The water is too deep

It’s been a long time since I’ve written on this blog, so I’ll try to get it going again by posting about some of the research I am currently doing in the Netherlands (I’ll be digging around the Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Dutch national archives for the next few months). I’m here looking for evidence about sailors from Britain and Ireland during the seventeenth century, and what they got up to in another country. Did they take work on Dutch ships, or with institutions like the navy or the various trading companies? What kinds of relationships did they form with people and communities in the Netherlands? I hope that by building up a picture of their activities from the perspectives offered in Dutch records I can complement my research in British collections, and start to think about questions like how much national identities mattered to sailors.

I am working mostly with the notarial records of Amsterdam at the moment; this is a huge collection which provides a window into many facets of daily life in the early modern city.1 As with many documents of this kind, however, the notarial acts are formulaic and offer only short snapshots of the people of the past, who would go to a notary for a certain reason – to declare something, to acknowledge debts, to make a contract, and so on – and that reason determines what was recorded. Rather than a Rembrandt-esque portrait, the result is a collage of small details about many different individuals’ lives. Occasionally, though, these documents contain real gems: this post is about one of them.

On 10 December 1667 four men came before the notary Hendrik Rosa – John Smith, Jacob Thomas, Louris Jacobs and William Davidson.2 Smith, Thomas, and Davidson were all in their thirties, Jacobs was 22 years old. More importantly, from my point of view, they were all Scottish sailors. Smith and Davidson came from Aberdeen, Thomas from Edinburgh, and Jacobs from the Shetland Islands. They went to speak to Rosa on behalf of another Scottish sailor, John Bell of Glasgow, or rather on behalf of Bell’s wife, Magdalena Jans. The witnesses state that Magdalena and John had been married for some years; indeed, from the church records it appears they were married five years before.3

What these men have to say about their friend Bell is frankly quite peculiar, but I’ll get to that in a bit. One of the first interesting things about this document is how it immediately gives us a glimpse of the geography of these Scotsmen’s lives in Amsterdam: quite a small geography, it seems. John Smith lived on Ridderstraat, and William Davidson on the neighbouring Jonkerstraat, both on the eastern side of Amsterdam’s old centre, unsurprisingly close to the city’s extensive docks. Jacob Thomas, with whom the younger Louris Jacobs was lodging, and Magdalena Jans (and presumably her husband) both lived in the Bierkaai, an area just south of the Oude Kerk. ‘Bierkaai’ – the beer quay, named for the contents of the barrels which were unloaded here – referred not just to the quay along the canal, but also to the alleys and streets leading off it, where the stevedores had their homes. Something of the working character of this area is conveyed by the Dutch phrase ‘vechten tegen de bierkaai’, literally ‘to fight against the bieerkaai’ but meaning something like ‘to fight a losing battle’. This apparently originates from the old pastime of cheerful interdistrict punch-ups, in which the Bierkaai’s stevedores, having honed their muscles hauling barrels around, generally came off best.4 All five of the Scots and Magdalena thus lived within a short walk of each other, and in an area dominated by Amsterdam’s role during this period as a massive international port.


A house dating to 1663 on Oudezijds Voorburgwal, where the Bierkaai was.

These four men went to Hendrik Rosa’s office because they wished to describe John Bell’s unusual habits. He was ‘occasionally unwell in his senses’, and, when ‘troubled in the head’, did ‘silly’ things. He had been known to strip off his clothes to his undergarments  (specifically shirt and drawers) and walk about the street. On one specific occasion on Zeedijk, a street lying between his wife’s and his friends’ homes, a small dog barked at Bell, whereupon he again threw off all his clothes save shirt and drawers then ran away, although his friends recognised him and took him, and his clothes, home. You begin to see the theme emerging. According to Louris Jacobs, who had sailed with Bell under Captain Mathijs Cornelisz, Bell had sometimes pulled off his moustache on one side, and said to the captain (possibly during an argument) that he wanted to jump into the water and drown – and he did so, apart from the drowning, first stripping and tying a rope to himself that was also fastened to the ship. Upon returning aboard he reportedly told his crewmates that ‘the water is too deep’.

It is not unusual for a notarial act that the declaration of these four sailors makes no mention as to specifically what the document was for – why, exactly, they chose to make Bell’s behaviour a matter of public record. There is a clue, however, as the act notes that Bell was ‘detained in the Tuchthuis of this city’, and indeed he is referred to throughout as ‘the detained’. The Tuchthuis was a prison or, more accurately, a house of correction, established in 1596 in a former convent on the Heiligeweg, across the old city centre from the Bierkaai. The forbidding gate still stands, depicting Amsterdam (as a lady with a shield and a flail) chastising miscreants, with the forbidding legends ‘Castigatio’ and ‘Virtutis est domare quae cuncti pavent’: ‘it is a virtue to subdue those before whom all go in dread’. These days it is a gateway to the Kalvertoren shopping centre.

