Saturday, September 2, 2017

Letters from the dead

I meet and get to know dead people by digging around my family tree and in the archives. Today I’m getting to know Julie Wilhelmina Scherius, my great-grandmother. 

On the table in front of me I have the foolscap file compiled by her husband, Jan Peelen. I read the large label stuck on the front cover. In his calligraphic handwriting it says  “Brieven van Overledenen” - Letters from the dead.   Above that is taped a yellow sticky note with different handwriting, it looks like my aunt’s, which says “Letters of condolence written to Jan Peelen, our grandfather on the loss of his first wife Julie Scherius in December 1903.”  She was just forty-three years old.

I’m eager to read these letters but try to follow best practise and don cotton gloves to minimise contact of damaging acids from my fingers. The letters are actually in remarkably good condition. It is awkward and clumsy and soon enough I give up.

She emerges first in the platitudes - a good wife and mother, greatly missed, much loved. Then little personal facets shine through. She was warm, friendly and loving to friends and relatives. One family friend described her as too sensitive and impressionable in nature. Another worries what a blow Julie’s death would be to her mother, who doted on her. Her passing was sudden and unexpected to many though they knew she had been  in poor health for years. One letter writer asked if she had died from heart and kidney disease.  

 At the back of the file is one photograph, a “carte de visite” of a little boy aged around four or five, with dark hair. There is no name but it has to be of my grandfather. She had four children; first, two daughters, Julie and Tippy, then my grandfather Rein and then another son, Jup, who was fair.

Then I find other letters from much earlier written by my great-great grandparents.  There is also a poem of sorts which tells the story of their courtship. Julie, the “Gooische Roos” - The Rose from ’t Gooi - went to stay with her cousin in The Hague and there she met Jan Peelen at a dance party hosted by this cousin. He  was not a great dancer but he was a good talker and managed to keep her attention for the rest of the evening. And thus began their courtship. His mother wrote her an affectionate letter for her twenty-third birthday, highlighting his qualities that made him a good husband - intelligent, a hard worker who could provide for a good life for them both.  She sent Julie a basket of roses from her garden and writes in the note that while they have lost some of their scent, she hopes they will still be a happy souvenir of this day. 

The very last letter is a small note, falling apart at some of the folds, written third October 1867 by her father for her seventh birthday.  It is a fond, sweet note, from a much older father (he was fifty-seven). “In my thoughts I shower you with a thousand kisses”.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Following in their footsteps - Cairo, Egypt

It feels exotic to know your great-great-grandfather Jan Hendrik Peelen was born in Cairo, Egypt. Naturally it captured my imagination. 
Letters from Egypt
The file of Letters from Egypt by Jan Peelen 1859-1861

Then the bonus of finding the file of letters written by his father, Jan Peelen, from Cairo, where he lived from 1858 to 1861, when he was contracted by the Dutch engineering company Van Vlissingen Van Heel to build a steel works near Cairo for the Egyptian government. This was not an easy contract for him, it was marked by frustration and in the end the project was not completed, probably because the Egyptian government ran out of money, because it was involved in local wars, which now in hindsight presage some of the current political instability in Egypt and the Middle East. 

To save on paper, both sides were written on and left to right and then across. 
The letters from Jan Peelen are mostly to his brother Herman, with whom he also had a little trading enterprise going but were also always at the end addressed to he rest of the family, in-laws and friends, for they were precious information which would have been passed around.  Jan Hendrik's birth is vividly described as was their daily life and through them I entered their world of 1859. Cairo was known then as the Paris of the East, famed for its parks and boulevards on the banks of the river Nile and her sophisticated night life.  Jan and his wife Anna found the parties boring and only attended what they had to for appearances sake. They much preferred to stay at home and happily enjoyed each other's company.

Then I realised - I've been there too! I  might have even stood in the same places they did. In late 1960, as a 9-year old I travelled by ship from Penang island back to Amsterdam. It was a freighter, so had few passengers. There was an elderly American couple on board and a young single woman and then our family of  four. We were returning to Holland from dad's last posting in Penang with the Dutch Bank, then known as The Netherlands Trading Society.

One of the ports en route was Alexandria, where we would be for just one day. So dad decided to make the most of this opportunity to go ashore and see the great pyramids. The other passengers were also keen and joined our adventure. Once ashore we were met by a group of excited Egyptian taxi drivers cum tourist guides and dad exercised his best bargaining skills and scored a Volkswagen van and we set off. There wasn't much time to spare so the driver hurtled along the highway with us all hanging on to our seats or anything at all really as this was before mandatory seat belts. They didn't even exist then.

