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/ The Stored

When walking around the city of Amsterdam, the many old seventeenth-century storehouses pass by and Amsterdam as one big storehouse becomes evident. Amsterdam was not only the place were slave ships were made, goods from the slave plantations – like sugar, coffee and cacao – were stored together with the products that were used to buy enslaved people. One of the places that have a distinct resonance of this history are the Western Islands close to the city center of Amsterdam. The Western Islands were built in 1610 which mirrored the city plan of the Eastern Islands (Bakker, 2014, p. 2). The Western Islands are made up of the Bickerseiland, Raeleneiland and Prinseneiland. While the Eastern Islands were mostly owned and used by the VOC and the WIC, the Western Islands were designed for smaller, independent companies with their own shipyards (Bakker, 2014, p. 13). While shipyards were very common in both the Eastern as well as the Western Islands, the historical function of the Western Islands as a place for many warehouses can be considered a unique aspect. In the neighborhood of the Prinseneiland for instance, mostly warehouses are found. From all the 900 warehouses in Amsterdam during the seventeenth century, more than 100 were located on this island.

The Western Islands center around an island called Bickerseiland. This island was named after and owned by one of the wealthiest families in Amsterdam in the second half of the seventeenth century (Balai, 2013, p. 93). No other regent family in the history of Amsterdam had ever experienced this kind of influence before. Many members of the family were mayors of Amsterdam, leaders or governors from the WIC, and thus directly involved with the slave trade. Jan Bicker (1591-1653) was the brother of Cornelis Bicker who was mayor of Amsterdam in 1646, 1650 and 1654 and became governor of the WIC in 1622 (Balai, 2013, p. 93). Not like his brother who moved trough Amsterdam’s political elite, Jan Bicker worked as an influential shipwright. In 1631 he bought the area of the Western Islands to create a shipyard and a warehouse next to a castle-like house with a high tower that was higher than any other house in the area enabling him to overlook the water for incoming ships (Elias, 1903: 174). Besides building these private proporties, he also made sure that the islands became full of warehouses, ‘tar houses’ and shipyards. On the Bickerseiland the warehouses were used for the storage of goods from the WIC. Goods like pitch and tar, tobacco, grain and wine were stored in these warehouses (Balai, 2013, p. 94).

After I arrived at Bickerseiland, I set up my audio recorder and walk north-wards on the Bickersgracht. While I start to get used to the weird experience of hearing sounds around me not directly, but mediated through my headphones, I notice the quietness of the place. Only five hundred meters away from the intense, chaotic and screamy touristic parts of the city there is near silence at the Bickerseiland.

The rhythm of life of this part on the city is slower and the initial experience feels friendly, welcoming and light. Children are playing on the streets, people are swimming in the calm waters of the canals and the intimate sounds of homes sporadically seep into the small streets. There are people in the communal gardens lying, talking, reading and listening. I normally don’t visit this part of the city as it is situated in a somewhat out-of-the-way corner. The relaxed atmosphere feels like a dream far away from my own hurried/worried experience of living in Amsterdam. However, after a while I can only interpret it as an illusion; an illusion of a calm, dreamy, nothing-has-happened-here atmosphere. I remind myself that the sound of my footsteps would not have been here today if the Bicker family would not have lucratively benefited from the horrors of slavery.

A small gallery at the Bickersgracht appears with a poster on the window that says: ‘Bickerseiland walking tour’. I stop and look around. There I meet a friendly older, white gentleman that sits in front of the gallery. We start a conversation and he explains that he had conducted an archival research about this neighborhood. He even published a book about it through the help of the local residents who gave him many photo’s, stories and other archival sources. I asked: ’Which sounds from the past have disappeared?’ He points out that the last shipwright passed away some years ago: ‘Henk, my neighbor, still used to make ships. He was the last one who did it and with him the sounds of the shipbuilding have disappeared.’ He continues emphasizing on the industrial nature of the Western Islands: ‘This place used to be filled with many noises and very strong smells of tar’. Then he says:

 

But you cannot dig too deep here, because there is a lot of mess laying here.

 

First, I don’t understand him. I ask him what he means by these words as I initially sense that he uses the words as a metaphor. After a somewhat fussy answer, he gives an explanation about the actual soil of the islands. Now I get it: no digging deep into memories, histories or pride, but he literally means digging into the soil. Then I wonder of, thinking about the similarities of these two ways of digging, while he proudly continues his extensive history lecture.

