A successful escape from slavery

Skipper Jan Bijl got the fright of his life on November 18, 1732 in the Caribbean Sea, a day sailing from Curaçao. Much to his dismay, a woman of color appeared. Her name was Leonora.

Jan Bijl from Zierikzee worked as a skipper for the Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie, which was founded in 1720. The company transported goods on commission and acted for its own account. Many journeys initially went to European destinations, while at the same time the company actively sought new markets, for example in Africa and the Caribbean. For example, Bijl, who had made some fifteen voyages to ports such as Bordeaux in France and Livorno in Italy from 1728, was instructed to set course for Curaçao in 1732.

Kwitantie met het wapen van de Admiraliteit van Amsterdam
Calibration letter from Amsterdam with the dimensions of the hoeker Maria Elisabeth of the MCC from Middelburg, 1729. ZA, Archive MCC inv.nr 715 serial nr 112.

Bijl sailed on the twelve-year-old Maria Elisabeth, a hooker with a mainmast and a mizzenmast, 21.2 meters long and a maximum of 5.9 meters wide. [1] The distance between the tweendeck and the keel was 3.1 meters and she could carry a load of 57 loads, about 112 tons. [2] The ship was armed with four three-pound cannons.

For the trip to Curaçao, the crew was expanded to 13 ‘heads’. In addition to the skipper, these were chief mate David la Granje from Vlissingen, second mate Leendert Jansen from Zierikzee, boatswain Meerten Teunis, carpenter Jan Allard from Ostend, cook Jan Schaare from Vlissingen, sailors Jan van der Brugge, Jacobus du Pree from Vlissingen, Adriaan van Dam , Jonas Pieterse from Gothenburg and Cent Fouljaart from Vlissingen, and cabin boy Bruijnhout (Bruno) Maartensen.

Linen and red roof tiles

When the Maria Elisabeth departed from Middelburg on April 29, 1732, she had a varied trade cargo or ‘cargazoen’ on board. It consisted largely of different types of textiles. Osnabrugs and Flemish linen both in two qualities, Elberfelds striped and Elberfelds checkered linen, white and green wool blankets, Silesian ‘Rouaan’ (cotton), cotton ‘Hollandillas’, red chintz (printed cotton), ‘wide and mixed Carad’oro’ , blue ‘barcans’ and ‘Nordic bree bays’.

A textile sample in a letter to Pieter de Jongh, captain for the MCC, dated September 5, 1731. Zeeuws Archief, MCC Archives, inv.nr 64.1 nrs 72 et seq.

Many textiles were used to dress the enslaved on the plantations. The export for the enslaved even formed the basis for the production of the weaving mills in Elberfeld, Germany. The Elberfeld ‘bonten’ and stripes (checkered and striped fabrics) came in blue and white, and red and white. The strong, often unbleached Osnabrugse linen from Osnabrück in Germany was also used for the clothing of enslaved people. [3]

“Cargazoentie van de courantste waren” – ‘a cargo of the most current goods’

The Maria Elisabeth was also loaded with: Rhine wine, old May cheese, young cheese, cumin cheese, Westphalian hams, Delft butter, pearl barley, aniseed, cumin seeds, raisins from Smyrna, brown pepper, white wine, French brandy, ‘East-Indies’ meuselaar ( beer), soap, carbon black, linseed oil, starch, white lead paint, yellow and red paint, blue smalt (paint), red lead, Spanish green (paint), nails, pickaxes, shot and gunpowder. 30,000 yellow bricks and 7,000 red roof tiles served as ballast.

Scheepsmodel van hout met zeilen, op een standaard.
Model of a hoeker from 1756, h 120 cm × l 72 cm × b 33 cm. Rijksmuseum NG-NM-12047-A.

For the return cargo, which, the directors wished, would consist mainly of cocoa, there were 36 packs of seal cloth and 129 empty cocoa bales on board for packaging. The total cargo represented a purchase value of 4,040 Flemish pounds, which is about 242,500 euros. [4]

After arriving in Curaçao, Bijl had to join merchant Juan Schuurman. He had been notified of his imminent arrival. The directors of the MCC had been corresponding with Schuurman for some time and had informed him by letter. [5] In the letter they had advertised the goods on board the Maria Elisabeth as “a cargo of the most current goods”, which would soon sell on the island, “as well as consumables as vivres & needs as well as of the most current & most popular [sold] manufactures for the coast”.