It was quite grey and overcast as we stopped for lunch at a huge empty hotel in the middle of the desert with a vast dining room where we were the only guests.  It must have been around 2 or 3 pm when we arrived at the pyramids. We were in no time surrounded by eager hawkers offering all manner of souvenirs and camel and pony rides.  I decided on a camel ride with dad and my brother chose to ride an Arabian pony.  The most exciting part was at the start when the camel raised his hind legs first, tipping you forward and then the fore legs would come up tipping you backwards. And then we swayed gently around the pyramids.

So that was the pyramids done, now for the Tutankhamen exhibit at the museum.  We rushed through peak hour traffic as it was near closing time! A friendly guide showed us the highlights and even that was a lot! I was quite fascinated by all these artefacts and had to be hurried along a couple of times. 

But we had a boat to catch and it was already evening and we still had to have dinner plus we we had at least a three hour drive ahead of us. It was near 10 pm when we got to the port and our ship was already at anchor at sea, waiting for us, or was it the pilot? Whatever, we got ferried alongside and climbed up the gangway and soon we weighed anchor and we were on our way. Tick - done Egypt.

In 1859 the trip back to Europe from South East Asia would have taken around 88 days. First the journey by ship to Suez, then overland to Cairo, followed by a trip down the Nile to Alexandria, then by sea again to your destination in Europe, which would have been Amsterdam for our family.  The Suez Canal was completed in 1869 meaning that the overland part of the trip was now only a day or two.  A hundred years later, I was already on my fifth trip through the Suez Canal and the entire journey from Penang to Amsterdam took just three weeks. 

How times have changed and yet much hasn't. The letters speak of the same family joys, sorrows, worries, frustrated professional ambitions and political unrest that we experience even today. 

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Strange new world

What is a young man to think when he comes from Amsterdam, born in 1810, and arrives in the exotic destination of Palembang, Sumatra, Dutch East Indies.

Reinier Scherius arrived as a young 22 year old in 1832 and started his career with the Dutch Colonial Administration.

Sailing up the Musi river which divides Palembang into two he would have noted the remnants of the three Dutch forts, and the walled city.

He would have adjusted to the heat as the ship had made its way around the Cape and up the West Coast of Australia to catch the trade winds to Indonesia. 

But Palembang’s climate is oppressively humid and hot, with a fairly constant mean temperature around 27 degrees Celcius. The monsoon from November to March might have brought some respite, but in a culture where heavy European clothing was worn, it would have been quite unbearable.

The food was different too. Spicy with a sweet and sour signature dish. Eating this kind of food would have brought him out in a sweat.

At night the air might have cooled to a relatively pleasant low 22 degree celsius but there was no escaping the humidity. 

And then there were the sounds and smell. The surrounding dense jungle housing all manner of strange exotic animals with their distinctive shrieks and calls, the buzzing of the insects, the heavy scent of native jasmine sometimes barely covering the stench of open sewers. 

Would Reinier have longed for the familiar quiet of Amsterdam or be excited by all the exotic sights and sounds he encountered here?

This was another task I completed for the Writing History Unit.

A very personal piece of jewelry

It is small, very small, rounded oval, no bigger than perhaps a 5 cent piece. But it holds a lot. Encased in the gold frame is a very somber scene. You need to look really hard to see it but you can make out a tomb stone with some branches behind it. On the tombstone are the initials L B, intertwined. I turn it over and there is a small pin attached to the back.

I look at my grandmother who has given me this jewel.  She had put it in a small round pill box, the kind you used to get from the apothecary or chemist. She must have had a few of them, after all grandfather was an apothecary or pharmacist and back when pharmacists still routinely produced the medicines they dispensed this was a normal part of his inventory. Very handy too as a small jewel box.

She explains that the scene encased in the gold frame is made from the hair of her grandmother and my great-great grandmother Lijsbeth Beintema. This was a memorial broche that was made at her passing. 

Now she has given it to me, as her name sake. So, I look closely, again. She must have had dark hair, probably as dark as mine.

Years later I visit my grandmother who by now is nearing the end of her own time. I am in my early forties. She has lost most of her eyesight, but she can still see light and dark. 

“My goodness”, she remarks, “you have the same white grey streak in the middle, just like my grandmother.”

A spicy life in the East Indies

He got only a whiff at first, just a hint of something familiar, yet different. As the ship steadily sailed on, drawing closer to her destination, the scent intensified. 

Reinier Scherius stood on the deck eager to catch a first glimpse of his new posting. 
“I’ve come a long way,” he thought, “how different it all is from Amsterdam. Just to think, this all started because they thought the sea air would do me good. “
He smiled to himself. “It certainly had done him good, he had made a successful career for himself in the Dutch East Indies, in the service of the colonial administration.”

