Stages of the voyage

Letter by Petrus Couperus

Honorable sir,

Writing this under the eye of het all-serving God who lives up high exalted, looks down and for whom nothing is hidden, with which I use the freedom to dedicate this small thing to Your Honor, whom I recognize as my lord and master as well as my judge.
I did not first think, nor did I first dare to put pen to paper to Your Honor. But when I thought that nothing was more certain than death, and nothing less sure than the time till death, I therefore deemed it useful to speak of that which occurs to the disadvantage of Her Honorable Commercial ships, instead of holding back.
To speak for myself, for while I was deathly ill when we departed from the coast, and while I was still weak and recuperating, so I found favor, unless it pleases heaven to take into eternity and I could hand this over to the second mate and third mate, to hand over to Your Honor. A copy of this rests with me, and while I know that Your Honor possesses knowledge of all the affairs of the Company, and that the books and papers are first handed to you, it is nevertheless my kind prayer that Your Honor might observe the events as they have occurred on the voyage and been written down by me with a careful eye, I will have the honor of reporting that and the things which happened to me in the following account, since they have not dared to place this in the logbooks.
I hope that Your Honor might hear this from the mouths of both the two mates as well as our author, and further the truth, which cannot and dare not be denied.

It was New Year’s Eve of the year 1765 when we were sitting aft, smoking a pipe of tobacco together, it being after eight, when the captain set up the watch. Since the crew were a bit merry, he ordered them to be quiet and head to the cabins, but they did not want to, and instead reviled him something bad, saying that they were drinking their own liquor, we work hard enough and therefore do not want to. First the boatswain started, and then the boatswain’s mate, who was egged on by the boatswain, as he has been a rascal since the beginning of the voyage.
Finally the captain threatened to fire shot at them. The first mate was standing behind the partition door watching through a crack, until it had taken long enough and he came up to the tent. He told both men to be quiet, and then told the captain, “You are too angry”, and then everyone was silent, though the captain did say, “I’ll find the boatswain and my cousin, that bald jackal whom I helped out of the dung, wait, tomorrow he will weep like a child”. But the next the day the affair was again settled.

This is only to show Your Honor what kind of command is run here, since they always try to do everything, that they have States-commissions and the right to demand papers from Dutch ships at sea, saying to the other captains, “I may punish my crew before the hub and you may not”, which they still told up to Paramibo, to captain Beekman, though they laughed about the words.

The second case was at Cape Lahou, where we are sitting at the table and telling the captain that the crew are asking for a woman, at which the captain said, “I do not understand such a thing, nor has it ever been my custom”. Kerkhoven replied, “It’s good for the negro women”, at which the captain answered, “It’s boy’s talk”. They grabbed at each other, at which Kerkhoven was hit in the head.
At this the aforementioned first mate took his knife, saying, “If I had you somewhere else, or privately, I would twist this knife into your heart”, saying, “I am no boy, but a man, and a boy is your father’s son. I am in the service, I Vlissinger, let there be no Middelburger to take this out of my hand, I am worthy of my rank, I a Vlissinger, let there be no Middelburger who takes that away from me, I am a man who is resolute, you have, if I say so myself, to face a resolute man, for if I had not shielded you you would have been gone long since. Come here if you dare, are you a man, such as you always say, reach for two sabers or two pistols for messing around with the fists does not prove anything, and whoever falls yields. Even then I will throw you over the boog and shout and say I will fire shot at you. But I know what kind of man you are (it being the proverb of new year’s eve), it’s a lot of crying and little wool. You don’t have Pruijmelaar before you, that was a coward. You should try something like that with me, I would have jumped in the waiste”. And he had rolled up his trousers, and was hitting the table with the dinner plates while continually holding the knife in his fist, uttering the most appalling curses. The crew was standing aft and hearing everything.

But what happened on another day, he was sitting aft with the boatswain, telling him how he had handled his captain, that being Soloni, on the previous voyage, that he had chased him out of the captain’s cabin with his saber in hand, and that he had walked past the main mast but stopped him at the foremast, saying once and for all at the beginning of het voyage, with a lot of clamor, that he was the brute, saying also that the idiot (the captain) won’t be able to do anything, yes not even go the toilet, or I will have to help him. The captain then spoke to me, saying, “Doctor, I will eat alone, I cannot eat with that idiot”, at which I told the captain, “do so”.

