Tag Archives: Digital archives

Deciphering letters about slavery and abolition

Start screen Anti-Slavery Manuscripts

Easy access has become a byword not only for creating online versions of sources, but also for transcribing important source collections as part of efforts to bring them literally better into view for both scholars and the general public. The participants of transcribing and indexing projects certainly stand out from the crowd. Recently Boston Public Library partnered with the Zooniverse crowdsourcing program for a project concerning nineteenth-century letters about abolition and slavery. The Anti-Slavery Manuscripts was launched on January 23, 2018. The collection contains some 40,000 pieces from the 1830’s to the late 1860’s, after the Civil War, with at its heart documents and letters donated by the family of William Lloyd Garrison. Some 12,000 items in the collection have been digitized at Digital Commonwealth, the digital platform for cultural heritage collections in Massachusetts. Nearly 2,200 images have been selected for the first phase of this project. One of the themes in this collection is the role of women in the struggle for abolition. Deciphering these resources can at times be difficult, and it seems right to look here also at palaeography in the United States.

In my discussion of the project for these manucsripts I will look also at other crowdsourcing transcription projects. My search for American palaeography was not as straightforward as you might expect.

A community around abolition

At the start I want to stress the fact this project of Boston Public Library and Zooniverse runs smoothly. Almost four thousand volunteers have registered to transcribe letters, and the progress is good. You can follow the project on a special blog of the Boston Public Library. Besides the letters in the collection there are also pamphlets, broadsides, newspapers, books and realia. If the letters show us a more intimate side of the abolitionist movement, the newspaper The Liberator (1831-1866) founded by William Lloyd Garrison might aptly be named the motor and public actor of the movement. Interestingly, in her blog post about the history of The LIberator Kelsey Gustin draws attention to the changes in the masthead of this weekly published newspaper. These images depict not only black and white people, but also use art to convey at least a part of the inspiration behind the movement.

Only issues for the years 1831-1842 and 1861-1862 of The Liberator have been digitized at Digital Commonwealth. You can find information about more complete versions of this Boston newspaper in licensed digital collections in the online database of the International Coalition On Newspapers (ICON), hosted by the Center for Research Libraries, Chicago. There are complete digitized runs in open access at Fair Use and The Liberator Files.

The collection at Boston Public Library contains materials from several abolitionist societies, among them the Female Anti-Slavery Society. Unity about opposition to slavery did not take away the very issue of the participation of women and women’s rights in general, and thus these matters, too, appear in the letters. The correspondence preserved here came from both the United States and the United Kingdom.

Transcribing the letters

Work screen of the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts

Work screen of the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts

The 12,000 letters to be transcribed will be released in five sets, mostly in chronological order. There is a rather important blog post by Samantha Blickhan (IMLS) on the divisions of the fivesets and decisions to exclude a number of letters. Some of them have already been published in critical editions, in particular those of William Lloyd Garrison and Charles Sumner. In one case, the Ziba B. Oakes Papers, bring a series of letters by a slave trader. The first set now visible contains the oldest letters from 1800 to 1839.

You have to register in order to participate in the project, but anyway when you click on Transcribe in the menu bar you will view the tutorial explaining the way you enter your results. On the right there is a toolbar for navigation. In the top left corner you can enlarge or scale down the image, or go to other pages of a document. The Field Guide gives practical guidance to decipher letter forms and other elements of writing, and instructions to present such elements consistently and correctly in your transcription. After finishing a piece or when you have questions you might want to visit the forum at Talk for news, frequently asked questions, and for discussions about matters presented by the participants. Zooniverse Team member @GrifftinTranscribes answers questions as a specialist in nineteenth-century handwriting.

Screen shot Field Guide

When you notice you can open the Tutorial whenever you click on Transcribe in the menu bar or using the button to the left of the images, you would expect the same navigation for the Field Guide. In fact both elements become visible as pop-up-only screens. I was not able to detect their exact web addresses.Screenshot explanation on abbreviations

The Field Guide deals with fourteen subjects. The team behind the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts takes no risks and instructs participants explicitly to leave abbreviations as they are found in the letters. For further information they point to a web page of the National Archives and Records Administration for their projects under its Citizen Archivists umbrella. However helpful in many ways, this page does not contain every element of a full-grown palaeographical manual. When you visit the History Hub, a support community concerning American history managed by the NARA, you will encounter in the user forums a lot of very useful communities, including one for legislative records, but on this platform questions about handwriting have not yet been given a corner of its own.

An endearing and lively blog post about the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts has been written by Lisa Gilbert, an instructor who reports on the experience of 8th graders (13 tot 14 years old) who tried to read a letter from the collection in Boston. Line after line they struggled to understand the text. The struggle helped the teenagers to get an idea of what it meant to fight for abolition or for any political idea. Awareness of the fact how many questions you can ask from a single document was another thing becoming clear.

The uses of palaeography

If historians had read documents exclusively by fighting their way through original documents, instead of learning how to deal with all kind of scripts, not just from one century or in a single document genre, little could have been accomplished. The study of old scripts and their context is one of the earliest historical auxiliary sciences. Manuals and guides, including classic books on forms of abbreviations, exist in fair numbers. Since February 2017 I have tried to find online tutorials for palaeography and to create a commented overview of them on my legal history website Rechtshistorie. Sometimes it took quite an effort to find a tutorial or at least a digital version of a recent guide, in other cases it was almost a question of choosing the best. One of the things I spotted was a division in the United States and the United Kingdom between manuals aiming at reading genealogical records, and tutorials dealing with other historical records. The United Kingdom is well served with a large number of tutorials for dealing with either manuscripts or archival records, with also at least three websites for Scottish resources, but there seem to be few online tutorials for American palaeography.

You will find sources in American history written in many languages, and certainly not only European. For Southern states you must reckon with Spanish and French resources. The difficulty to read Dutch script from the Early Modern period in archival sources concerning New York has been the subject here of a post in 2015 about the transcriptions and editions of these invaluable materials. For the history of Pennsylvania sources written in German are important. It can be most useful to rely on palaeographical guidance for Early Modern records in these languages, even when they deal more specifically with records written or still held in Spain, France, Germany or the Low Countries. It can be wise to look at resources for Canada, too, but in fact my harvest for Canada is until now distinctly meagre.

Let’s look at these online resources aiming specifically at the United States and Canada. For Canadian history I have not yet found a resource which deserves to be recognized as a tutorial. The only resource I found for Canada after repeated searches is a contribution by Leah Grandy for Early Canadiana, aptly called ‘Skills for historians of the future: palaeography’, and her two posts on palaeography (here the second) at the blog of The Loyalist Collection, University of New Brunswick. There is a Study Guide Colonial Handwriting, created in connection with the Indian Converts Digital Collection, Reed College, Portland, Oregon. The study guide accompanies a digitized version of a 1727 book on Indian converts. You can test your knowledge of Early Modern handwriting with an online tool of Reed College, Early American Handwriting. DoHistory has created How to read 18th century British handwriting, a companion to Martha Ballard’s diary for the years 1785-1812 [Augusta, ME, Maine State Library, ms. B B 189]. The State Archives of North Carolina in Raleigh have published three consecutive blog posts, What Does That Say? Deciphering the handwritten records of Early America. The posts present colonial documents. They provide also a bibliography and links to digitized works. Perhaps the most surprising tutorial comes from the Smithsonian Institution. Reading Colonial Handwriting is part of the section Just for Kids! of the virtual exhibition Out of the mails created by the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. Two of the manuals mentioned in this paragraph deal only with eighteenth-century documents. To say the least, American history covers by all means a much longer period.

The need for an online tutorial for American palaeography was the subject of a short blog post by Ricc Ferrante on the blog of the Smithsonian Institution Archives, ‘Is there a place for palaeography in the archives?’ (January 23, 2018), incidentally also the day the Boston Public Library launched its project. The Smithsonian Institution Archives deal with the history of this research organization with many branches. The SI Archives support also the Smithsonian Digital Volunteers and its transcription center. It provides general tips for transcribing, and also more specific instructions for transcribing historical documents, and eight other sets of guidelines, for example for transcribing the papers of the Freedmen’s Bureau which dealt with abandoned properties after 1865 in the aftermath of the Civil War. Just as the NARA for Citizen Archivists the Smithsonian Institution provides substantial transcription guidance. Explaining such rules is definitely important, but they do not substitute palaeographical guidance.

Ferrante did not find quickly an online palaeographical manual for American documents, and thus he choose some of the websites mentioned in the fine overview in the Folgerpedia of online resources for English palaeography. The quality of this overview is excellent, but it can suggest no online tutorials for American handwriting exist. Ferrante started his search for an online manual when he tried to read a handwritten journal from the mid-1840’s. He signals also the difficulty to read old cursive scripts for those who have not received any instruction in cursive writing, and he hesitantly admits a place for palaeography for historical periods after the Middle Ages.

The development of palaeography as an auxiliary historical science started mainly for dealing with medieval documents and manuscripts, but it widened its territory soon. Historians can choose to study only printed – or typed – resources, especially for modern history. However, we know how important it is to use letters and diaries, drawings, poems and daily notes – scribbled or in capitals – from the Civil War, First World War, the Depression Era, the New Deal or the Second World War.  These sources help to give us vivid details in order to understand these periods better or to raise questions about our understanding and views. In official records, too, we can encounter handwritten elements. In my training as a historian following courses in palaeography was optional. I still remember the collective sigh of satisfaction after our first lessons, because getting the skills to read original documents felt immensely practical.