‘The coast’ meant the coast of the Spanish West Indies; the merchandise would have been intended for a part of present-day Venezuela with Caracas as the most important city. The assortment was put together on the advice of Captain Ackervelt, who had visited Curaçao for the MCC and had only just returned to Middelburg.

The directors asked Schuurman to sell the goods for a modest commission. They knew that the captains from Amsterdam sold their goods themselves, but the directors enlisted Schuurman’s help. They promised him a list of purchase prices so that he could sell as he saw fit. The directors were convinced that this would not be difficult for him because of the limited quantity and the wide variety of the goods.

Plattegrond van het eiland Curacao, met afbeeldingen van aanzichten van het eiland zoals het te zien was aan boord van een schip.
Map of Curaçao from 1715 by Gerard van Keulen. Nationaal Archief VEL590A

With Juan Schuurman on Curaçao

On June 27, 1732, the Maria Elisabeth and her crew safely reached the port of Curaçao. Immediately upon arrival, Jan Bijl turned to his contact person, who was a well-known figure on the island. Juan Schuurman was a councilor, captain of the citizenry (vigilante) and (co-)owner of a number of plantations.

Schuurman set to work energetically, so that Bijl wrote in his letter of 1 July to the directors: “[I] think so far I hear that we have come to the right place and the largest part of our cargo will be sold”. [6] The directors had asked the skipper to inform them in detail about the situation on the spot and he complied. For example, Bijl wrote in the same letter about the presence of ‘Biscayers’ or Spanish ships that hindered trading on the mainland.

Closure of the letter and signature of Jan Bijl, skipper of the Maria Elisabeth. Zeeuws Archief, MCC Archive, inv.nr 718 nr 118 et seq. “Nothing special other than heartfelt greetings, with which remain your all obliging servant and skipper, Jan Bijl”

He also reported that five weeks earlier a slave trader had arrived from Angola with a ship carrying 200 enslaved people. It concerned the three-masted hoeker Hoogelant of captain Boter from Amsterdam. The captain had carried 280 enslaved Africans on board, but the Atlantic crossing had taken three months instead of two and 80 people had died. Bijl also informed the directors of the prices paid for the enslaved people: “from 150 to 190 each”.

Powders and phlebotomies

Bijl wrote nothing about his crew in his letter, except that they were all “in good order and healthy”. A week later this was no longer the case and Bijl was forced to consult several surgeons. Several crew members remained ill for extended periods; the mates, the carpenter, some sailors and the boy. Master Jan Abel Bouman prescribed 9 and 12 July, among other things, a drink against the fever, a ‘sweat drink’, and a purgation. The powders, bloodletting, a ‘glass of heart strenghtening’ and a ‘glass of liquorice’ by master Andries Wodick could not prevent two people on board from dying. Sailor Jacob du Pree died July 16 and carpenter Jan Allard July 20. Both were buried on the island.

Invoice from surgeon Gerrit van Leeuwen for medicines for chief mate Jan Allard. Curaçao, 13 October 1732. Zeeuws Archief, MCC Archives, inv.nr 740.3 nr 30.

The chief mate received from master Jan Abel Bouman on September 15, among other things, an enema for an ‘opstruction’ in his hip and twice a ‘sweat drink’. In October, master Gerrit van Leeuwen submitted his bill for the medicines to the second mate “who has been sick with dysentery and heavy bile vomiting”. [7] Dysentery is an contagious intestinal infection accompanied by severe diarrhea with blood in the stool.
Bijl reported the death of the two crew members to the directors in his letter of 6 September. He had managed to hire two men in their place; carpenter Adriaan Robbe and sailor Jan van Loo.

The Maria Elisabeth now had 530 baskets of cocoa on board, while Bijl was waiting for another 300 baskets to arrive from the coast near Caracas. However, there was a delay because a ship with 200 enslaved people had arrived and its captain had also bought cocoa. Bijl wrote that he wanted to leave in October. In consultation with Juan Schuurman, he had already stocked 15 to 16 loads of wood for ballast.

In the end, the return cargo consisted of 596 baskets and 9 sacks of cocoa with a total weight of over 55,000 pounds, 20 barrels of sugar weighing nearly 20,000 pounds, 32 tons of wood, animal skins and tobacco. On behalf of private individuals, the captain received 140 marks of silver money and 1575 pieces of ‘heart money’ for cargo. And finally, some unsold trade goods were taken back: a barrel of yellow paint, 3 barrels of cumin seeds and 11 barrels of nails worth about 143 pounds of Flemish.

