The story is set around 1848 in Holland (Europe) and Suriname (Caribbean / South America). 1848 was the year of the big changes . It is historically famous for the wave of revolutions that significantly altered the political and philosophical landscape and had major ramifications throughout the rest of the century.
Regina Winter is orphaned at a young age and spends part of her childhood in a girl’s orphanage in the city of Den Bosch, in a home called the Motherhouse, led by a Catholic religious order. In 1847 she sets off for Suriname where she has accepted a teaching post. Her pupil is Walther Blackwell, a free coloured young man who has inherited a plantation from his white father. Because of his extravagant lifestyle Blackwell is mockingly called ‘The Black Lord’.
A year later, in 1848, Europe finds itself in absolute turmoil as it faces revolutions all around and the rise of a new political movement: socialism. In the Caribbean, too, slave revolts erupt.
In Suriname, Regina is faced with other norms, with taboos and racism, all of which have a profound effect on her life. She transforms from a naive girl into an adult woman. She gets to know all kinds of people, even befriending a defiant theatre company, the members of which, upon performing a provocative play, are promptly imprisoned. Meanwhile Walther has some plans of his own …
Regina’s childhood at The Motherhouse – page 39
Pater noster qui es in caelis
santificetur nomen tuum
adveniat regnum tuum
fiat voluntas tua
sicut in caelo
et in terra
The sisters lived as nuns. Their days began at half past four in the morning. In those early hours one could hear their muted footsteps in the corridors. Whispering voices and clanking doors, sounds that eventually died down, only to resurface moments later as serene sounds from the chapel; the murmur of prayer choirs. As I lay in bed, I listened to the monotonous litany and dozed off again. A while later the silent group passed my door with a soft rustling, making their way to their own quarters. In the twilight of their sober cells each sister would meditate in silence before starting to work.
Regina teaching the Black Lord - Discussion Robinson Crusoe – pages 102 – 103
'Miss Winter,' said Walther, 'Don't you think Friday is a perfect example of the idea of a 'noble savage' ? A loyal and humble servant. Someone who was taught how to be civilized, otherwise he would have forever wandered in this primitive state of a vicious man-eater. I think, however that both images show more of the supposed superiority of the white man, than give a truthful view of the Negro himself.'
He leaned back, glancing at me in anticipation and with a look that betrayed furtive pleasure. I cleared my throat and quickly searched my mind for theories of my aunt’s favorite Rousseau. 'Well, yes, you are quite right. In this small Eden Crusoe is accompanied by the grateful savage, but that seems natural, after all Robinson saved his life. Why should Friday not be devoted to him?'
'Ah, but Crusoe as the master, and Friday as his servant. 'Master', - as Robinson said -, 'was to be my name. I taught him to say Master.' Walther paused for a moment, shooting a probing glance at me. 'He only refers to Friday as a 'poor ignorant creature' or 'most faithful servant'. Tell me, is there no other way that you, or the white man for that matter, can see Friday for himself? Is he only to be seen as dangerous or docile? Tell me, Miss.'
He had me cornered. Rousseau did indeed speak of the ideal nature of man, unspoiled and uncivilized, ignorant, but also without inner life. Like animals and instinctive, living in the moment. Friday fitted this image perfectly. I thought for a moment and then answered: 'Well, the noble savage stands at mankind’s beginning, trying to survive nature's wild paradise - '
'Like here?' Walther interrupted me, pointing at the view from the window, where the sunbeams gleamed on the river. A crowd of slaves was carrying around heavy stones in order to reinforce the dike.
'Could be,' I continued, 'but since he has no sense of history, nor future, the savage lives only to satisfy immediate needs, like Friday does. So you see ...'
My pupil shook his head. 'Miss Winter, you are mistaken. History is a matter of knowledge. Since you - or Robinson - have no knowledge of Friday´s language, you cannot know his history. As it seems now, Friday´s history starts with his master, Robinson.'
Immediately images popped up in my head of castles, fortresses, sculptures and paintings. These proofs of history and civilisation were amply found in Europe and Asia. However, insofar as the Dark Continent was concerned, my knowledge remained limited to Egypt.