The absence of online tutorials covering several periods of American history does not mean nothing can be done. In particular the series Script Tutorials of the Brigham Young University helps you reading texts in seven languages, but the focus is clearly on genealogical records. However, at some point you will want to consult other resources genres, too. Tax registers and military records contain valuable information about your ancestors, and it would be a pity if you are unable to read them by lack of some necessary skills which can be taught and learned without too much effort. Apart from universities archives often offer courses.

Zooniverse has several projects concerning or touching American history, for example on African-American Civil War soldiers, and The American Soldier about the aftermath of the Second World War. Projects on the League of Nations in the digital age and concerning coded information during the Civil War are currently paused. For these telegrams you can benefit from a blog post with the title ‘Now I Know My (19th-Century) ABCs’ by Mario Einaudi (Huntington Library). Of course other crowd transcription projects exist. A cursory look at the overview of such projects provided by the American Historical Association should suffice you of their widespread occurrence.

I could find little about palaeography on the website of the AHA and the Society of American Archivists (SAA). The useful and concise AHA Guide to Archival Research has a short paragraph about the need for palaeographical skills, with some lines worth quoting: “Get ready to read script. Do not be surprised when 15th-century documents are not typed”. This piece of advice is found typically in the section on research abroad, but you will read older scripts already when dealing with the colonial period. The fact this guide is also downloadable with the title Research Trip Tips is telling. Skills and competence in dealing with unfamiliar scripts is only implicitly reckoned among the capability to interpret historical records in the 2005 AHA report about essential skills for the MA in history degree. The SAA certainly brings into view the variety of skills archivists do need today.

When you search at the website of the SAA and in The American Archivist (AA) you will find palaeography in many cases associated with medieval and European sources, but you might want to read articles such as Laetitia Yeandle, ‘The evolution of American handwriting in the English-speaking colonies’, AA 43 (1980) 294-311, and Alfred E. Lemmon, ‘The archival legacy of Spanish Louisiana colonial records’, AA 55 (1992) 142-155. Laura Schmidt’s fine guide Using Archives: A guide to effective research – also downloadable (PDF) – mentions reading skills in particular in a paragraph about scheduling time for the unexpected. Sometimes my memory comes back of a visit to an archive more than thirty years ago where I found myself dumbfounded by a document in front of me. I was unable to even start an attempt to decipher it. Online tutorials and many digital collections with archival records can provide you with the same shock which should make you think and reconsider your abilities.

In 2016 The Junto: A group blog on Early American History, an initiative of young historians, brought Archives around the Atlantic, a series of contributions on doing research in archives and libraries in Spain, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. Reading skills figure in some of the posts, but seldom as a central or essential skill. The Dutch period of the East Coast has been completely overlooked in this series. Sometimes there is a hint to use the library of an archive to consult relevant literature and manuals. I would agree in principle that you should acquire knowledge of the nation’s palaeography you will encounter probably most times in your particular field of Early American history, but there will be moments when you have to cross linguistic and palaeographical borders. Some areas changed from Spanish into French possession. For Canada you will need both French and English palaeography.

American palaeography, a distinct field

In this post we made a journey from a very particular subject, sources concerning the abolition movement, to sources for American history more generally. Perhaps trained historians are those who generally will less often need online tutorials in their professional life, but others do not benefit from their head start. Relying solely on palaeography from one country ignores the fact migrants to the United States came from many countries, and not only in those states known during the first half of the nineteenth century as The Territories. If people increasingly do not any longer learn cursive writing, any form of training to read cursive scripts becomes necessary. It is paradoxical to create exhaustive transcription guides to ensure enhanced fidelity for editions, and at the same time to assume everything is readable without preparation or instructions. The need for a distinct palaeographical approach of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries will steadily grow.

In my opinion Zooniverse is in the position to help creating rather quickly a basic palaeographical manual for American history using both the Field Guide of the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts and the blog post of Mario Einaudi created for Decoding the Civil War. If they consider themselves unable to achieve this, a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution’s transcription center is one of the logical directions to take. Surely one or more a state archives, university libraries or major research libraries such as the BPL, the Newberry Library in Chicago or the Huntington Library are capable of combining forces to create it, and perhaps add materials for advanced needs. It will help not only the volunteers in transcription projects, but anyone interested in American history and able to view the massive digital collections with images of American handwritten documents. Of course there are classic printed guides such as Kip Sperry’s Reading Early American handwriting (Baltimore, MD, 1998) and Harriet Stryker-Rodda, Understanding colonial handwriting (Baltimore, MD, 1986), but there is room for online manuals, too.

Doing history calls for many skills. When you cannot readily start deciphering written records because you do not have reading skills, you are unable to interpret them and use them in your research. Others might help you to read archival records in some cases, but not always. Palaeographical skills can be decisive for the success of your visit to a local archive or to an archive which you can only reach after a voyage. Let reading skills accompany your historical voyages, be they virtual travels at your computer screen, reading books with images of written documents and manuscripts or visiting archives to use historical records!

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Suriname’s slavery registers unbound

Start screen slavery regisyers, Nationaal Archief, Suriname

On July 1, 1863 slavery was officially abolished in Suriname. A ten-year transitional period followed during which former slave owners received a monetary compensation for each former slave. Since many years people originally coming from Suriname celebrate in The Netherlands on July 1 the feast of Keti Koti, “The Breaking of the Chains”. It is only fitting that last week the digital version of slave registers kept between 1830 and 1863, now hold by the Nationaal Archief of Suriname (NAS) in Paramaribo, was launched by a number of institutions led by Coen van Galen at the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen and Maurits Hassankhan at the Anton de Kom Universiteit van Suriname, with support from the Dutch National Archives in The Hague.

Last year I reported here on the project to move a number of archival collections concerning the history of Suriname from the Dutch Nationaal Archief to the NAS, and to digitize also a number of these collections. Collections with relevancy to legal history figure large among them. The digitization of the slavery registers is a key element completing the efforts for digital access and conservation, indexing the registers and making them much more accessible for researchers and the general public worldwide. In this post I will look at these registers and their online presence.

A crowdsourcing project

Logo crowdsourcing project "Maak de Surinaamse slavenregisters openbaar"In January 2017 the project for indexation and digitization of these slavery registers started, just after the transfer of important archival collections from The Hague to Paramaribo. A campaign with the slogan Maak de Surinaamse slavenregister openbaar, “Make the Surinam slavery registers public”, proved effective. Some 600 people donated money for the project, and some 400 volunteers helped indexing the registers. To put the record straight, anyone could and can come to these archives to gain access to the original volumes, provided their material state is not too fragile. It is safe to assume that you need to come with good arguments to touch them now they can be consulted online. The Dutch National Archives did already provide public access. The operation to bring archival collections back to Suriname created a more urgent need for conservation and digitization.

The digitized registers now in Paramaribo [NAS, toegang (finding aid) 16, inv.nrs. 1-43] can be accessed using an index form shown above. On purpose the NAS has not placed these registers among its forty digitized archival collections. The Dutch National Archives provide also online access to the slavery registers among its ever-growing set of online indexes. You can download the index in its entirety (4,2 MB, zipped file). At this point something becomes clear when you look at the URL of this file, a web address in The Netherlands at the search portal Ga het NA of the Nationaal Archief in The Hague. The search form of this digital resource at both archives is almost, but not completely identical.

Accessing the slavery registers

Logo Dutch Nationaal Archief, The Hague

You can use either a simple search form (Eenvoudig zoeken) with three fields, one for a free text search and two fields for setting a period, or go to Uitgebreid (Advanced search) with more fields. In the second mode there are additional fields from the slave name, the name of the mother, and the name of the slave owner. You can click on the search results in order to get both the information on a person, including also gender, references to the registers and the type of register – with its inventory and page number – and an image of the page in question. It is possible to zoom in at will to any image. Each scan has an individual URL, a URL from my country when viewing individual results, meaning there is one single database behind the two versions. By clicking on the field name in the results you can change their order. You will find either the names of owners or the name of the plantation and its location.

NAS, series 16, no. 34, fol. 2667

It is not my purpose to single out here any defects and omissions, but a few things are very visible. First of all the version hosted in The Hague contains additional information which is not or not yet provided at the website of the NAS. The section Achtergrond (Background) informs you about the information given in the search fields, with a second page about slavery in Suriname and the introduction of slavery registers and their survival. There are important losses, not in the least some registers of slaves owned by the Dutch colonial government. In the registers mutations such as birth and death, acquisitions and sales should be written down. A third page on Gebruik (Use) contains instruction on the use of the indexes and the interpretation of results, and also a handy list of common abbreviations in the registers. The other pages contain a colophon about the project and the user license (CC-BY-SA 3.0 NL).

A second thing to note is the incomplete translations in the English version of the search form. Even the simple search form has not yet been translated completely. The field names in the results screen have not been translated. A much sillier thing becomes also visible: In cases where there is no gender information, the volunteers entered the word Leeg (Empty). I suppose there are more concise and effective ways to convey the fact that no data have been entered in a particular field.