‘Did you see him already?’, he asks me. I am back in reality again and ask him what he means. He talks about De Reus, which means ‘the giant’ in Dutch, a statue that used to be on the warehouse of Jan Bicker with the high tower. De Reus was brought to Spain by an heir. Jonker, one of the residents of Bickerseiland, tried to bring the statue back. The heroic story ends when Jonker finally brings the statue back to Bickerseiland, after traveling to Canada to get him. The statue that used to be on top of the house of a member of a family that built and owned slave ships and owned plantations in Suriname, was now ‘finally back home where it belonged’. There was a weird mix of innocence, ignorance and pride. ‘Why did the people want to bring this statue back?’ I ask the gentleman. ‘It became part of our island and many people wanted De Reus back in their neighborhood’, he says. ‘In fact, around the corner you find De Reus with a poem which was presented some years ago by our mayor’. So the mayor of Amsterdam was present at the official opening of the statue of Jan Bicker. I decide to walk to the statue and there, facing towards the water, I find him. He is placed on top of a rusted, metal pillar with words of a poem that are cut out of the pillar. It is hard to read the words as they are literally emptiness on a rusted canvas. With pinched eyes I step back to read them. 

 

Warrior of great value. Protector of house and hearth, blossomed out from the ghost of Jan Bicker during times of the trade of shipping.

Proudly standing on different days. You were scared of your own property.

I step back again, then I see that the word is not ‘scared’ but ‘the boss’.

 

Proudly standing on different days. You were scared the boss of your own property. Centuries long on high ranks.

Now back on the Bickerseiland to watch over your old neighborhood. Residents are now sleeping calm and they thank the ones that have sent you back.

 

I think about the first words of the poem: Blossomed out of the ghost of Jan Bicker. I walk back to Bickersgracht, the place where the large house of Jan Bicker used to be. The house with the high towers that overlooked the incoming ships that were pushed back to the city by the strong wind. Now I listen.

I end my walk at ’t Blauwhooft at Hendrik Jonker plein. It is a café next to the place where the warehouse of Jan Bicker was use to be. His warehouse could have been full of the goods that were common at this time: pitch and tar, coffee, grain, tabacco and wine. As I enter the café and with this history in mind, the coffee beans in the coffee machine, the sound of wine glasses, the sound of a cash desk, the prices asked to one other, all of these sounds now have a slightly different resonance to me. 

During the development of this sound theme, the words of Vikki Bell (2018) continuously echoed through my mind. In her hauntological work, she explained a physical place as a collection of mere materials until it is inscribed by a narrative of a history.

 

It is merely a collection of wood and poles until a narrative or proposition does that joining for us (…) It is ‘rubble’ until it becomes inscribed, animated, by and with those who care to sustain this past, those who take care of the words and images they make of it; and, of course, those who care to listen.
(Bell, 2018, p. 139)

 

After the introduction of a narrative, the animated place becomes part of our personal and collective memory. Tony Morrison pushed this insight towards an understanding about places that can be seen as actual physical traces of a continuous history in which every sound that lingers around this place can be seen as an echo of different histories of this specific place.

 

Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place–the picture of it–stays, and not just in my remory, but out there, in the world.
(Morrison, 1987, p. 42)

 

These pictures of The Stored are still out there in the world and without a narrative the places of The Stored would merely be ‘rubbles’ of wood and poles. Now that we listen, the rubble starts to talk.

/ The Stored

When walking around the city of Amsterdam, the many old seventeenth-century storehouses pass by and Amsterdam as one big storehouse becomes evident. Amsterdam was not only the place were slave ships were made, goods from the slave plantations – like sugar, coffee and cacao – were stored together with the products that were used to buy enslaved people. One of the places that have a distinct resonance of this history are the Western Islands close to the city center of Amsterdam. The Western Islands were built in 1610 which mirrored the city plan of the Eastern Islands (Bakker, 2014, p. 2). The Western Islands are made up of the Bickerseiland, Raeleneiland and Prinseneiland. While the Eastern Islands were mostly owned and used by the VOC and the WIC, the Western Islands were designed for smaller, independent companies with their own shipyards (Bakker, 2014, p. 13). While shipyards were very common in both the Eastern as well as the Western Islands, the historical function of the Western Islands as a place for many warehouses can be considered a unique aspect. In the neighborhood of the Prinseneiland for instance, mostly warehouses are found. From all the 900 warehouses in Amsterdam during the seventeenth century, more than 100 were located on this island.