Dutch hoeker. Etching by Adolf van der Laan, ca 1710, 17,7×20,6 cm. Rijksmuseum RP-P-1907-2365.

The directors had expressed the wish that their hooker would return to Middelburg in November. That wish would not come true. Captain Bijl wrote to the directors on November 15, 1732 that he could leave any day now and indeed he weighed anchor on November 17. [8] A day and a half later he and his fellow crew got the fright of their lives.


A dark-skinned woman appeared. A ‘slave’ in Jan Bijl’s description. By using this word, he indicated that she was not a free woman, but someone’s property. Her name was Leonora, she said, and she had hidden on board at night to regain her freedom.

At that time, Bijl was 24 hours sailing from Curaçao, had a two-month journey ahead of him and a valuable return cargo in the hold of his ship. What to do? There on the Maria Elisabeth in the Caribbean Sea, Captain Jan Bijl decided to keep course and sail on. It wasn’t going to be an easy journey as the elements weren’t cooperating; for a month the crew endured extremely bad weather and severe storms.

The 13-man crew and Leonora reached the Rammekens roadstead in the Western Scheldt on Sunday, January 18, 1733. The hooker lying 11 feet (3.3 meters) deep was towed the next day by two pairs of two horses through the Welzinge Canal from the Western Scheldt to Middelburg. [9]

The directors immediately convened an extra meeting. The clerk wrote that Monday, January 19: “Because skipper Jan Bijl indicates that a certain female slave has been hiding in his ship, who only revealed herself 24 hours after his departure & emerged to the great dismay of him & his officers ”. The directors ruled that it was not the skipper or the Commercie Compagnie who was to blame for what had happened. They decided that a notarial statement had to be made, which would show that the woman had boarded without the skipper being aware of it. [10]

Minutes of the meeting of the directors of January 19, 1733. ZA, Archief MCC, inv.nr 34 serial nr 152.

The directors’ attention was mainly focused on the condition of the cargo, given the severe weather. The same goes for the next day during the regular meeting. “Read the letters from Juan Schuurman of Curacao dated 14 October & 15 November, brought by Captain Jan Bijl. After consultation, it was resolved to have the letters answered as soon as possible. And to inform you that Captain Jan Bijl did arrive here on the previous Sunday, that the cargo is being unloaded, but because he has experienced bad weather & storm for a month, we are concerned about the possible damage to the cargo, although we are lucky that the cocoa is packed in baskets, so we hope that the damage will be limited.” [11]

Advertisement for the sale on 12 March 1733 of ‘Caracques cacao’ by the Commercie Compagnie in Middelburg. A large part of this was brought in with the Maria Elisabeth. Amsterdam Courant, February 17, 1733.

Leonora came up again in the January 23 meeting, but this time she was described in the minutes as a “negress”, as a black woman. “Which hath come with the said hooker, a black woman, who unbeknownst to the captain, officers, sailors, hath come aboard at night & hid herself till they have been 24 hours in the sea, when to great consternation she hath revealed herself . Of which we have decided to include a statement & we hereby enclose the copy of discharge.” [12] This shows the function of the notarial statement; that of a disclaimer.

Message to Curaçao

In the notarial deed, Leonora again stated that she had hidden on board in order to regain her freedom. And she added a second reason: she was treated badly by her owners.

The statement was sent with the next letter to Juan Schuurman on Curaçao. That letter was carefully drafted by two of the directors, Caspar Ribaut and Hendrik Boursse, and sent on January 27, 1733. First of all, the letter was about the trade, in this case the bad weather on the way, the possible consequences for the goods and possible damage.

Then followed the news about Leonora. “Furthermore, we must inform you that on our hooker called the Maria Elisabeth, (after the ship had been at sea for 24 hours & had departed from Curaco,) has been discovered a negro woman pretending to be Leonora, whom, for her to secure liberty, has managed to get on board silently without anyone’s knowledge, of which we have deemed fit to take a statement, from the skipper with all his people strengthened under oath, to our discharge, also here goes in a statement that the whole crew of reported hooker has not consisted of any other men than those who have taken the oath.” [13]

Handschrift in zwarte inkt.
Fragment from a copy of the letter by the directors of the MCC sent to Juan Schuurman, 27 January 1733. Zeeuws Archief, Archief MCC, inv.nr 88.