Viewing the context

Using to a large extent at this moment only Dutch for this project is not a particular lucky thing, and you can even extend this to the project website. Translations in languages such as English and Sranantongo are not just welcome, they are simply needed to really open this resource to people worldwide with interest in Caribbean history, the history of slavery or Dutch colonial history. For any project on Dutch colonial history in the East Indies contemplating translations into English and/or Bahasa Indonesia is luckily a natural thing. The project team states flatly these registers are a worldwide unique resource, the only series of its kind. On the project website some further, rather important explanations about the actual state of the slavery registers are offered. It appears no general index to the series existed. Some registers could be consulted on microfiches, but without one or more indexes searching would mean wandering in a jungle without much hope for any results. The thing to note here is that only in 2017 the need for an index was perceived as sufficiently urgent to start a project to deal with this sorry situation. Earlier on having only severely hampered access seems not to have led to constructive action. Van Galen and Hassankhan rightly stress the importance of the slavery registers for not only genealogical research, but as a key resource to connect with the manumission registers, neighbourhood registers of the city Paramaribo and other sources for Suriname’s history during the nineteenth century. The historic context and the slavery registers can enrich the information contained in them in both directions.

Surely we need to thank Coen van Galen and Maurits Hassankhan and the army of volunteers who succeeded in getting their tasks completed in time. Van Galen and Hassankhan provide on the project website a very useful page with four PDF’s with information that should immediately be included on the websites of  both versions of the online index. The project leaders provide a list with the names of plantations and other Dutch posts in 1834 (530 kB), a list with the names of free people in Paramaribo in 1846 (2,2 MB), both created by Huub van Helvoort, a list with first names of enslaved people on a number of plantations (70 kB), and even a list of letter forms, letter combinations and some Dutch words in nineteenth-century Dutch script (650 kB). It is good to see some basic historical skills are not forgotten! However, to my disbelief I did not find on the project website the URL of the index, not even after a few days… The slogan Open the slavery registers seems to have been at least temporarily forgotten by the web team. More down to earth, the current summer heat in my country, the gulf of enthusiasm about the launch, and the very end of the academic year created perfect excuses for forgetting to open literally the doors to the final results of the project also at the project website. The absence of news items from June and July 2018 is another indication for the sleeping state of the project website.

Such omissions and minor problems can be fixed quickly. I would urge anyone involved with this project to proceed as soon as possible with distributing lacking information to both versions and completing the translations. This succesful project well deserves this last effort to remove the barriers and chains which hindered easy access and practical use. The slavery registers of Suriname deserve interest from many corners.

A postscript

The uniqueness of these slave registers should be considered in the light of the presence of similar registers held at the Nationaal Archief Curaçao (finding aid 005, Archief Koloniale Overheid, nos. 1-1070).

Deciphering texts and Dutch legal history

Historians sometimes dream just as much as anyone else of immediate and intimate contact with the past. Museums nowadays create exhibitions and permanent rooms where often the experience of artefacts and objects is as important as the objects themselves. Historical documents can work as a time capsule, in particular when you have letters or diaries in front of you. Within several projects around the Prize Papers of the High Court of Admiralty held at the National Archives, Kew, letters take pride of place. Digitization projects have helped to approach them more directly than ever before. However, scholars sometimes sigh in front of historic Dutch handwriting. Is there any help in English for those wanting to decipher and study Dutch materials from the medieval or Early Modern period? In this post I would like to look at a number of online tutorials and guides, in order to compare their qualities, and to address also some of the difficulties you encounter. Two online projects prompted me to look here at Dutch palaeography and to search for online assistance in English.

The challenge of Dutch handwriting

A number of posts at my blog deal with old Dutch documents. I have looked here both at the Dutch letters surviving the centuries within the Prize Papers, and at projects dealing with other series within the archive of the High Court of Admiralty. In 2017 I looked at the 1623 Amboyna conspiracy trial with a numver of archival records in Dutch with transcriptions and translations into English. Faithful readers might remember my summer posting about the colonial records of New Netherland in New York. Part of the success to edit and digitized these records was the labor of several archivists and historians to transcribe these records. Some of these transcriptions proved to be crucial when a fire in 1911 hit the building of the State Library of New York destroying a substantial number of these Early Modern archival materials.

In 2017 the department of Dutch Studies at Berkeley finished a project to publish transcribed Dutch colonial records in the Sluiter Collection of the Bancroft Library. Engel Sluiter donated his transcriptions made in Europe of Dutch archival records in 1996 to this library. You can download a PDF (3 MB) with a list of these materials prepared by Julie van der Horst. Seven boxes contain materials dealing with the New Netherland implantation. In this case the typed transcriptions were OCR-ed and checked by Julie van der Horst who is fluent in Dutch. Knowledge of Dutch was in this case more important than palaeographical skills.

The only tutorial for Dutch palaeography in English will be launched soon at the Script Tutorial of the Brigham Young University. It will appear in an English and Dutch version. The second project shows not only original documents in Dutch, but also transcriptions and for a number of them English translations. The transcriptions of a key document are shown line for line below snippets of the original record, thus approaching the qualities of a palaeographical tutorial. In fact I encountered the website because of the main resource, the journal of Hendrick Hamel (1630-1692). Hamel sailed in 1653 with the Dutch vessel De Sperwer from Batavia (Djakarta) on Java with the Dutch settlement at Deshima in Japan as final destination, but he ended in Korea after a shipwreck. He was arrested and lived for thirteen years as a prisoner in Korea. In 1666 he could escape with seven shipmates to Japan. Back in Java he wrote his report, which was first published in 1668 and quickly translated.

Hamel’s report is not a ship journal kept by the captain. For two centuries it was almost the only European eyewitness account of Korea. The contemporary translations contained numerous mistakes which were taken over at face value, without much inclination to go back to the original texts. Henny Savenije, a Dutchman living in South Korea, wrote with Jet Quadekker a book about Hendrick Hamel with a new edition of the Dutch text, Het journaal van Hendrick Hamel : de verbazingwekkende lotgevallen van Hendrick Hamel en andere schipbreukelingen van het VOC-schip de Sperwer in Korea (1653-1666) (Rotterdam 2003). On his website he presents a set of materials surrounding Hamel’s journal, with images of archival records, transcriptions in Dutch and English translations. For clarity’s sake you can find here an English translation of Hamel’s report about Korea which is actually quite brief.

Hamel's journal in the 1920 edition

Hamel’s journal in the 1920 edition by B. Hoetink – image The Memory of The Netherlands

I would like to focus here on the archival records at Savenije’s website and their treatment. The presentation, transcriptions and translation of Hamel’s report are the core of this website. The report is mainly written in a very fluent hand using a large script taking 51 pages of a register, referred to as “Nationaal Archief, nr. 1265”. If you look at the line-by-line transcription – here fol. 1155r – you can see for yourself the accessibility of this script. However fluent its look-and-feel, it nevertheless poses a challenge when you are used to English handwriting. In the modern edition of the Dutch text by B. Hoetink an image of the first page of the journal is included [Verhaal van het vergaan van het jacht De Sperwer (…) (The Hague 1920; Werken uitgegeven door de Linschoten-Vereeniging, 16)]. Hoetink’s edition is available online at The Memory of The Netherlands and in the Digitale Bibliotheek der Nederlandse Letteren (text-only).

Title page of Hamel's journal, Rotterdam 1668

Title page of Hamel’s report in the edition Rotterdam 1668 – copy Oxford University

I had intended to go quickly to the other Dutch records at Savenije’s website, but unfortunately navigating this site is not straightforward. It took me some time to retrace the page with images. The central page where you can choose other records is presented as an appendix (bijlagen) in spite of its central function. However, you must applaud the presence of both English and Dutch versions, but you become acutely aware of the difference between using the original or depending on translations with all their qualities or deficiencies. Savenije gives a list of seventeenth century Dutch editions and translations, and also modern editions. It is strange he does not recognize the Linschoten Vereeniging as the Dutch pendant to the Hakluyt Society, both societies which promote modern editions of Early Modern travel accounts.

A second matter which deserves attention is the incomplete reference to the source. The Dutch National Archives at The Hague are home to 100 kilometer of archival records. For the Dutch East India Company, the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), you can use finding aid 1.04.02. No. 1265 is described as “1668 FFFF. Vierde boek: Batavia’s ingekomen brievenboek, deel II 1668”, a register of incoming letters at Batavia for 1668. Alas there are no digital scans of this register. You will recognize the need for a proper reference when you see the wealth of archival collections worldwide in the overview of relevant collections for the VOC at the TANAP portal. If you search for Sperwer in the TANAP database of VOC records you will get three results. Two of them refer to the register no. 1265, entered both for 1653 and 1666, as “Journael gericht aenden Ed. heer gouverneur generael Joan Maetsuijcker en d’Ed. heeren raaden van Nederlants India vant geene de overgebleven officieren ende matroosen vant jacht de Sperwer ‘t zedert 16 Augustij anno 1653 dat tselve jacht aan ‘t Quelpaerts Eijland hebben verlooren tot den 14 September anno 1666 dat met haer 8 ontvlught ende tot Nangasackij in Japan aangecomen zijn; int selve rijck van Coree is wedervaren mitsgaders den ommeganck van die natie ende gelegentheijt van ‘t land”, a report written for governor Joan Maetsuijcker and the council of the Dutch Indies by the remaining officers and men of the yacht Sperwer, how they were shipwrecked and escaped to Japan, and their notes on the kingdom of Korea, to be found on the pages – in fact folia! – 1155-1179. You can guess I would like to have precise references for any document for which Savenije has created a page with the Dutch text and an English translation, for example a notice from 1666 in the daily register of the Dutch settlement Deshima, an island in the harbor of Nagasaki. During two centuries it was virtually the only point of direct contact between Japan and Europe. Incidentally Savenije’s large pictures of the 1668 register are not sharp enough to be usable, but luckily those smaller selections you will see with the transcription are most readable.