He was now on his way to the island of Saparua, the most important spice island of the Moluccas Archipelago. Here, 33 years old,  he would commence his term as Assistant Resident of Saparua and Haruku. 

The scent of cloves was riding on the air now and the outline of the island was growing on the horizon.  Suddenly he was back at home in Amsterdam, in his mother’s kitchen, where she was preparing the evening meal. His favourite was Hache, a dish of bladesteak gently simmered over low heat and spiced with cloves and bay leaf, to make a rich tender stew. He could taste it even now.

Memories of his own mother made him think of the two women in his life that were mother to his own children. How different they were. Tjiermoet came into his life when he lived in Gorontalo, located on the island Sulawesi, where he was appointed Civil Commander in 1837, at 27 years of age.  She was a native woman, from the province, and became his housekeeper or “njai”. 

“She was nice and sweet and what was he to do, he was a young man after all,” he shrugged to himself, “besides, it was kind of normal to have a njai.”

His first child, Mimi, was born in 1837 and then in 1839 Julie came along. 

“Well,” he thought, “I did the right thing and acknowledged them and I’ve made sure they’re looked after.” 

Soon after Julie’s birth he had to leave to take up his appointment as Secretary, Magistrate and Warehouse Master at Ternate, one of the Eastern Moluccas islands. Marriage was out of the question. It wasn’t the done thing to marry a native woman. 

In Ternate he also had two children, Frank and Anna. Their mother was Anna Dorothee Pietersz. The story in the family was that she was a member of the local nobility. This was perhaps partly true in that her father was likely a Dutchman - Pietersz - and her mother a daughter of the Sultan with one of his many wives. As a granddaughter of the Sultan she would have been referred to as princess.

And again, he had to leave them behind to take up his post in Saparua. But he also provided for them which was not easy on the limited salary of a unmarried man.

They were coming closer now and he could make out the outline of the fort Duurstede that squatted high on the cliff. 

“Twenty five years ago, the smell of blood would have greeted me,” he thought,” the smell of the massacre of the Resident Van den Berg and his family by local rebels. Only the youngest boy survived.”

Those were troubled times then, but the Dutch had re-established order. 

The ship glided past the fishing villages perched high on their stilts above the water.  He could see the native men building new huts, with nothing more than a parang, a machete, and marvelled at how fast and efficiently they worked. 

“How little we appreciate the inventiveness and intelligence of the native people, “he mused, “they, in a flash, solve a problem while we still rack our brains. “

As the ship drew alongside the pier and moored, he espied the large official mansion for the resident amongst the tall fruit trees and palms. It had a steep high thatched roof and a central entrance and shuttered windows on either side that opened onto the verandah that went across the full width of the house. 

“Very suitable for a large family, but he was just a single man,” he thought.

It would take Reinier another 12 years before he married. In 1855 he was appointed Resident of Probalingo, in East Java, and here he met his bride, the 18-year old Caroline Nagel. She came from a well established local Dutch family, albeit of mixed blood. They had 9 children! Their daughter Julia Wilhelmina was my great-grandmother.

The facts and source documents come from a publication in Dutch compiled by another descendant:

De Familie Scherius - Een Documentatie met brieven, foto’s en documentatie (o.a uit Nederlands-Indie) levensbeschrijvingen en parenteel, V.P. Loeliger-Salomonson 1993

The Family Scherius - A record with letters, photos, documents (incl from Dutch East Indies) biographies and genealogy, V.P. Loeliger - Salomonsson

Painters & Food, The Dutch Table, gastronomy in the Golden Age of the Netherlands, Gillian Riley, 1994. Pomegranate Artbooks.


Maritiem Kookboek, Aan Tafel met Piet Heyn, Jenny van der Lee 
Maritime Cookbook, dining with Piet Heyn, Jenny van der Lee.

for reference to cloves and dutch cooking.

The above story was my assignment to complete my unit Writing Family History at University of Tasmania online studies summer school. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A long way from home

I've started a unit Writing Family History online at University of Tasmania and the following is one of the assignments.  The task was to to find some common thread in the family history.

My grandfather’s grandfather, Reinier Scherius, followed his two older brothers to the East Indies, which was at the time a Dutch Colony. By the age of 27 he was civil commander in Gerontolo, on the island of Celebes. This was a long way from home, Amsterdam, where he was born. 

Jan Peelen, my great-grandfather, was born in Cairo in 1859, the son of a Dutch engineer, who was sent to Egypt to build a steel mill for the Khedive. Another family member a long way from home. Jan also went on to become a civil engineer and lived with his family in the Rhineland area of Germany, where his son, my grandfather, Reinier Peelen grew up.