The second day the captain and first mate had not spoken to each other yet. Kerkhoven did not know how he would end up at aft again. The boatswain was also looking for some sailors to side with him (although none of them ever had a bad word to say to me) and to pretend it was my fault, although the boatswain later claimed this was done by Kerkhoven.

The boatswain also claimed that when he found that the first mate was fired from his duties, he had presented him with a pile of Zeeland rix-dollars as well as having given money to the crew to buy liquor, who returned the money again, and the boatswain didn’t dare receive it, it being presented to him, to reinstate him in his function.

It was the third morning when the boatswain came into the cabin, half drunk in the early morning. I was sitting on the bench against the mizzen mast and could hear everything clearly. The boatswain told the captain, “The doctor should leave the ship, or the crew will throw him overboard”. The captain then replied, “I know that boatswain, I had another such surgeon, named Nolton, a surgeon from Vlissingen, but,” he said, “what I did when we came home, I thwarted him so much that he could not get employed”. He then gave the boatswain a drink.
However, that same hour the captain called me, saying, “Doctor, the boatswain was here, speaking to me about the throwing you overboard”. Then he wrote the same in an old notebook, telling me, “Doctor, it’s nothing, I told him that, one, I won’t let him do it and two, I will put them to work and just pretend you didn’t hear anything,” to which I answered that I would do so and that I would inform my lord and masters of this. But when the boatswain complained of the first mate with the crew, I spoke with him and told him everything, then telling me, “I’ve known for a long time he was a rogue.”

From all of this Your Honor can see what cowardice was shown by the captain, who accepted everything the first mate told him like sugar in his mouth, not daring to answer back harshly, since he can only talk of his panache to people who don’t know him. If I should tell Your Honor everything that happened between the captain the boatswain, and the captain, boatswain and mates, I would need a book of paper.

Due to the serious illness I incurred when we left Elmina, near death, and the abuse aimed at my person is unheard of. Constantly he said with the worst curses, “Is he not dead yet? Come Abraham,” he said, “Give him something quietly, he does not know about it anyway, he is as good as dead, I see you as the doctor now.” Then he would come back, “Doctor, don’t worry, go ahead and die, I will see to it your wife receives everything”.
Then he said, “The captain has bought seven slaves for 1500 guilders, old and crippled, and it’s not permitted.” I, lying ill in my bunk, answered to that, “I do believe they are not worth half for the Company”. Then he wrote the captain that I had said such a thing. How was it possible that I, lying emaciated in my bunk and not knowing what took place on deck, could know about this? When I then later told the captain this, he said, “Kerkhoven is a rogue, it’s true I bought them at that price, but I did not see them (I leave this to Your Honor’s judgment).
The slaves that were bought here are grievous to see; no one else wanted them, some without ears, with stiff legs, lame hands, or those where the large toe should be under het little one, with injuries, although I said to the captain “That slave is no good, but I was not listened to”. Then he said, “Doctor, I can buy them cheaply, stiff because of scurvy, whom they are happy not to have in the ship, and then later they will come to the surgeon for an explanation.”

When we left Elmina, one of het slaves had died, the first one to die, he was old and grey. When we sailed down they were tormented throughout the cold and long voyage by scurvy, lying with high fever in the bunk, and because I was unable to do anything, they tried to blame me for the quick death of some the slaves behind my back, and that I had not reported this to the captain, partly because I was incapable of doing so, and because the captain was always ashore, nor did he pay much attention to me. After, he said, “It’s Kerkhoven’s fault.” He also said, “Report to the first mate”, so that he had full command. They promised him the ship when we would come home when I recovered somewhat, although I was still so weak that they had to help me with everything.
They even ordered me to keep a female slave alive, or they would put it to my account, as Your Honor can check in the logbook of the sick, given to doctor Van Berlecom. If Your Honor will see the other slave traders, which have already been mentioned in the letters to the lord directors, so that Your Honor can see that there must have been another cause. This Your Honor can investigate more closely at my safe arrival in the fatherland, long desired by me. I hope to provide Your Honor with such concise and clear testimonies as will satisfy Your Honor completely.

