!midwif is the fictional spirit of Maaij Claesje

The project intends to recuperate the library that was Maaij Claesje of Angola, midwife in the Slave Lodge, enslaved woman, and ancestor to the artist. Brought as a 12-year old child on a shipload of enslaved Angolans to the Cape in 1658, Maaij Claesje lived to the age of 86. In 1689 she went aboard the Wapen Van Alkmaar on its voyage from the Cape to Batavia (Jakarta) to assist Geertruyd Chasteleyn with the birth of her child. In return for this service Maaij Claesje negotiated her emancipation. She later returned to the Slave Lodge to work as a ‘free’ midwife.

The investigation began with gaps in the record. On a hand drawn family genealogy drawn up in the 1960s my father’s family was traced back through his grandmother to the French Huguenots and Dutch immigrants to the Cape in the 17th century. The identity of a number of female ancestor were listed as ‘unknown’. With the help of genealogy software and the work being done in South Africa on the First Fifty Years project, it was not difficult to trace the ‘unknowns’ or, rather, the intentionally forgotten, those actively written out of the record. The First Fifty Years project and especially the work of Mansell Upham led to three documents referring to my grandmother-eight-times-removed, Maaij Claesje van Angola.

The first had her listed as one of the Angolan enslaved captives brought to the Cape aboard the Amersfoort in 1658. These captives, five hundred at the start of the voyage from Luanda, had been aboard a Portuguese slave ship heading for Bahia, Brazil. The ship was attacked by a Dutch VOC ship and two hundred and fifty of the captives were transferred to the Amersfoort and brought to the Cape. For an account of that voyage see Lost Volumes. I. A Tale of Ships. By This Account.

The second document referred to her death and gave rise to the title of the project. It is contained in the daghregister of a Dutch VOC official at the Cape, 1731. December 31st, calm, settled weather. Nothing of importance occurred. An old slave woman, Maaij Claesje, died in the Slave Lodge”.

The third set of documents reveals that Maaij Claesje, in 1689, was taken aboard the Wapen Van Alkmaar on its voyage from the Cape to Batavia, as midwife, to assist Geertruyd Chasteleyn with the birth of her child midway between the two ports. Maaij Claesje, it seems, was able to negotiate her emancipation in return for this service. She returns to the Cape and is listed as a ‘Free Black’. Later, for reasons uncertain, Maaij Claesje returns to the Slave Lodge.

The last set of documents suggests that Maaij Claesje had a degree of agency due to her knowledge or set of skills as a midwife. The project starts with a belief in this agency and sets out to imagine and/or recuperate what knowledge that might have been. What might an Angolan midwife at the Cape have known?