his will sometimes be subjugated to this family for a century, over many generations. 

Children below ten years old are no longer allowed to be sold without their mother. An old slave woman, brought here from Mozambique, who through her advanced years and her demanding slave work was already bending her head towards the grave, went to the table, bent over and supported by a stool; she wept heartbreakingly and cast her tearing eyes round the crowd, who all appeared strangers to her; some sparse hairs, white from age, hung wildly round her head, and how it struck me when she started talking to the people who bid on her (through long exposure to the Dutch she knew the language quite well): “I can not do any more, – I … old woman can nothing else than keep the fire in the kitchen and peel potatoes; – Och Seuer!” (she cried to one of the bidders) “Why then buy me?” and since she couldn’t fetch more than some rijksdaalders, she was allowed to stay with the inheritors, to her great happiness. But this joy didn’t last long: a healthy lad, a boy of 13, whose mother had died giving birth to her first child, was now presented for sale. 

The old woman was his grandmother, and as she had raised him since the death of her daughter, and he called her memme. For the blushing, but well-formed youngster were multiple buyers found, and he was sold for the paltry sum of 1300 rijksdaalders to a man who lived 40 days’ travel from the city, on the east borders of Kafferland. The boy, on hearing this, jumped up with the smash of the hammer (which must have sounded like the beat of thunder to him), off the table – his sadness went to anger and rage; but he was caught, bound and tossed onto the cart, and so was against his will transported by his new owner. 

According to the law of nature he had to give way to the servants of justice – the weak have to bow for the strong, and so he too had to obey. But what spectacle did now the visage of the senseless grandmother, this grey biddy, not offer! How she wrung her almost fleshless hands, when the boy said that he didn’t want that man as his Seuer – that he wanted to stay with his old Memme! – and under the screaming of memme! memme! memme! they carried him away like a piece of bought property, while he stretched out his hands to the old mother and maybe, for sure, saw her for the last time. That last look, that he cast on the frozen woman while uttering those heart rending words, also made the signs of humanity jump from my eyes, and I cursed loudly because his sad expression, now and then interrupted by the realisation of his disastrous fate, bored down through the bottom of my heart. 

This is how Christians act! – Christians? 

Marten Douwes Teenstra (1795-1864) – The Fruits of my Labours (1830) 

The Stone Itself Must Break

The Netherlands have a problem with racism, and it goes largely unexplored. In primary school I was taught that the country got rich from its trade in herbs and spices. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was not mentioned. After World War 2, the history books told us, the country set to rebuilding and that brought us into the ’50s. There was no mention of our colony Indonesia’s bloody independence struggle. If our colonies and former colonies were mentioned at all during geography and history lessons, they were no more than names and spots on the world map. They, and its people, never truly became part of The Kingdom of The Netherlands, and Dutch people from overseas are still seen as outsiders. Any dissenting word from them is often greeted with a curt “if you don’t like it, go back to your own country.”

The history of the colonies’ black people have historically been ignored, except by a few contemporary writers like Marten Douwes Teenstra, a colonial administrator in the earlier 1800s who became an anti-slavery lobbyist. It is through writings like his that some of the slaves in the Dutch colonies come to life, even if it’s on the eve of their death.

On the 3rd of September 1832 a group of men appeared from the Picorno Woods, just outside of the Suriname city of Paramaribo, and started a fire that would soon engulf the city.

They were slaves, who had fled into the woods after minor offences that would have awaited heavy corporal punishments. Kodjo had been sent out to sell buns, and had found himself 2.5 cents short at the end of the day. He knew that his mistress would have the whip ready, so he fled into the woods, as others would too. From their hiding place in the woods they would slip into the city to keep themselves alive with little thefts.

That day, they started a small fire at a shop, and planned to steal pickled meat and salted codfish in the confusion. However, there was a strong wind, and the fire got out of hand and leapt over to the neighbouring buildings. The next day, a large part of the largely wood-built city had burnt down.

The three young men who were seen as the leaders of the escaped slaves were Kodjo, Present and Mentor. They were tried and convicted to torture and death by burning.