They ordered the lime juice on the word of sir Woortman, who was accustomed to give this to his slaves without knowing what caused the slaves’ sickness below decks and that was ordered by my surgeon’s mate, already when I was sick, without notifying me of it, which he also had to accomplish on orders of the captain, which I did, not wanting to default this request of the captain. I hung a note around the neck of each slave who had diarrhea due to the cold, or began to suffer from scurvy. I made a report of this, but mostly with bad results, until I told the captain that it was very harmful to the slaves, and I would stop, which I also mentioned in my logbook.

I had, Your Honor, 41 deaths in total during the entire voyage, 4 of which drowned while others, such as Beekmann, whose ship was with us for a while, had over 100, and all suffering from scurvy in Paramaribo. Casteleijn had 118 and eleven whites when he arrived in Surinam, and the other slave traders just so, although they have it on the list it is untrue, time will show (I say no more). Never was the tween deck smoked, although it was mentioned more than once that the lord directors had given me incense and juniper, but the answer was that this was not my, but his affair, and when he spoke to the captain of this later, Kerkhoven would have said it was my fault, and Kerkhoven again told me that the captain was lying.

Yes, they even egged the slaves on against me and the mates, saying that the surgeon is ottierama, he is no good, and of the mates that they are unsavory boys, that they had no input, but that he was their cuba, their bao, their captain and father.

I have by now had the honor of serving the Company on four different voyages, but never have I seen a first mate who was less skilled, always saying that I had nothing to do with the slaves if they were hurt, on which I hope to inform Your Honor further orally. It’s a miracle, Your Honor, that I did not lose my mind, for he first applied himself to remove both me and the second mate from board, thinking that then he would have his hands free, that the rest would be fine with it. This is why I tried, when I was still very weak, we were anchored at Accara, to get myself ashore, while he sought my death with the first mate. And since I still wished somewhat to live, but I told him I had not committed such evil that he could do something like that.

When I gave a warning, saying, “Mate, that slave is no good”, that being the bomba, then that was all he needed to know, without anyone checking it, until it came to the point that that slave intended to kill us all, then he was chained up, after having courageously beaten him up over the grate.

How he drank himself full and drunk during the voyage, even until Cabon, being nearly stark-naked, dancing with the slaves on deck, drinking together from a bottle, and that till late in the evening, so that we risked the danger of seeing the slaves walk off the ship, continuously walking completely drunk along the deck, holding the boer met singels [type of whip] in his hand and throughout calling to and fro, “I Keesje Kerkhoven”. He was hitting the slaves pell-mell, saying “I will ruin you”. The captain was off board, on the ship Europa, captained by Dankers, from Vlissingen.

So that I may not bore Your Honor I will shorten the rest. When were crossing the Atlantic, he was relieved from his duties and he went ashore after Paramaribo, because he said he was ill, and he put himself in the hands of doctor Van Wiers, who, being nearby, said little was wrong, and gave him some powders which were later found in his cabin, twisted in a note written by Visser, in which he notes that the master surgeon was in his bunk, unconscious, and that a slave had died. I keep it with me.

He went outside to play kolf [Dutch ball-game]. When he was there for some time he fell down, convulsing, as he has done before, displaying the most varying contortions in, soiling himself from top to bottom. At night two soldiers stayed with him, while he continuously called on Jesus, Maria, so the people knew no better than that he was Catholic, which was to his profit, for instead of getting away with 20 guilders he would not have gotten away with 50. The next day the sailors took him to the ship again, we left the river and sailed to the dear fatherland.

Then the captain called me to the cabin, alone, asking how it was possible to live with Kerkhoven, and wishing to have hire him again, saying he has not insulted anyone more than you and me. I answered that this was the captain’s affair, and that I would answer to mine. A few days later the captain had a statement drawn up due to his ill behavior and abuse, signed by all the crew.

Your Honor will hear more than enough, when it pleases heaven to return us to each other again, which I myself do not know and which does not pertain to me, although more criminal affairs took place.

This small sample is only to show Your Honor how desperate the situation can be on board Your Honor’s ships, of which no report is given. The true cause is this, that such captains always say, “We were believed and you dare not speak because we’ve made it so far without you being questioned”.

With which I wish to commend Your Honor, as well as the beloved wife and dear children to God’s favor, and place myself in Your Honor’s protection, using the freedom which has the honor to sign itself.

Honorable Sir, Your Honorable most humble

Servant, Petrus Couperus

On the Honorable Commercial Company ship Festina Lente, sailing at sea.