The thing to note here for legal historians is the way Hamel was treated in Korea, his position with the Dutch in Deshima, and the procedures of his superiors who interrogated him about his adventures and prolonged absence. In the Short Title Catalogue Netherlands you search for the various editions until 1800 of Hamel’s report in the Dutch version.

Other roads to quick insight

By now you might conclude I am all in favor of good tutorials with proper references, transcriptions and translations, and I will mention some of them later on. I feel even tempted to ponder creating a tutorial myself, but I had better send you first to two portals with a lot of Early Modern documents in Dutch and a substantial presence of legal documents. Surprisingly art history comes here to help my needs.

Header Remdoc - KNAW/RU

At the portal Remdoc, a project fo the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences and the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, you can consult many documents about or related to Rembrandt van Rijn. It is the companion to The Rembrandt Database with information about his paintings, drawings and etchings. At Remdoc you can easily choose among 100 court records, 182 municipal records and 316 notarial acts. You can filter for holding institutions and even for the kind of document you would like to see. The Dutch terms are translated in English. Depositions, tax rolls, affidavits, fines, securities, inventories of insolvency, probate inventories, marriage announcements, two pleadings, due bills, you name it and you can get them. In many cases you will find images of the documents.

Document of a loan, 1653

Obligation to Rembrandt, 1653 – Amsterdam, Stadsarchief, Notarieel Archief, no. 1029B, p. 913 – image Remdoc and Stadsarchief Amsterdam

I picked a document for a loan Rembrandt got from Christoffel Thijsz. in 1649 to buy a house. It is the small inserted document at the right. The Remdoc project gives you a zoomable image, exact references about the source and relevant literature, a transcription of the seventeenth-century Dutch and a translation in English. This document tells you Rembrandt had failed to repay this loan for the purchase of his house, the very Rembrandthuis in de Sint-Anthoniebreesteeg – now the Jodenbreestraat – worth 7000 guilders in 1649, and that Christoffel Thijsz. claimed this sum with three years interest and additional costs, a total of 8470 guilders. The comments on the page of the portal explain the context of this document.

The due bill, 1653

Sometimes there is no other road to a destination than going the long road, and in my view it is not a punishment to learn about Rembrandt, by all accounts no stranger to human failure. His greatness is the way he conveyed his insight into human nature with consummate artistry. In Rembrandt’s work you have the uncanny sensation of knowing intimately the people facing you. It makes his series of self portraits into a touching voyage through his life.

The city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc), the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences and again the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, have created a similar project for Jeroen Bosch called BoschDoc. On the project website you can use either the Dutch, English or Spanish interface. Here, too, you will find a wide variety of sources and often images of original documents, but always at least a transcription, a translation, comments and further references. Art historians are familiar with the Montias database of 17th century art inventories of the Frick Collection in New York, but the Montias database does not include images of archival records. Dutch probate inventories have been transcribed for a database of the Meertens Instituut for Dutch ethnology, Amsterdam. The website of Joseph Byrne (Belmont University) will guide you to literature about ancient, medieval and Early Modern wills and probate inventories. I would almost forget the website of the Amboyna Conspiracy Trail where you can find a number of Dutch records, transcriptions and English translations side by side.

Learning by doing

In the current absence of an English online manual for Dutch palaeography it is sensible to search for a collection with online images of documents, transcriptions and translations in order to guide your first steps in a language that might sound strange to you and certainly differs from modern Dutch, and in a script that might look baffling. If I had to deal with similar documents from another country I would perhaps also start searching for a project presenting documents around a famous person. For example a search for Early Modern letters at Early Modern Letters Online (Bodleian Libraries, Oxford) would certainly bring you to a helpful project. Such documents offer a great training ground. In my view the only way to maintain your skills in deciphering old scripts is by regular exercise, but you will need initial training. At many universities and archives you can join groups to acquire palaeographical skills. Online tutorials can surely help you to overcome unnecessary fear, but they can also make you aware of real difficulties.

Since a year I have been collecting online resources for palaeography at a new page of my legal history portal Rechtshistorie. Until now I have found ten tutorials for Dutch palaeography. Since 2016 three archives in North Brabant and the Utrecht archives offer at Wat Staat Daer [“What’s That?”] a tutorial, and at an online forum people can upload images with their questions. In a few cases people from Canada came with Dutch documents they considered illegible or in other respects too difficult for them.

Banner Haagse Handschriften

The only tutorial from Belgium, Iter-digitalicum from Leuven, scores points with a poster in English with core information, something missing elsewhere. Apart from many texts in Dutch you can view in the gallery with nearly 700 manuscripts also manuscripts written in Arabic, Armenian and Coptic, and for example humanist letters to and by François Cranevelt. It would mean writing another post if I would give here a full comparison of these tutorials, but not the least among them is Haagse handschriften [Manuscripts from The Hague], a website of the municipal archive, focusing on sixteenth-century criminal law, a register of criminal jurisdiction for the years 1575-1579 called Quaetclap [literally “Slander”] (HGA, Oud Rechterlijk Archief, no. 1) with facing images of the register and transcriptions. The other strength of this tutorial is the rich section with references for general documentation, covering not only other auxiliary sciences, but also for example guidelines for transcriptions and editions and legal dictionaries, often with links to digitized versions. Information for both last subjects you cannot easily find together online elsewhere. The tutorial offers a similar reference page on the history of The Hague.

Surmounting supposed and real difficulties is sometimes a personal matter. Often it is motivating to delve into a subject that seems at the surface difficult. Once your interest in a particular thing is kindled, you will start to enjoy finding out more about it, and thus familiarizing yourself will not feel heavy or boring. As a historian I personally like to visualize behind documents real people and their lives. Medieval farmers did not plough through registers, someone famously said! Reading the original documents about early New York, Rembrandt or Bosch should make you happy and curious about people. Being able to read old scripts will also set you free from complete reliance on transcriptions and translations. Guidance and commentaries can be helpful and even necessary to some extent, but in the end you are studying the past and its traces, and you will learn how to interpret and use sources yourself in a reliable way.

Hide and seek: Finding “hidden” collections

Startscreen CLIR Hidden Collection Registry

Once upon a time you made good wishes for every new year. You promised yourself to set one or more substantial goals to pursue with all your talents and capacities in order to obtain results that often would led to higher self-esteem and other lofty qualities. Wisdom teaches us real changes come in small steps, not with giant leaps. In this post I will look not just at one project, but at a foundation supporting many projects. The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), based at Washington, D.C., has a fine record of supporting all kinds of projects for libraries, archives and documentation centers. One of their latest projects is the CLIR Hidden Collections Registry. If this truly works, it would perform a most welcome service. What does this registry contain? How can you search in it for particular collections, themes or periods? Does it fulfill its purpose and promise? Knowing about the support of CLIR for projects which are of interest for legal historians prompted me to test the new registry website. Apart from the findings about the registry I intend to report on some incidental catch as well.

A serious quest

You might be slightly surprised by the jolly title “Hide and seek”, but there is here indeed an element of play. The very title Hidden Collections Registry contains a joke: How can you bring together and register what is described as hidden? If you have found a hidden thing, it is discovered once and forever, provided you share your discovery. CLIR aims here at bringing together information about collections that led a more or less hidden life. Thanks to CLIR funding they have become more visible and accessible to the public.

Some members of the public do equate accessibility with online access. I work at Het Utrechts Archief, an archive with more than 1,300 collections, good for some 32 kilometers on our stacks. It will take herculean efforts to digitize everything, even if you succeed in making every year one million scans. We try to put every finding aid online. Sometimes we can only offer a list of the boxes in a collection in anticipation of fuller treatment. Every year some collections will be digitized entirely, but for some important series we can add only ten or twenty digitized years per annum. Funding can be most helpful to tip the balance between only offering digital finding aids and some small digital collections on one side, and on the other side creating large digital collections or dealing with fragile and very special collections not fit for the normal digital road.

CLIR logo

CLIR succeeds indeed in supporting a wide variety of projects. The latest CLIR overview published on January 4, 2018 is no exception. Among unexpected things is for example the very first item, a project of The Moravian Archives in Bethlehem, PA, Archiving Antigua: A Digital Record of Pre- and Post-Emancipation Antigua, 1760-1948. The Moravian Brethren are a protestant missionary organization which has been active first in Europe, but rather quickly in the Americas. At Het Utrechts Archief are some thirty archival collections concerning a number of settlements, branches and even factories of the Moravian Brethren; when searching for “Evangelische Broeders” and “Broedergemeente” you will find them. I checked quickly for more Moravian stuff in the Hidden Collections Registry. The newly funded collection should be added to the three very different projects concerning the Moravian Brethren included in the CLIR registry thus far, a music collection, the first hundred years of the Pennsylvania settlement, and a collection documenting several German spiritual movements.