As was to be expected, protests were made from Curaçao against Leonora’s escape and the role of the company. Juan Schuurman expressed the position of the owner of the woman in his letter to the directors of July 20, 1733. “We have received the declaration that Your Honorable Honorable have drawn up by Captain Jan Bijl, with all his crew, who at that time have sailed him, because of the runaway of the negress named Leonora, with mainly captain Bijl. Who also stated that she ran away of her own accord. On the one hand to gain her freedom from servile service & on the other hand for the ill-treatment & mistreatment of her mistress.”

“om haar vrijheijt van slaafsen dienst te verkrijgen” – ‘to gain her freedom from servile service’

According to Schuurman, there was no question of abuse. He asserted that the owner “has been falsely accused by her & on the contrary in performing her duty as a slave could not find a better mistress. For which she is known to her neighbours, & is not known for swearing.” Schuurman clearly took sides. “These folks have been put out of state by her running away. Because the slaves here are the capital of many people and therefore will be ruined. It would be a hard case if this is not resolved.”

From slavery to freedom

Schuurman requested that Leonora be sent back: “Now it is my request, from her owner to Your Honorables, to apprehend her at once & if possible ship back the aforesaid runaway negress Leonora so that the owner may get her back.”

Handtekening van Juan Schuurman, correspondent van de MCC op Curaçao.

He was aware that once in the Netherlands, Leonora had regained her freedom and was no longer the property of anyone else. Still, he didn’t agree with the way it had been done, and he wasn’t satisfied with the notarial deed. He pointed to the working method of the West India Company (WIC). “It is true that when she is in Europe she is free, but if one considers how she got there, then measures ought to be taken. It has happened that slaves have run away from here to Amsterdam by hiding in the ships, that these slaves have been sent back by the Noble Honorable directors of the West India Company to whom these runaway slaves have been handed over, and thus the captain was discharged.” [14]

The directors received the letter from Juan Schuurman on September 14, 1733 and answered it loud and clear in a letter dated October 16: “Concerning the slave Eleonora, she is still here in the service of good people, and is about to become a member of our reformed community. So it is impossible to send her there.” [15]

Leonora had apparently become a maid in a household in Middelburg. In addition, she was soon registered as a member of the Nederduits-reformeerde congregation. In short, returning to Curaçao was impossible. By hiding on board an MCC ship sailing to Middelburg, the enslaved Leonora from Curaçao managed to regain her freedom. An act of defiance by an incredibly brave woman.

The fact that the directors did not cooperate in the return of Leonora had nothing to do with an aversion to the slave trade and slavery. The company had only one objective and that was to make a profit, or as the directors themselves put it: “we navigate the fortune of negotiation”. [16] When lucrative opportunities arose, the Company also traded in human lives. She had already done that in previous years on the coast of West Africa. The Africans purchased there had been resold to other traders on the coast.

In fact, while the directors were considering the Leonora issue, Captain Jan de Moor was commissioned to make the first transatlantic slave voyage for the company. The enslaved Africans aboard his ship Hof van Zeeland were to be sold in June 1733, most of them in Curaçao, with the sale taking place at the home of the main buyer: Juan Schuurman. [17]


Poster of the sale of the ship Maria Elisabeth by de Commercie Compagnie in Middelburg. Zeeuws Archief, Archief MCC, inv.nr 740.3 serial nr 101.

The notarial statement that Jan Bijl and the directors had drawn up has not been preserved or has not yet been found. The search is complicated by the fact that notarial archives, baptismal, marriage, burial and member registers of the cities of Middelburg and Vlissingen have been lost.

It remains unknown who Leonora’s owner was and where Leonora came from. Was she born in Curaçao or was she sold to the coast of Africa and made the journey across the Atlantic? Did she know that Jan Bijl’s ship was going to Middelburg and that people in European countries were not allowed to be enslaved? And how did she fare in Zeeland? Who was she employed by? What did her future look like? One thing seems certain, she will not have seen her family and her place of birth again.

When Leonora walked along the quays in Middelburg in May 1733, she may have seen the Maria Elisabeth. It had had its day and was ready to be sold for demolition. Her last voyage had brought the company a profit of 1748:16:8 Flemish pounds or almost 105,000 euros and Leonora her freedom. [18]

Follow up: Leonora in other media

Logo in de stijl van het VOC-logo, met de in elkaar grijpende letters V, C en C, en daaronder een grote letter M.

Archive on transatlantic slave trade

Leonora's escape has been preserved in the archives of the Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie (MCC). Read more


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