Did the savannahs and the jungle have anything else than huts or caravanserais? And the fact that Friday did not come from Africa but from America, proved utterly pointless in this discussion, I understood Walther´s line of reasoning.
Perhaps my face was an open book expressing my doubts, for Walther started again: 'History is what one man passes on to another, but if there is no one else around who can understand his words, his tale will cease to exist, thereby closing the doors of history. What once was, will forever disappear. Leaving us to think there was really nothing - or do we just want to believe that?'
Party at the governor-general, the highest authority in the colony – page 127
For the first time since nearly two months I had seen so many white people together. It was as if I had stepped into a tropical version of Holland. Yet behind the gallery, visible through the open garden doors, a soft purple evening glow glimmered above the lush palm tree tops. The contrast could not have been starker. For a moment I thought I had stepped into an exotic dream. Overwhelmed by the abundant impressions I slowed down.
Violin music. Those lovely sounds made my brief indecisiveness disappear. The musical ensemble was dressed in eighteenth-century costumes to resemble court musicians, complete with powdered wigs. A skinny music director conducted the pieces with short, wilful gestures. And every once in a while he would impatiently push back the pince-nez sliding down his shiny nose, before quickly turning the page. To my surprise I noticed that some of the violin players were black. In utmost concentration the men played their musical instruments, ignoring the audience altogether. Their dark skin contrasted beautifully against the velvet waist coats and breeches adorned with silver braids. At the same time those curled white wigs made the whole scene look surreal. Until I noticed drops of perspiration dripping from the rim of the wigs to the collars, leaving behind a moist track across the cheek. This was Suriname. Mozart’s melodies intertwined with the concert of cicadas outside that had loudly begun to compete with each other.
Walther decides to sell his slaves, the people whom he grew up with and who are as family
Slave protest – page 231
In the following days news about Walther’s decision had spread across the plantation. In the evening we heard a strange sound, a chorus of lamenting voices drifting from the slave quarters to the big house. A heart-breaking requiem that made Walther cut short his stay in the drawing room. The woeful sound was building. It changed tone, moving from gut-wrenching cries to raw, merciless accusations. Thus, faceless, it was as if the earth sang, making leaves vibrate and the rain shed tears, singing a song of imminent uprooting.
Everyone went to bed early, but the sad singing even managed to find its way through the closed shutters into the dark bedrooms, where the free lay awake for a long time bound by a guilty conscience.
Regina discovers her heritage. She, too, has negro blood. With this discovery she appears to shed the old values with which she was raised - page 381 – 382
The insects of Maria Sibylla Merian in Sammi’s picture book, lived their lives serenely and carefree. From egg to larve, pupa to butterfly. Nibbling on leaves, sipping nectar. I wished my life could have been that simple. A year ago I came to Suriname, fresh off the boat, a rosy healthy governess from the southern province of Brabant and now: a Creole with a fair complexion and an accent from the city of Den Bosch. A metamorphosis similar to those of caterpillars, but painful. The grinding hard layers of my former identity, now unusable, shrivelled up, peeled off, were eventually shed, revealing a new, delicate and vulnerable skin.
The water coloured tiny paradise on the parchment did not feel the physical and mental pain I experienced when my protective cocoon was torn away. It did not go as smoothly as with the new-born butterfly that unfolds its wings to curiously welcome the new day. My rebirth fought, resisted and protested, but there was no escaping my naked self.
Tangi fu tonton
Tangi fu brafu
O ja jaa, O ja jaa
Outside in the yard children were playing a game. Their clapping and singing resounded through the open window, waking me from my siesta slumber. I stretched and in doing so noticed that the thin chemise I was wearing to replace the flannel Dutch night gowns, had inched up in my sleep, revealing my naked thighs. Instead of immediately adjusting it, I stretched carelessly causing the cloth to ride up even further. How strange it is that nudity should gain a different meaning since I was surrounded by half naked women and men every day. And engulfed by the hot weather, the sweltering heat that justified walking around naked.
I turned around to allow my body some coolness, the gentle wind entering the room was so soft that it would have been called a draught in Holland. A welcome breeze that vaporized my body sweat.