For each item the CLIR registry gives a concise overview and indications of the period involved and the geographic scope. It is useful, too, to have not only the name of the institution but also the name of a person to contact. To every item in the registry tags are added concerning the formats of materials. You can search for themes and periods, for projects funded by CLIR – a total of 162 – and for projects in a particular year, starting with 2008.

CLIR and legal history

You can imagine how eager I am to look for projects before 2017, because the newest projects have not yet been included. I started searching with the words legal history and this resulted in 37 results, a nice percentage of the nearly one thousand projects funded until now. Let’s look at some results. The colonial library of Jasper Yeates was to be digitized in a 2012 project. The city and state of LancasterHistory in Lancaster, PA are not indicated in the registry entry. A second project from 2008 concerned the political and governmental history of Alabama from 1799 to 1948; no institution is specified. The third project dealt in 2014 with Massachusetts petitions on women’s rights between 1619 and 1925, a project of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. With some surprise I saw among these results a project at UCLA for its palaeontological collections, funded by the CLIR in 2010. It seems the separate appearance of the words legal and history was enough for inclusion, as is the case for the project concerning Midwest organic tools. Adding a real field for tags will help much to solve this problem.

It is truly difficult to choose among the 37 results concerning legal history more examples, because many projects are really interesting, from Illinois Circuit Court records to the well-known project to digitize 30,000 French pamphlets at Chicago’s Newberry Library, and from the legacy of slavery in the Maryland State Archives to the papers of civil rights activist Margaret Bush Wilson (Washington University, St. Louis, MO), entered in the registry for 2011 and 2012, a project for native American petitions in Massachusetts (Yale Indian Papers Project), and the digitization of the M. Watt Espy papers concerning the history of the death penalty in the United States since 1608 (SUNY, Albany). Legal history is clearly not out of view within the CLIR collections program.

Faithful readers of my posts are used to the proliferation of links in my posts which usually lead you directly to a particular website or project. If you find something interesting and want to leave my blog, you should indeed use these links immediately. It is the very purpose of the links to bring you to particular addresses! However, it is embarrassing to give you in the first half of this post only links to the CLIR registry, and not as usual links to the websites with these projects. The CLIR Hidden Collections Registry does not contain links to the websites of institutions with a particular project nor the links to the results of projects. Not mentioning links, not even only for the CLIR funded projects, is not what you expect in any registry or list of funded digitization projects. In its current state the registry lives not up to reasonable expectations. It is a shame in particular, because the organization proposing this tool without links is the very Council on Library and Information Resources, an organization which aims at helping institutions to communicate better. In its current state the CLIR Hidden Collections Registry succeeds to a certain extent in hiding collections.

Finding the missing links

As for now teachers should not hesitate to test the digital abilities of their students and pupils, and ask them to find the URL’s of complete projects! In some cases you will not find the results at the website, subdomains or portal of an institution. I will not completely spoil this game, but a few examples might be instructive. The Newberry Library in Chicago has uploaded 30,000 digitized French pamphlets to the Internet Archive. At least one resource mentioned here does reach into the twenty-first century, and gains in value from the long period covered. In fact the very project that made me want to use the CLIR Registry is the project concerning the death penalty in the United States, a resource not only of interest for historians. The M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections & Archives at SUNY, Albany, is home to the National Death Penalty Archive, with as its jewel the M. Watt Espy Papers. You can find the results until now at the Espy Project page. As for now, data are being processed in a GitHub project. You can find some examples of notes in these papers on a news page of the libraries of the State University of New York at Albany. The links section for this project in the CLIR registry will have to be substantial. The Yale Indian Papers Project (YIPP) has only an announcement about the funding by CLIR, but you can already find some digitized petitions, maybe from other institutions not touched by the grant, or on the other hand the first results. I am aware that in a number of cases there is not yet a URL for a project. In such cases you will need even more the web address of the relevant institution.

The Hidden Collections program of CLIR aims at the realisation of the potential of collections, by helping with funds for either the preservation and cataloging of one or more collections, or by giving grants which make digitization and online open access possible. It is only logical to show the successes of this program. Dozens of projects in the CLIR registry are concerned with civil rights, women’s history, slavery and Afro-American history, even if you got to acknowledge that some entries look very much like an all-compassing grant apply. It would be logical to filter results by adding the category Funded, but alas this is not yet possible.

With a little help…

Before turning our back on the major and minor shortcomings of the registry project it is only fait to look at some CLIR projects which deserve applause. In Recordings at Risk CLIR invites institutions to apply for grants in order to safeguard endangered audiovisual recordings. CLIR supports the Digital Library Federation with for example a guide for digitizing special formats. Among CLIR’s own projects I would like to single out the project for a Digital Library of the Middle East (DLME), a project with partners such as Stanford University Libraries and the Qatar National Library. The DLME will be developed to contain not just digitized printed books, but also digitized archival collections, manuscripts and artefacts documenting the cultural heritage of countries in the Middle East. This project will join the ranks of project such as Patrimoines partagés of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, launched a few months ago, Menalib, the Middle East Virtual Library of the Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Sachsen-Anhalt, Halle, and – closer to CRIL – the Oman Digital Library of the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. In the project of the BnF the Middle East is just one section among eight sections covering various regions and countries. CLIR rightly mentions the Endangered Archives Project led by the British Library, a project which deserved a post here. CLIR provides also fellowship grants.

Everybody writing a grant application knows he or she has to fulfill several demands. The CLIR calls them core values. For the Hidden Collections program openness is one of these values, and I quote approvingly: “The program ensures that digitized content will be made available to the public as easily and completely as possible, given ethical and legal constraints.” It would be a sign of respect to all those scholars, staff members and institutions benefiting from or sponsoring the work of CLIR when the Hidden Collections Registry, too, does operate accordingly. In my view supplying the missing links is a necessary gesture. Some tuning would be welcome, too. When you look at all good things supported by CLIR the present state of this registry is hopefully only a temporary exception.

A postscript

Part of my concern about the CLIR registry stems from the situation around the IMLS Digital Collections and Content: U.S. History Resources from Libraries, Museums and Archives, a portal created at the Grainger Engineering Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After technical changes and a move to a new web address this potentially very rich resource does not function anymore. Ironically it is the version with the penultimate layout saved in the Wayback Machine of the Internet Archive which you can still browse, for example in the version of January 2012. You can easily retrieve the URL’s of digital collections at the end of the archived web addresses in the links of the old IMLS portal.

Another example: Some of the firms selling digital collection systems had their own overview. One firm even used its own system for a database in which you could find almost 1,000 projects, the Collection of Collections, but alas this database has been removed, too; you can only browse the latest capture from January 2017 at the Internet Archive.

Laws under the double eagle of the Habsburg empire

Double eagle of the Austrian Empire, around 1870? - source: Wikimedia Commons

Double eagle of the Austrian Empire, around 1870? – source: Wikimedia Commons

When you want to find resources concerning the history and laws of the Habsburg Empire you will be inclined to look first of all at sources in Vienna. However, in Budapest, too, you can find important sources. The Doppeladler, the two-faced eagle in the blazon of the Habsburg rulers, looked in two directions, and this hint should be followed indeed! In this post I will look both at Austrian and Hungarian resources. The existence of a very interesting portal to digitized sources in Hungary prompted me to write this contribution.

However, the image of an eagle should remind you to look beyond what is immediately visible to human eyes. A second thread in this post is the importance of parliamentary libraries and the online availability of official gazettes. Hopefully this will not only make your curious about the legal history of the Habsburg empire, but indeed ready to explore relevant resources at your computer screen.

Starting in Vienna…

Logo ALEX, ONB, Vienna

Legal historians wanting to do research about law and justice in Austria can benefit in particular from the ALEX project of the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek in Vienna. If you would like to enlarge the territory of your search you can go immediately to the links for similar resources in Germany, the Czech Republic and Hungary. The ALEX project brings together historical legislation, parliamentary records, jurisprudence and a host of legal journals. You can find laws as they were originally published in the official gazettes for the various regions of the Habsburg Empire, or use some of the official – and semi-official – collections. The series started by Joseph Kropatschek, Sammlung aller k.k. Verordnungen und Gesetze vom Jahre 1740 bis 1780 (first edition in 8 volumes, Vienna 1786) with laws published between 1740 and 1780 got in 1789 the formal name Theresianisches Gesetzbuch, the “Theresian Code”. It figures also in the blog ALEX dazumal accompanying the ALEX project. The blog posts can help you finding quickly materials for a particular subject, for example electoral legislation, hunting laws, migration and much more. In the section where you can set filters for particular regions or the whole empire (Gesamtstaatliche Gesetzgebung) you can choose the language of your preference, be it German, Hungarian, Croatian, Czech, Polish, Slovenian or Italian. Ruthenian and Rumanian have yet to be added…

Header image RepöstRG (Predella of the Neustädteraltar, Stephansdom, Vienna)

The second way to find Austrian legislation between 1500 and 1918 is literally a gateway. Heino Speer (Klagenfurt) has created the Repertorium digitaler Quellen zur österreichischen Rechtsgeschichte in der Frühen Neuzeit [RepÖstRG), a repertory in two versions, one programmed in HTML, the other one using WordPress. This double gateway offers not only access to legislation, but also to (older) scholarly literature. You can search here in chronological or territorial order. With additional information for persons and the spread of Protestantism in Austria Speer deserves praise for his marvellous efforts, in particular when you can also turn here to the Corpus Iuris Civilis in several editions.