The Dutch administrator and writer Marten Douwes Teenstra wrote at length about the trial and the young men. He visited them in prison, two days before their execution. He described Kodjo as about 30 years old, small of stature, with fiery eyes and some brands on his left arm. Present was thin, with many scars, a friendly face and a soft voice. Mentor was about 20 years old; he was the largest of the men, with a blue tattoo above his nose and on his forehead, and scars on his buttocks from previous punishments.

They sat patiently while they were sketched, and Teenstra remarks that they were very calm while even their clothes had been taken away. They seem to be resistant to any attempt to bring them to Jesus in their final days, and Present answers Teenstra’s question about how he feels with: “O, alla bakkra moesoe dédé toe!” – “O, even all white men must die,” after which Kodjo beat the stone window sill with his shackled hands and added: “Da ston srefi moesoe broko” – “The stone itself must break.

Present, Kodjo and Mentor

Five black men were executed on the 26th of January 1833, on the square now called “Kodjo Mentor en Present-pren”.

Of Fear and Ear Irons

From M.D. Teenstra’s Volksverhalen en Legenden:

So walks there even now (July 1840) in Ulrum an old baker’s woman, in life the wife of old boss (J.J. Beukema), who shortly after the death of his wife married a young woman, born more than half a century after him. Then could this young woman, as interloping replacement, rest as little as the deceased, who appeared in front of the bed where she used to sleep, sighing, floating, feeling with both hands along the walls of the chamber.

This frightened her so, as if the Devil had crept inside of her (and would that not be the case?) that she fled out of the window, called through the night for a neighbour, who however heard nor saw anything. Another neighbour, an elderman of the Separatists has seen the shade at the washtub, staring at her moving hands.

The grey baker sleeps now with his little wife in another bed.

Atje Jans Huizinga had died in 1835, though while it no doubt was her shade which can not rest, it is not because the baker remarried the next year, but because she had promised her golden ear iron (not Ulrum gold, which is false and yellow, the gilded copper that’s commonly used, but real gold!) to her granddaughter Atje, also living in Ulrum, and Old Boss now wouldn’t hand it over.

Do you understand now why this horible vision now shows itself as a small, old woman in a shroud?

“It is strange,” I heard a pious woman whisper recently in the Groninger dialect, “that this spectre has been seen so often, while most ghosts can be seen only by some.” “Yes,” another replied, “and what is most curious how Atje could find it while the whole house of the baker, after her death, was remodelled?”

“That’s why,” the first replied, “she wandered through the room, with the hands feeling the walls, though it is well possible that because of the remodelling she now haunts the garden and orchard.”

So far Teenstra. This photo above is from roughly 1910 and depicts my grandmother (bottom-left) and her sisters, with their grandmother, Jetske Lukas Meelker-Cazemier (1846-1932). The photo was taken on their farm in Midwolde, in the southern part of the province Groningen, away from the fertile sea clay. The old woman is wearing traditional dress, complete with lace bonnet.

But, what’s the business with the ear iron Teenstra wrote about? What is an ear iron, actually?

These drawings from 1857 helpfully show you the ear iron, used to keep the two undercaps, a white and black, in place. Originally, it would have been a much narrower band, made of copper. Its development went hand in hand with economic developments: the farmers in Groningen, especially the north, did very well after 1800, and they became a new elite alongside the merchant class. The ear iron soon was made of silver, and then gold – though of course ‘it is not all gold that glitters’, as per Teenstra. The ear iron became bigger too, until around 1870 it was sort of a helmet which covered the whole head. On top of the ear iron a ruffled lace cap would be worn, which would be secured to the ear iron with the ornate pins. Material, size and intricacy would denote your class and wealth.

Wills from the time show that parents wanted to see their daughters wearing ear irons before their 18th birthday, sometimes their 14th, and if a family fell in penury the ear iron was last to be sold; to have to do this was painful and humiliating. In the 1850s there already were some women’s groups who had decided to take off their ear iron, as they saw it as a sign of a backwards culture, not befitting the enlightenment thinking of the time. Others were fervently in favour of keeping their traditions.