I turned again and stretched my back causing my bosom to rise. The chemise slid open, showing my breasts. I looked at my body in wonder. This very body, the heritage background of which had only just been revealed, seemed odd yet at the same time familiar. Carefully my hands wandered across my body, exploring.
Tangi fu tonton
Tangi fu brafu
O ja jaa, O ja jaa!
The singing and clapping accelerated until one of the players lost out on the rhythm and quit the game under loud cheers. Since my arrival in the colony I seemed to have undergone transformation upon transformation, no longer like the innocent butterfly from the cocoon, but more like the snake that sheds its skin time and again. The snake of the ignorant Eve. The snake of the awakening Eve.
Yet in the corners of my soul not even the remotest feelings of guilt or shame were to be found. Instead, it sported the audacity of one whose past had been vaporized and who had begun with a clean slate. In such a solitary existence, my body was the only thing I had left of myself.
La Troupe Rouge is a mixed theatre company from French Guyana (whites, blacks, one mulatto, one native Indian) trying to trigger an uprising by means of a provocative play - page 416 - 417
Giuiletta had appeared again, her curls flaming in the light of the red glass lamp shades. Fuming pots made sure that the stage was immersed in smoke. La Rouge looked wild and defiant, just as Quaku, Mirre and Vincent who appeared from behind the wings, their faces daubed in war paint and armed with sticks, knives and even a rifle.
Giuletta walked up to the cuffed men and stood there. She planted a foot on Christiaan’s chest and lifted the rifle with her right hand. The others gathered around the three, fiercely gesturing and singing a French battle song. Ma Akouba joined the group. Quaku beat a drum roll and while all sang out loud, I was suddenly reminded of the painting of Delacroix depicting the July revolution of 1830: ‘Liberty leading the people’.
Now, I also recognised the tones of ‘La Marseillaise’ the song of the bloody French revolution that had again been forbidden in France because of the country’s political turmoil. And when La Troupe Rouge decided to break the rules, it did so thoroughly.
Allons enfants de la Patrie
le jour de gloire et arrivé!
Contre nous de la tyrannie
L’étendard sanglant est levé
The intoxicating beat, a chorus of intense voices, prickly smoke circling up from the stage, Vincent took over the rifle from La Rouge who quickly mounted the table and waved the flag that could have been both French and Dutch.
The coloured population is not happy with the trial against La Troupe. Commotion during La Troupe’s trial – page 451 – 452
The singing on the street carried through the open windows, quickly becoming louder as if a choir of women approached the Justice building. Just opposite the high pavement of Justice, the group halted. The lead singer was clearly audible, the other women followed in Sranan tongo. It was a strange sensation hearing voices of an invisible choir, accusing, malicious, but in a slow rhythm as in a dead march. It seemed as if the women were mourning, holding a vigil at a funeral. The president of the court stopped and looked up annoyed.
I have been to a house
I heard a history
Left and right
But all I have
Is dry earth
Horrified I listened to the song. I had mastered enough takitaki to grasp its meaning. Left and right were British and French Guyana where slavery had already been abolished. The message was clear. I looked around. People were beginning to stir. The judges behind the bench looked disgruntled, but the members of La Troupe had straightened their backs, their faces brightened up and some even sported a secret smile. Madame Akouba’s lips were even openly curved in a mocking expression.
Some people stood up and walked towards the windows to see who the singers were. The president called out to the bailiff and the chief of police. Outside, the singing simply continued, thronging the Square as passers-by halted. Judge Palthe Wesenhagen called for order in the courtroom, but most people had moved to the windows, looking outside and making agitated remarks. I, too, had made my way to a window, viewing the women on the Square.
They were market women, free women who were bound to have relatives that were still enslaved. Perhaps there were even slave girls among the crowd, although they would have been taking a big risk, for the law was merciless toward slaves. The women were dressed in kotos and angisas, plain but well-kept, in their starched skirts, bright-coloured jackets and artfully folded headscarves. They were singing with serious faces, their voices drifting across the Square where, in the distance, one could see palm trees gently waving back and forth. More and more the women became the centre of attention, but they continued singing courageously, their lament aimed at the hidden magistrates.