…. and going to Budapest

Logo Hungaricana portal

Vienna and Budapest are cities along the Danube river. It is only logical to visit also Budapest. The Hungaricana portal, accessible in Hungarian and English, pushed me into writing about the Habsburg Empire. The Hungaricana portal shows on its start page five main sections, a gallery with images, digitized books in the library, historical maps of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, also separately searchable at MAPIRE with a trilingual interface, more maps and plans, and finally digitized archival records. The library sections contains also publications issued by museums and archives, including publications of the Österreichisches Nationalarchiv. In particular the archives section brings you to a great variety of digitized sources, for example medieval charters, documents from the city of Budapest, royal letters and decrees, and a census from 1767.

The databases page shows the full strength of Hungaricana. The Régi Magyar Könyvtár [RMK, “Old Hungarian Library”] with digitized old works written in Hungarian, can only be viewed in Hungarian. It contains also the bibliography created by Károly Szábo of works published in Hungarian between 1531 and 1711 and books in other languages printed in Hungary between 1473 and 1711, all with their RMK number and additional information. The maps section, too, can only be viewed in Hungarian, and thus you might have to rely on the quality of the translating tool in a well-known browser.

Header DTT - screenprint

Hungaricana is operated by the Parliamentary Library of Hungary. In the Digitalizált Törvényhozási Tudástár, the Digital Parliamentary Databases, accessible in Hungarian and English you can find much, from laws, legal books, national and ministerial gazettes to legal journals, parliamentary proceedings and decrees. The search interface is in Hungarian and English. This digital library is clearly comparable to the Austrian ALEX portal and indeed a veritable portal for Hungary’s legal history.

Header Visegrad Digital Palriamentary Library

Interestingly there is a second portal with information about the parliaments of countries within the borders of the Habsburg Empire. The Visegrád Digital Parliamentary Library has links to digitized sources for Austria in the ALEX portal, for Hungary from 1861 onwards, Poland (1919-1939 and from 1989 onwards) and for Slovakia since 1939. Visegrád is the Hungarian town on the Danube where the leaders of four East European countries signed in 1991 a covenant for cooperation, the Visegrád 4. In fact the Visegrád portal leads you directly to the Joint Czech and Slovak Digital Parliamentary Library, with both current and historical information; the links of the Visegrád portal for the Czech Republic do not work, but you can find the right links in the Digitální Repozitár of the Czech parliament. This website goes even beyond the Habsburg empire to sources from medieval Bohemia. You will perhaps also want to look at the ten historical maps of the Visegrád portal covering the period 1815 to 1999, but you will surely want to use its multilingual dictionary of parliamentary terms.

At the end of this post I will try to suppress my wish to give you here much more information, but perhaps it will suffice to tell you that I included information about and links to a number of official gazettes on the digital libraries page of my legal history site. In some cases you will see the exact link, in other cases you will find them as a part of a parliamentary library, and there are some portals for gazettes, too. On my page concerning digital archives you can find out more about archives in Austria, Hungary and Poland. I hope to add soon information about the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but meanwhile you can already use the links at some archive portals which will help you in your research under the watchful eyes of the double eagle in its various incarnations.

Two laws and one trial

Banner The Amboyna Conspiracy TrialSometimes even a history blog cannot escape from current affairs, but the opposite happens, too: a historical event comes unexpectedly into view and you keep thinking about it. A few weeks ago I encountered the project The Amboyna Conspiracy Trial (Monash University) about a famous trial in 1623 on the island Ambon, part of the Moluccas islands in the southeastern part of the vast Indonesian archipelago, close to Sulawesi, East Timor, New Guinea and Australia, thus explaining the interest of a team at an Australian university led by Adam Clulow. Among the partners for this project launched in 2016 were the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, the Dutch Nationaal Archief in The Hague and the India Office Records of the British Library. The website of the project invites the users to ponder the question on which side they stand. In particular the educational aspects of this website merit attention. Here I use both Ambon and Amboina to refer to the island.

Yet another reason to write here about the Dutch East India Company is the upcoming exhibition at the Nationaal Archief in The Hague, De wereld van de VOC [The World of the VOC] that will be on display from February 24, 2017 to January 7, 2018.

A clash of emerging empires

Poster "De wereld van de VOC" - Nationaal \archief, Den Haag

The story of the trial in 1623 is seemingly simple and straightforward. The Dutch authorities on the island Ambon, officials of the Dutch East Indian Company, arrested a Japanese soldier who had behaved suspiciously. Under torture he and fellow Japanese mercenaries confessed to know about a conspiracy of the English to capture the Dutch fortress. In a span of two weeks Englishmen, too, were captured and tortured to gain confessions. Under Dutch criminal law torture was considered one of the legal means in a trial. The Early Modern maxim “Tortura est regina probationum”, torture is the queen of proves, is not mentioned at the project website. On March 9, 1623 twenty prisoners were executed by the Dutch.

The creators of the Amboyna website are quite right in seeing this trial as a focus point of history. The Dutch and the English competed for the most profitable trade in spice. In fact the name of the Moluccas in Dutch – now in Dutch Molukken – was for many years “Specerij-eilanden”, The Spice Islands. A treaty signed in 1616 seemed a rather peaceful start of Dutch relations with the inhabitants of the Moluccan Islands, but in 1621 governor Jan Pieterszoon Coen decided to invade these islands, aiming in particular at Banda, known for its nutmeg, apart from Grenada the only spot on earth where you can find large quantities of this fruit which also produces yet another spice, mace.

Treaty with Banda, 1616

From 1610 to 1619 Ambon was the central location of the Dutch overseas empire in South East Asia. Coen and his troops killed in 1621 thousands inhabitants of Banda and the surroundings islands on the pretext that they had broken the treaty by trading with other nations than the Dutch, be they English, Spanish or Portuguese. This background of ferocious and ruthless violence close to genocide did not predict a peaceful continuation of relations with the indigenous people nor with other European countries. It is indeed the very story that forever divides those applauding the Dutch energy and colonial expansion, and those who condemn the events and the whole period as an unforgivable and inhuman step in mankind’s history. A few years ago one of the episodes of the television series on the Dutch Gouden Eeuw (Golden Age) centered around the 1621 massacre at Banda (the fifth episode, Een wereldonderneming [A world enterprise]. In January 1623 Coen was succeeded as governor of the Dutch Indies by Pieter de Carpentier.

The website of The Amboyna Conspiracy Trial gives you a timeline with for each day the texts of the confessions made by the arrested suspects. Four exhibits give you a chance to deepen your knowledges about the two East India companies and the spice trade, the role of Japanese mercenaries, trials in Dutch and English law and the uses and role of torture, and the publicity about the trial. Adam Clulow wrote about the Japanese soldiers in his article ‘Unjust, cruel and barbarous proceedings : Japanese mercenaries and the Amboyna incident of 1623’. Itinerario 31 (2007) 15-34. More recently he published The Company and the Shogun: The Dutch Encounter with Tokugawa Japan (New York, 2014), reviewed for example by Martine van Ittersum for the Bijdragen en Mededelingen betreffende de Geschiedenis der Nederlanden / Low Countries Historical Review 130/4 (2015). Her main criticism is Clulow’s insufficient information about sources in Dutch and Japanese archives. When eventually news of the trial reached Europe, it sparked off a stream of publications. Just browsing the Knuttel, the famous catalogue of Dutch pamphlets shows you a substantial rise in the number of pamphlets issued in 1624 and 1625, but English pamphleteers were even more active. The website features in the “Archive” section only pamphlets in English. You will find in this section some twenty-five sources and a number of paintings and portraits.

Placcaet, Knuttel no. 3548 - image The Memory of the Netherlands

“Placcaet…”, an ordinance against the first pamphlet concerning the Amboina trial – Knuttel no. 3548 – copy Royal Library, The Hague – image: The Memory of the Netherlands

The presentation of sources for The Amboyna Conspiracy Trial should indeed alert you to what you see and read. For many documents a brief analysis of the text and impact is given, but not for all documents. Some items show just one page of a pamphlet or archival record. No pamphlet is presented here in its entirety. For documents in Dutch a partial translation is given, but no transcription. One of the pamphlets, Waerachtich verhael vande tijdinghen gecomen wt de Oost-Indien (…). Aengaende de conspiratie ontdeckt inde eylanden van Amboyna (Knuttel no. 3547), online at the portal The Memory of the Netherlands, originally printed in Gothic script (Knuttel no. 3546) was quickly translated into English as a part of the pamphlet A true relation of the unjust, cruell, and barbarous proceedings against the English at Amboyna in the East-Indies (London 1624; digital version at The Memory of the Netherlands). In its turn a Dutch translation appeared of this English reaction (Knuttel no. 3549, online version). The Amboyna project site does not mention nor contain the ordinance (plakkaat) of the Dutch General States forbidding in August 1624 the distribution of the first pamphlet because it would harm the relations between the Dutch and English East India companies [Placcaet… (The Hague 1624; Knuttel no. 3548, online version)]. Clearly this act did not work to suppress the news of the events in the East. Anyway thanks to the original contemporary translations it is substantially but not completely possible to rely on them.