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Given the recurring theme of near-nudity in the declaration, I suspect that Bell had been accosted by a city official while wearing very little, and consigned to the Tuchthuis in punishment. At one point in the declaration the sailors state that Bell had previously walked about undressed ‘in daylight’, and the implication is that this was rather frowned upon. Bell was certainly unfortunate to have been detained in this way – the Tuchthuis, though set up as a supposedly benign institution with an emphasis on reforming its inmates into model citizens, was a grim place of hard labour. It was also known as the ‘Rasphuis’, the sawhouse, because it held a monopoly on powdered brazilwood, an important ingredient for dyes, and inmates were forced to do the powdering, as well as being beaten and punished in other ways. Although initial sentences were supposed to be for a few weeks or months, Amsterdam’s sheriff and aldermen could keep inmates detained for years, or even for a lifetime.5 It seems likely, from the tone and content of the declaration, that Bell’s wife and friends hoped to persuade the authorities that his behaviour was unintential and harmless in a bid to have him released. This might permit a couple of other interpretations, of course. Perhaps Bell was not suffering from any mental health problems; perhaps he had been deliberately misbehaving, and his friends invented the stories to get him off the hook. Or perhaps Magdalena Jans was not trying to protect her husband, but to distance herself from him by accusing him of madness. Call me sentimental, but I don’t find either of these as convincing as the idea that they were genuinely trying to help a vulnerable man. Sadly records of the Tuchthuis from the seventeenth century are pretty scarce, so we will probably never know whether they were successful.

What, then, can we take from this incident, apart from it being rather different to the run-of-the-mill formulas that make up most notarial documents? Well, for the purposes of my research, it is interesting to see that sailors from abroad found their way into the Dutch penal system. Probably more significant, though, is that while these sailors resided in the Netherlands and may well have travelled widely, they still banded together as Scotsmen. Four of them living close together, and helping out a friend both in the street and in the law, seems too much of a coincidence to suggest that their relationships were not in some way inflected by compatriotship. That is not to suggest some kind of ‘enclave’ mentality – Magdalena Jans was probably Dutch, suggesting that sailors also developed relationships outside their national communities. Rather, both of these kinds of relationship downplay the image of sailors as rootless, isolated people. When he needed them, Bell’s friends supported him. In this regard, Bell’s story not only shows that these social connections existed, it highlights how important they were. If I’m lucky I’ll find some more cases like this in the archives, to help me develop these ideas further.

Additional note: it turns out that Magdalena Jans was also Scottish (although it is not clear when, or how, she came to the Netherlands). In their pre-marriage notice, dated 2 April 1662, the couple appear as ‘Jan Beli van Schotlandt varentsgesel [= mariner] oud 25 J[aar]…uit Schapesteege’ and ‘Magdalena Jans uit Schotland oud 25 J[aar]…inde Voetboogstraat’. Their witnesses were Jacob Michelse and Margriet Smit (the relationship is not clear: the witnesses’ job was to certify the identity of the couple, so these were presumably their friends, or perhaps their hosts?).6 Both Schapensteeg and Voetboogstraat are towards the south of Amsterdam’s old centre, across town from the Bierkaai where they later lived. Voetboogstraat, ironically enough, leads straight to the gate of the Tuchthuis; and as it happens, earlier this week Liebeth Corens and I visited Voetboogstraat to sample the historically inspired menu at Lt. Cornelis. It’s a great privilege to step out of the archives and into the footsteps of the people that you are studying – although I doubt Magdalena or John would have moved in the same social circles as did Lieutenant Cornelis Michielsz Blaeuw



[1] The notarial collection is Stadsarchief Amsterdam [SAA] 5075; there is an incomplete but very useful card catalogue, SAA 30452. I owe a big thanks to Tijl Vanneste for helping me to get to grips with these records. I have ‘Englished’ the names here (in the original source: Jan Smith, Louris Jacobs, Jacob Tomes/Tomass, and Jan Bel).

[2] The declaration is SAA 5075, inventaris nummer 3104, p. 547.

[3] John Bell and Magdalena Jans are noted as marrying in 1662 on this genealogy website – follow ‘Bronnen’ > ‘Huwelijken van Schotse onderdanen’ to load a PDF list based on the Amsterdam ‘Ondertrouwenboeken’, which I intend to chase up in the original sources.

[4] There is a short article (in Dutch) about this phrase in IsGeschiedenis.

[5] This is largely based on Simon Schama’s description of the Tugthuis in The Embarrassment of riches: an interpretation of Dutch culture in the golden age (London, 1987), pp. 15-24.

[6] This is recorded in the Huwelijkregister for 1662-3, SAA 5001, inventaris nummer 483, p. 21. The structure of the registers is explained (in Dutch) here. I owe yet more thanks to Tijl Vanneste for his help with these documents.


4 thoughts on “The water is too deep

    • Thanks! I haven’t found any mention of a Madder/Mather yet, but I will keep an eye out for them both in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and let you know if I find anything. Thanks for sharing your post, too.

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