Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Presto returns to Ghana: Where to begin? (I)

At the Court of Orange-Nassau

Annemieke was able to make a detailed reconstruction of Christiaan's / Presto's life in the Netherlands, because the records about that life are abundant. I will not go over this here, as it would mean summarising three years of research, already published in Annemieke's blog extensively. Her own summary in English can be found here. Let us try to make a reconstruction of what we know about his early years in the Netherlands, however, and try to build a bridge to West Africa.

Letter to the King by Christiaan van der Vegt
Letter to the King by Christiaan van der Vegt, 1817
One of the most important sources for Presto's early life in Europe are the letters that he and his daughter Antje wrote to King Willem I of the Netherlands between 1815 and 1830. They contain intimate details about his early life at the courts of several members of the Dutch princely family of Orange-Nassau, and their spouses, and traces his presence back at least to 1760, when he was in his teens.

The letters, together with other evidence, also give an indication of his birth year, which can be pinpointed at circa 1743/1744. This means that between the hard evidence of his presence in the Netherlands and his birth in Africa there is still a gap of about sixteen years with limited information about his life and whereabouts.

By Pieter Frederik de la Croix - http://www.royaltyguide.nl/images-families/nassau/nassaudietz/1743%20Carolina.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5168933
Princess Carolina of Orange-Nassau
The records have turned up evidence to develop a hypothesis to fill this gap, and make a case for Presto's presence at Court since his arrival. They also allow for a hypothesis on the circumstances and date of his arrival.

So what evidence is there to support such a hypothesis? In his third letter to King Willem I of the Netherlands, dated 2 May 1817, Christiaan indicated that he had worked as a domestic at the Court for (inter alia) the Princess Carolina of Orange-Nassau (1743-1787), the King's aunt.

The period in which he was in her employ is not indicated and remains an educated guess for the moment. He may very well have been around at the time of her marriage in the Hague in 1760, to Prince Carl Christian of Nassau-Weilburg, who was also listed by Christiaan as an employer in his letters, after the marriage.

In a drawing of the wedding ceremony in the Grote Kerk in the Hague we find a single African young man dressed in the uniform of a boy-servant, standing with a group of people that can be qualified as the "court family," the household of the princess and prince. We can surmise that this is indeed Presto, celebrating the day with his protector. The full analysis by Annemieke, with source references can be found here.

Presto attending Carolina's wedding?
In the letter to the King from 1817 mentioned above, Christiaan also recalled his service as domestic to Carolina's brother Willem, whom he called his benefactor. It is unclear when he was in the latter's service, but in view of Carolina's difficult character - she is said to have been unable to keep her staff for more than a year - it is well possible that he served both brother and sister in the period before 1760.

So we can position Presto in the households of Princess Carolina and her brother Willem, we possibly have an image of him, and we know that he was born in or around 1743/1744. Then the next find may provide the key to his transfer from Africa to the Netherlands.

In 1748 the Prince-Stadtholder Willem IV and his family celebrated the birth and baptism of their newborn son and male heir to the position of hereditary prince-stadtholder, the later Willem V. On this occasion, on 20 April 1748, his five-year old sister Carolina was given a precious gift: "two small African Moors, as well as a precious hammock from that Continent."

Could one of the two children be Presto? The sources are elusive. The gift was mentioned in the newspaper, but without further details. So we do not know who the gift-giver was, nor the rationale behind it. The detailed financial administration of the court, kept in the Royal Archives in the Hague, was unfortunately not detailed enough to provide an answer either. Annemieke and I set up a search which yielded no additional information.

We do know a little bit more, however. The 'other' boy in the gift can be identified. He was given the name Fortuin, but died ten months later in the Hague, and was buried in or near the church of the neighbouring seaside fishing village of Scheveningen. The burial record identifies him: 'The little Moor of Her Highness the Princess Carolina, named Fortuin, transported to Scheveningen"

Bringing Presto back to Africa: the hypothesis

As for a hypothesis, we can work with the following suggestions:
  • We know that Presto worked for and lived with the Princess Carolina and Prince Willem. For certain in 1760, but possibly much earlier, without any evidence that proves he was not the boy given as a gift to Carolina in 1748.
  • We know Presto's approximate year of birth was 1743/1744, from a variety of sources, and that he was born in Africa. Evidence suggests, that, normally, African boys entered into European household service at an early age, not as teenagers.
  • When looking at the possibility of other African boys entering the Court's household between 1748 and 1760, the harvest is thin, or rather zero. There were other boys in Court, including two whom Christiaan mentioned in his letters, but their arrival cannot be aligned with the gift of 1748. In other words, Presto is our only candidate for the moment.
This would qualify Presto to be the anonymous boy in the 1748 gift.

But who then gave the gift to the Princess Carolina? This is an issue Annemieke has not yet written about in her blog, although she hints at it in the English summary, but for which we have strong indications based on evidence in the records and circumstantial evidence. In a later post we will address this question, the answer to which is an important starting point for our research in Ghana itself.

First we will look into the question how African boys came to the Netherlands from West Africa, and address the issues of slavery and slave trade with regard to this rather peculiar group of involuntary African migrants.

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