The database The Early Modern Pamphlets Online for Dutch pamphlets and the German Flugschriften does still work despite an announcement about it being shut down on January 1, 2017. You can freely use this online catalogue, instead of going to the subscribers-only commercial version. The Hathi Trust Digital Library has digitized the catalogue of pamphlets held at the Dutch Royal Library [W.P.C. Knuttel (ed.), Catalogus van de pamfletten-verzameling berustende in de Koninklijke bibliotheek (9 vol., The Hague 1890-1920)], and you can use the search function of this version to search in its text.

The “citations” for the archival items and documents at the Amboina website are the titles of the items, with sometimes a very much abbreviated indication of the location and archive. For the colorful painting in the Museum Rumah Budaya in Banda Neira no indication is given when it was created. I can imagine this is exactly the question teachers or instructors want their students to solve. The image of the 1616 treaty with Banda above is marked “Contract with Banda, 3 May 1616”. Here, too, you might think it would spoil the things students have to do if I would give here more information about this source. I had expected a list with full references for all items in an appendix to the project, tucked away in the teachers’ corner. The start page of the digital project shows part of an engraving showing the torturers and their victims. In a corner of the image you can find a reference in small print giving the reference to this image from the collections of the Rijksmuseum (object no. RP-P-OB-68.279, cat. no. FMH 2328-7). The engraving was published in 1673, not nearly fifty years earlier.

Header TANAP Archives

However, when you start checking you will find several textual witnesses to this treaty, thus making it seem that the image of this treaty – or any other archival record – was taken at random among the registers and originals held at the Dutch Nationaal Archief. The TANAP portal is a great gateway to search for many aspects of the Dutch East India Company both in Dutch, British, Sri Lankan and Indonesian archives. In the combined inventories you will find at least three items with the 1616 contract. The important point is that these inventories do not provide you with digitized images, hence the usual need for good references for documents and images. I would almost leave it to you to search in the TANAP portal for the events at Ambon, but I feel rather certain one of the registers used is Nationaal Archief, inventory 1.04.2, no. 1080, because “VOC 1080” is often mentioned in the citations. Inventory 1.04.02 at the website of the Nationaal Archief contains more than 4 million scanned pages, but not for this register.

If you want mores images at your screen you can combine the riches of The Memory of the Netherlands with for example the portal Atlas of Mutual Heritage. The TANAP portal has a fine links selection, and the introduction to the history of the VOC by F.S. Gaastra is most substantial and supported by a fine bibliography. For more links you should visit the site of the VOC-Kenniscentrum. An important general source are the reports of the governors of Ambon, edited by G.J. Knaap, Memories van overgave van gouverneurs van Ambon in de zeventiende en achttiende eeuw (The Hague 1987), digitized by the Huygens Instituut, and you will no doubt be interested in the digitized resolutions of the Dutch Staten Generaal from 1575-1630.

The educational purpose of the trial website is very clear in the section Your Verdict. Six major questions are fired at you to help you to come to a balanced verdict about the trial. In my view it is one thing to ask these questions, and another thing to create real full access to relevant documents. However judicious the choice of selections, however wise the suggestions for analysis, you will learn from having at your disposal images of the complete documents, transcriptions and translations, with full references to track them again, and this holds true also for paintings and portraits. This lack of exact information mars the quality of this digital collection. The team has in mind to create similar projects around two other conspiracy trials, but now it seems at some turns that some basic information has been left out to create a smooth and convincing selection. Your judgment on these matters will also depend on your preference for a working educational project which stresses the importance of independent thinking and weighing of facts and views, certainly a major and important aim, or a preference to create a showcase for doing real historical research around a historical cause célèbre.

Amidst of all things surroundings this case it is instructive to see the shocked reaction at Batavia (Jakarta), since 1619 the VOC headquarter at Java, of the superiors of Isaacq de Bruijn, the Dutch advocate-fiscal, the senior officer leading the investigation at Ambon. We have to bear in mind that the position of the various members of the VOC united in a number of kamers (chambers) in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and other cities, and the Staten Generaal in The Hague was many thousand miles away. The interaction between the two circles, and even between Java and Ambon was not quick, to say the least. It reminded me of a famous article by the late Cees Fasseur (1938-2016), ‘Een koloniale paradox. De Nederlandse expansie in de Indonesische archipel in het midden van de negentiende eeuw (1830-1870)’ [A colonial paradox. The Dutch expansion in the Indonesian archipelago in the mid-nineteenth century (1830-1870)], Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis 92 (1979) 162-186. It is the model article in a student guide by P. de Buck for writing history papers and master theses, Zoeken en schrijven : handleiding bij het maken van een historisch werkstuk (first edition Haarlem 1982). It seems this configuration of powers and distances can be dated two centuries earlier.

Meanwhile in Holland

Is this only a Utrecht view of things? Let me at least bring you to a diary of someone from Utrecht who could in principle have had first hand knowledge. Aernout van Buchell (Buchelius) (1565-1641) from Utrecht has figured here a few times already. He was not only interested in history, but was also between 1619 and 1621 a member of the Amsterdam chamber of the Dutch East India Company as a delegate of the States of Utrecht. In 2011 Kees Smit made a transcription (PDF) of a manuscript by Van Buchell at the Nationaal Archief [1.11.01.01, Aanwinsten Eerste Afdeling, 256 (old 1882 A VI 8 2)]. It contains some drawings, including a map showing Ambon and a drawing of Fort Amboyna (f. 37v-38r). At f. 102v he wrote in May 1624: “Het jacht, dat den 4. januarii 1624 was van de stat Nieu Batavia ofte Jacatra uuyt Java geseilt, is in mayo gearriveert, brengende tijdinge dat drie schepen, wel geladen, veertien dagen ofte drie weecken, als men verhoopten, soude volgen, ende noch drie schepen bijcans toegerust lagen op de custen van Cormandel. Verhaelden meede van eene conspiratio bij eenige Engelsche ende inwoonders op Amboyna, meinende het casteel aldaer te veroveren. Maer waren gemelt, eenige gevangen, sommige gejusticeert, oeck Engelse. Waerover men seyt, dat den coninc van Groot-Britanniën qualic soude tevreden wesen, van sijne oorblasers opgeritzt. Alsofte men de quaetdoenders niet en behoorden te straffen! Ende die mosten in Engelant geremitteert worden.”

Van Buchell starts telling about the yacht arriving from Batavia on January 1624, and six more ships following within a number of weeks. From “Verhaelden” onwards he jotted down notes about the events at Ambon and his opinion, in my translation: “[They] told also about a conspiracy – note the Latin conspiratio, OV – of some Englishmen and inhabitants of Amboina who aimed at capturing the castle. But they were denounced, some captured, some judged, Englishmen too. As to this it was said the king of Great Britain would hardly be pleased, but – more likely – provoked by his advisors. As if these wrongdoers did not need to be punished! Most of them are being pardoned in England”. Alas these are only notes about this affair, he does not mention it anymore. To me this one note is tantalizing for all the things Van Buchell does not mention, but it is in my view a superficial report showing his first impressions after hearing something about the fateful events at Ambon. He mentions Ambon sixty times in this diary.

Perhaps more telling are lines in an undated Latin poem Van Buchell wrote in his diary (f. 74r): Vidimus, Oceanus salsis quod circuit undis / Incola odoriferos ter ubi capit arbore fructus / Amboynae Batavus leges ubi condidit aequas / Fragrantes interque nuces collesque calentes / Bandanos domuit populos, gentique dolosae / Imposuit frenum Javae, regemque fateri / Compulit, aut victum se aut armis esse minorem (…). A quick translation of my hand: “We see how the Ocean goes around with salt waves where an inhabitant takes thrice a year wonderful smelling fruits from a tree, where the Batave has set equal laws for Amboina, and [where] there are perfumed nuts amidst the hot hills; he rules the peoples of Banda, and he imposed a rein on the treacherous people of Java, and he forced the king to yield, be it as conquered or smaller in arms (…)”. The combination of being sure about the qualities of you own laws, and a conviction that peoples on these isles are treacherous, is potentially lethal. It is striking how often Van Buchell writes in this diary about the Protestant missionaries in the Moluccas. There is another VOC diary by Van Buchell yet to be explored [The Hague, Nationaal Archief, inventory 1.11.01.01, Aanwinsten Eerste Afdeling, no. 255 (old 1882 A VI 8 1)].