Reinier would also end up in Indonesia, in Java, where he managed coffee and tea plantations. My mother and her siblings were all born in the Dutch East Indies, as Indonesia was known then.

The Indonesia connection continues on my father’s side of the family. His mother was sent away by her family to Amsterdam to train as a pharmacy assistant and she fell in love with the instructor and married him. They settled in the Dutch East Indies and their 4 children were born on Java.

These ancestors are linked by two cultures - the Dutch and the exotic, Indonesian, culture. I too follow in this family way. I was born in Calcutta, grew up in Holland and Singapore and moved to New Zealand and finally ended up in Australia. Not quite an outsider and not an insider either.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Border Lines

This weeks theme is a free choice, so I'm highlighting my two ancestors that are linked through their daughters to me. They also had similar jobs, both were involved with border and community protection in one way or another.

Firstly I'd like to introduce Doede Thomas Lawerman, born in Driesum, Friesland, in 1857, whose daughter Berendina Lawerman married my grandfather Cornelis Blomberg. Their first-born son, my father, was named in the proper tradition after both his grandfathers Jan (Blomberg) Doede (Lawerman). Anglicised he would have been called John David.

On my mother's side is Christoph Wilhelm Emil Reith, the father of Meta, who married Jan Reinier Charles Peelen, and their first daughter Annemarie was my mother.

Christoph Reith was born 8 November 1856 in Eschwege, Hesse Germany and he married Marie Susanne Friedericke Luise Schuman probably around 1883. Marie Susanne was born in Herborn, Hesse, Germany on 15 April 1859.

A quick search for Herborn reveals it is in the area of Nassau and Dillenburg, the ancestral lands of Prince William the Silent who led the revolt of the Dutch against Spanish Habsburg rule in the 16th century and who is regarded as the founding father of the Netherlands.

Their first-born Willi Ernst arrived in 1884 in Lennep, Germany, in the vicinity of Dusseldorf but by the time my grandmother was born in 1891, the family had moved to Tonningen, Schleswig Holstein, which is on the border with Denmark. Christoph Reith was Uber Zollinspector - which roughly translates as Head Customs Officer - and I guess all the moving around was part of the job.

Doede Lawerman was Wachtmeester in the Marechaussee. The Marechaussee is the security organisation in the Netherlands which combines functions of the Police, the Military and Customs. I assume the rank of wachtmeester was something like an officer, a guardsman perhaps. He joined the Marechaussee on 17 September 1881 and he too was moved around a lot for his work often within several months.

In 1889 he moved from Eindhoven to Zwolle and then in March 1990 he moved to Zutphen, then in April 1890 he was promoted to Wachtmeester te Paard (on horse) and this must have given him the income he needed so he could marry Fokeline Dieverdine Bakker in June 1890 in Valthermonde. The young couple - well perhaps not so young, he was already 32 and she was 25 - then moved to Enschede where their first daughter was born in 1891and then to Winschoten where in 1895 my grandmother Berendina Elisabeth was born. They also had a son Wiebertus who was born in 1893.

Doede had a distinguished career for he was twice awarded medals of honor - in 1896 with the silver medal of Oranje Nassau and in 1899 again with the medal of crossed swords. This later distinction would have been a promotion and so he would have had to send back his first medal. The order of Oranje Nassau is not a military distinction but a general recognition of services rendered to the community. He had to retire from the Marechaussee in 1906 at the age of 48 for health reasons - he suffered frequent migraine attacks. He then joined the Court of Justice in Winschoten as a concierge and later as public servant.

Something caught my eye as I read down the list of vital dates for Doede and that was the note that he was baptised at the age of  29 on 18 April 1887 in the Doopsgezinde community in Sas van Gent. This looked different and worthy of investigation.

The Doopsgezinde community has its roots in the Reformation era when a priest from Friesland, Menno Simons, developed his teachings that stressed the importance of baptism as an adult and the way to God was to live a peaceful life. This movement became known as Anabaptists or Mennonites as it became known internationally.

I can only guess at what inspired him to radically depart from the church tradition he probably grew up with, but it does put into context the remarks of my grandmother when I asked her about religion in the family many many years ago. She said her father was some kind of humanist and "had his own beliefs".

My brother and I were not christened as babies but we were enrolled in religious instruction at school so that we could make our own informed choice as adults if we wanted to. Perhaps a touch of Mennonite there? Another Mennonite teaching is not to take up arms and join the military but it was acceptable to join the Police, or Fire Brigade as compensation. So his joining the Marechausee is consistent with this.

At this point I don't know much about Christoph Reith so that is for future exploration. One last note, both great-grandfathers died at the age of 68.