My grandmother’s family was from the poorer peat grounds and removed from the richer north, and I would think more traditional. In 1910, my great-great-greatgrandmother would already be a fashion hold-out. Though her daughter is wearing the same cap, with the pins and (I guess) ear iron on a photo exactly 20 years later, it no longer is normal wear, but a fancy dress-up for her wedding anniversary, and maybe a memory to her mother and her heritage.

While it’s not explicitly stated, we imagine that Ymke, the protagonist of The Red Man and Others, also wears the traditional cap and ear irons of the north, when she’s still living on the farm.


Mermaids, more or less.

For a coastal region, the north of the Netherlands is peculiarly devoid of mermaid tales. Sure, K. ter Laan has an obligatory mention in his 1930s book, and digs up an old chronicle, and a century earlier M.D. Teenstra emptied out his box with index cards, but the legends are not as rich as those of white wives, devils, witches and devil dogs. Perhaps it’s because the local fishermen were too familiar with seals to mistake them for comely mermaids; when we visited the isle of Schiermonnikoog, we saw them fairly close-by, basking on the sandbanks.

Earlier we’ve written about the Wadden Devil, and Rem made an illustration of a mermaid with a story we’ve finished recently. Here are some other snippets on sea folk I’ve found.

Mermaid in the 15th century ceiling painting of the St Bartholomeus Church in Stedum. Click for the whole painting.

A Sea Woman

In the year 1558 Onno Leeuwe, with Jan Backer and others, saw a mermaid near Ameland, on dry land in shot’s distance, we shot at it with a gun, so that she screamed, then got back in the deep, and when Leeuwe sailed further, so came the mermaid up to the ship, lay both hands up the ship’s deck, and in the light of day cast a terrible eye on all, as was told by him and his son Lubbert Leeuwe. Source: Chronicle of Johan Rengers ten Post (1542-1626)

Mermen up the Lauwers

In the year 130 sea- or mermen appeared in the year 130 on the Frisian coast, and swam around. Two of them came to shore and went around Friesland for a while, without harming anyone. At Westerbierum (a now disappeared village) they jumped back in the sea. Source: Waling Dykstra (1821-1914)

Ascon, first duke of Friesland, for Hamconius’ chronicle, by Pieter Feddes van Harlingen

We already find these two mermen illustrated in the chronicle by Hamconius (1620), now as Tritons, blowing on their horns, as they come up the Lauwers, the inland sea that separates Friesland and Groningen. On the background the Cliffus Ruber, the Red Cliff of Gaasterland, on the other side of Friesland, from which comes fire and smoke, and a winged dragon, all harbringers of doom. On the foreground Ascon, the first Frisian duke.

The Frisian history books were long a mismatch of myth and garbled classics, and often the battlegrounds of nationalist politics. In the 19th century this lead to a spoof on this aggrandising of Frisian history in the shape of the Oera Linda book, which held that the whole of Greek myth is actually Frisian.

It was immediately taken for authentic.

The Mermaid of the Dollart

Where now the Dollart lies, between Groningen and Germany, was fertile land before; peat ground with woods, to which place names like Finsterwolde, Midwolde and Bellingwolde still refer. There also was a Reiderwolde, but you won’t find it on the map. It was in the Reiderland, which was drowned by the sea between December 1287 and February 1288.

In Onze Beste Volksverhalen Tjaard de Haan tells a Groninger seaman tells his stories of the sea. He also tells about the miraculous “sea wives” in which he says he does believe. Reiderwolde, he says, was drowned because it was a godless place, and its demise was announced by such a sea wife. She was caught in the nets and before she died on shore, she said:

Reiderwolde will disappear, no stone will be left upright!

Soon, her prophecy came true: Water soaked through the dyke, sea wish was found in the city moats, and yet nobody took heed. They were too busy. The pastor tried to make them repent in vain, until one night, when everyone was celebrating and getting drunk, a storm appeared and the weakened dykes washed away. Three people survived: The pastor and his housekeeper could just stay ahead of the waves and get to the higher sand grounds. Number three was a newly born child in a cot, kept upright in the waves by a little dog.