Now you might want me to leave out Van Buchell, but in fact it helped me to notice the most obvious gap of the trial website. It is rather strange to bother about the full texts, complete transcriptions and translations of documents, and to accept at face value the statements about the differences in criminal procedure in Dutch law and the common law. Instead of translating Van Buchell writing about an analysis by Hugo Grotius would be most welcome. You can consult his correspondence online at the eLaborate platform of the Huygens Instituut. However, Grotius does mention the Amboyna case in his letters only casually. In 1609 Grotius published Mare Liberum, and in 1625 De iure belli ac pacis. His Inleidinge tot de Hollandsche rechts-geleerdheid appeared only in 1631, but this book deals only with private law. Clulow mentions Grotius and the Amboina case in his 2014 study. In an earlier contribution about Grotius I provided ample information about the first editions, online versions and translations of his works. Simon van Leeuwen’s classic handbook for Roman-Dutch law, Paratitla iuris novissimi dat is een kort begrip van het Rooms-Hollands reght (..) appeared only in 1651.

While pondering the Amboina case and the project website I remembered another Utrecht view of things. My first steps in the fields of legal history were led by Marijke van de Vrugt at Utrecht, the author of a book about De criminele ordonnantie van 1570 (Zutphen 1978), a study about the ordinance for criminal procedure issued by Philips II of Spain. A few years later she contributed to the series Rechtshistorische cahiers the volume Aengaende Criminele Saken [About Criminal Matters] (Deventer 1982) about the history of criminal law, with a chapter about the 1570 ordinance, and also one about Antonius Matthaeus II (1601-1654), a famous law professor at Utrecht, author of De criminibus (first edition 1644). Van de Vrugt provided judiciously chosen relevant text fragments. She discussed in detail ch. 42 of the 1570 Criminal Ordinance and explains its fateful ambiguity due to unclear words about the exceptional use of torture. Matthaeus questioned the eagerness to use torture. Would it not be most natural to provide for both Dutch and common law more precise information when they clearly were crucial for the whole affair? Lack of space and consideration for the stamina of my readers are the practical reasons to leave out here a paragraph about the common law. Clulow mentioned in 2014 the Amboina case to compare it with a later case in Japan, and pointed for good reasons to Grotius. Alas incomplete understanding and investigating the pivotal role of legal matters for the Amboina case mars the trial website.

Some conclusions

Despite my remarks and misgivings about a number of aspect of the Amboyna digital collection I think we should salute it as a welcome addition to the materials available for educational purposes. It makes also a number of documents and images easy available for doing research about the Dutch and British East India companies. At the end of this post I wonder a bit what the input of the India Office Records has been. The absence of records from the British National Archives might cause a frown, too. Adding a full list of references for the documents, archival records and images in this digital collection would redeem a clear gap. The Amboina Conspiracy Trial makes you muse about current ideas about conspiracies and the role of one-sided or full information. It is an example of two laws clashing, Dutch civil law administered by officers of a commercial company granted sovereign powers and the common law. It is chilling to note how this example of quick action led to torture and judicial killings of people where other ways to approach the situation were open.

The Amboina trial website shows many aspects in a colourful way, but it lacks some crucial information about and attention to the very crux of the matters at stake. It would be relatively simple to provide some background about the Dutch law and the common law, instead of just a few sentences. It might seem evident to focus on the trial itself, but you will have to show even in an educational setting more of the background and relevant sources. Only for Isaacq de Bruijn, the infamous Dutch official, things seemed simple. Our world is complicated, and we had better face it. In my recent contribution about presidential libraries I mentioned the replica of the Situation Room. You will need access to all relevant information, time and wisdom to judge a situation correctly and act accordingly.

A postscript

Even this long post did lack at least something very important concerning Dutch law, the collection of ordinances and placards edited by Jacobus Anne van der Chijs, Nederlandsch-Indisch Plakaatboek 1602-1811 (17 vol., Batavia, 1885-1901), also available online completely at Sejarah Nusantara, a portal for seventeeth and eighteenth-century history created by the Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia, with both browse and search functions.

Soon after publishing my post Adam Clulow contacted me. He has taken the time and trouble to add some of the explications on legal matters I deemed necessary, and he added clear references to the original sources. These changes help indeed to make the Amboyna Conspiracy Trial well worth your attention!

Preserving presidential lives and legacies

Logo Hoover Library, West Branch, IAHow can you put the inauguration of a new president of the United States in a sensible perspective on a blog dealing with legal history? Is it the historian’s duty to say something about the near future or should I refrain at all cost from making predictions? One element in determining the role of a president in history are the presidential libraries and museums created in memory of deceased presidents or even by living former presidents. Starting with the library commemorating Herbert Hoover there are now fourteen institutions which aim at preserving important papers and objects and presenting the deeds and legacies of presidents. In this post I will search for information concerning facts and materials in connection with legal history. Last week I spotted the section on presidential libraries and museums at the website of the American National Archives, but it seemed wise not to hurry into action immediately.

Banner National Archives

The website of the National Archives hosts the Federal Register which preserves also Public Papers of Presidents. For five presidents you can start here looking at online sets with presidential papers, from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama. In 1957 the Office of the Federal Register started to publish series of publications of presidential papers in print. The National Archives guide you also to other institutions with presidential collections. Pride of place among them goes to the Library of Congress with 23 collections. A number of these collections has been digitized by its Manuscript Division. It is most useful to look at the guides to presidential papers provided by the National Archives. There is even a search interface to search with one action in all fourteen presidential libraries together. I urge you to look in particular to the history of the presidential libraries and the legislation enacted about them.

A short tour of presidential libraries

Interestingly there is even a second institution dealing with the papers of Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and it is only logical to start here with the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa. The sheer variety of materials presented on the website gives a fair indication of the possible width of a presidential library and museum. For brevity’s sake I will focus here on Hoover’s period as a president (1928-1933), but it is instructive to see materials, too, even before the period his work as Secretary of Commerce in 1921. Hoover became known nationwide and internationally thanks to his efforts since 1914 for the Commission for Relief in Belgium. The library has eleven collections documenting aspects of his work as a president. Hoover’s campaign for the presidency is documented, too, at West Branch. By the way, its location in Iowa is a reminder of the geographical division of the presidential libraries. You can locate them on a clickable map at the website of the National Archives.

Logo Hoover Institution

The Hoover Institution was founded at Stanford in 1919 by Hoover himself. By the way, he was among the first students of Stanford University when it opened in 1891. It holds collections for his life and work before 1921 and after the end of his presidency, and thus it figures here only briefly, however interesting its activities and collections are. In a way it embodies a part of Hoover’s vision and promotes it for this century.

It is not entirely surprising that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s decision in 1938 to create space for a library documenting his presidency and to donate his presidential papers to the federal government forms the start of the modern presidential collections. The FDR Presidential Library and Museum is located in Hyde Park, NY. A fair part of the collections in this library has been digitized. Using the Franklin search engine you can look at your screen not only at documents created by Roosevelt himself, but also at materials concerning Eleanor Roosevelt and Henry Morgenthau Jr, and there are preset selections on a number of themes. The presence of many photographs in these digital collections reminds you of the impact of the representation of power, law and government. Think only of presidents signing a law… The museum of this institution, as any museum, creates a space set free to focus attention on a particular theme or on particular objects. In this case it fosters an image of an era. They often succeed more readily in evoking essential characteristics of a period than documents can do. However, viewing a particular record can bring you a sense of immediate contact with the past.

Banner Situation Room

Presidents of this century come into view with the George W. Bush Library and Museum in Dallas, TX. It is combined with the Bush Center. At this moment the Barack Obama Presidential Library is only a website preluding to its opening in Chicago within a few years. Certainly one of the most salient features of Bush’s library is the Situation Room. Not just for school children and researchers this space fires the imagination. We all have seen sometimes movies with scenes set in a presidential room during national and international crises, but the real one is not the kind of medium size conference room. The Secure Video Transmission Site has been recreated at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, CA. The Bush Library offers you also a digital librarya guide to the events of 9/11 and a good overview of other relevant resources.

This list of the George W. Bush Library ends with other resources ends with a most vital piece of legislation for the theme of this post, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA; 5 U.S.C. 552). Presidential libraries and museums are subject to a number of laws and regulations. Four of them deal with presidential transitions. The Office of Presidential Libraries administers the network of these libraries and takes also action to create presidential projects for presidents leaving office.

It is tempting to linger longer at the websites of one or more presidential libraries instead of trying to give here a more balanced view. I suppose that when you look a bit longer at their websites you will find materials which are more closely connected with legal history. My choice should give you an idea of the holdings of such institutions and their context. As is my common practice I have put in web links at many turns to lead you to online resources to help you in your research. Once upon a time the virtual world was indeed another world, but after 25 years the Internet is just one of the online media in our current world. The links are for your use, and you should not feel troubled to leave my blog and visit them!

Logo Library of Congress

As for any presidency it will be most interesting to follow the new president’s actions. His actions should be set within in the framework of the Constitution of the United States, checked by the legislative powers of the Congress and the power of the Supreme Court. The Library of Congress has created a fine overview of presidential inaugurations. Its Law Library should be your port of call to find information about both current American and foreign legislation. In the world’s largest library you can find an incredible mass of information about law and justice in other countries, too. The law librarians’ blog, In Custodia Legis [In the Custody of the Law] is one of the services alerting you to many aspects of their collections and ongoing work to retrieve information for anyone’s use. There is no doubt that in due time we will distinguish the legacy of any president from his other actions. However, it is a true concern where the promises made during the campaign will lead the United States of America and the world at large. As for predicting the future as a historian the old wisdom that politics will touch you sooner or later still holds true, as will visions of law and justice.