A journal entry and a proverb are brackets to the investigation:
1731. A Dutch VOC official at the Cape wrote in his journal: “December 31st, calm, settled weather. Nothing of importance occurred. An old slave woman, Maaij Claesje, died in the Slave Lodge”.
UNESCO 1960. Malian intellectual Amadou Hampâté Bâ related an African proverb: “When an old person dies, it is a library burning to the ground”.
The investigation begins 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 me to three documents referring to my grandmother-eight-times-removed, Maaij Claesje van Angola. The first has 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 refers 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. This 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.
Through a study of 17th century plant remedies for ‘women’s ailments’ – contraceptives, emmenagogues and abortifacients – and the changing conventions in which discussions around these subjects have been framed, the project seeks to explore bodies of knowledge that might have informed the practice of an enslaved midwife at the Cape. The project is following five streams of knowledge that would have flowed towards the Cape. The first is from Angola, in the person of Claesje and others enslaved with her. The second is from the Netherlands, through the bodies of Dutch/Flemish women who accompanied their husbands to the Cape. The third stream is from France, through Huguenot refugee women who emigrated to the Cape. The fourth is from South East Asia through the bodies of enslaved women taken to the Cape, and the fifth is through San and Khoi women already living in the Cape.