The Western Islands center around an island called Bickerseiland. This island was named after and owned by one of the wealthiest families in Amsterdam in the second half of the seventeenth century (Balai, 2013, p. 93). No other regent family in the history of Amsterdam had ever experienced this kind of influence before. Many members of the family were mayors of Amsterdam, leaders or governors from the WIC, and thus directly involved with the slave trade. Jan Bicker (1591-1653) was the brother of Cornelis Bicker who was mayor of Amsterdam in 1646, 1650 and 1654 and became governor of the WIC in 1622 (Balai, 2013, p. 93). Not like his brother who moved trough Amsterdam’s political elite, Jan Bicker worked as an influential shipwright. In 1631 he bought the area of the Western Islands to create a shipyard and a warehouse next to a castle-like house with a high tower that was higher than any other house in the area enabling him to overlook the water for incoming ships (Elias, 1903: 174). Besides building these private proporties, he also made sure that the islands became full of warehouses, ‘tar houses’ and shipyards. On the Bickerseiland the warehouses were used for the storage of goods from the WIC. Goods like pitch and tar, tobacco, grain and wine were stored in these warehouses (Balai, 2013, p. 94).

After I arrived at Bickerseiland, I set up my audio recorder and walk north-wards on the Bickersgracht. While I start to get used to the weird experience of hearing sounds around me not directly, but mediated through my headphones, I notice the quietness of the place. Only five hundred meters away from the intense, chaotic and screamy touristic parts of the city there is near silence at the Bickerseiland.

The rhythm of life of this part on the city is slower and the initial experience feels friendly, welcoming and light. Children are playing on the streets, people are swimming in the calm waters of the canals and the intimate sounds of homes sporadically seep into the small streets. There are people in the communal gardens lying, talking, reading and listening. I normally don’t visit this part of the city as it is situated in a somewhat out-of-the-way corner. The relaxed atmosphere feels like a dream far away from my own hurried/worried experience of living in Amsterdam. However, after a while I can only interpret it as an illusion; an illusion of a calm, dreamy, nothing-has-happened-here atmosphere. I remind myself that the sound of my footsteps would not have been here today if the Bicker family would not have lucratively benefited from the horrors of slavery.

A small gallery at the Bickersgracht appears with a poster on the window that says: ‘Bickerseiland walking tour’. I stop and look around. There I meet a friendly older, white gentleman that sits in front of the gallery. We start a conversation and he explains that he had conducted an archival research about this neighborhood. He even published a book about it through the help of the local residents who gave him many photo’s, stories and other archival sources. I asked: ’Which sounds from the past have disappeared?’ He points out that the last shipwright passed away some years ago: ‘Henk, my neighbor, still used to make ships. He was the last one who did it and with him the sounds of the shipbuilding have disappeared.’ He continues emphasizing on the industrial nature of the Western Islands: ‘This place used to be filled with many noises and very strong smells of tar’. Then he says:

 

But you cannot dig too deep here, because there is a lot of mess laying here.

 

First, I don’t understand him. I ask him what he means by these words as I initially sense that he uses the words as a metaphor. After a somewhat fussy answer, he gives an explanation about the actual soil of the islands. Now I get it: no digging deep into memories, histories or pride, but he literally means digging into the soil. Then I wonder of, thinking about the similarities of these two ways of digging, while he proudly continues his extensive history lecture.

‘Did you see him already?’, he asks me. I am back in reality again and ask him what he means. He talks about De Reus, which means ‘the giant’ in Dutch, a statue that used to be on the warehouse of Jan Bicker with the high tower. De Reus was brought to Spain by an heir. Jonker, one of the residents of Bickerseiland, tried to bring the statue back. The heroic story ends when Jonker finally brings the statue back to Bickerseiland, after traveling to Canada to get him. The statue that used to be on top of the house of a member of a family that built and owned slave ships and owned plantations in Suriname, was now ‘finally back home where it belonged’. There was a weird mix of innocence, ignorance and pride. ‘Why did the people want to bring this statue back?’ I ask the gentleman. ‘It became part of our island and many people wanted De Reus back in their neighborhood’, he says. ‘In fact, around the corner you find De Reus with a poem which was presented some years ago by our mayor’. So the mayor of Amsterdam was present at the official opening of the statue of Jan Bicker. I decide to walk to the statue and there, facing towards the water, I find him. He is placed on top of a rusted, metal pillar with words of a poem that are cut out of the pillar. It is hard to read the words as they are literally emptiness on a rusted canvas. With pinched eyes I step back to read them. 

 

Warrior of great value. Protector of house and hearth, blossomed out from the ghost of Jan Bicker during times of the trade of shipping.

Proudly standing on different days. You were scared of your own property.

I step back again, then I see that the word is not ‘scared’ but ‘the boss’.

 

Proudly standing on different days. You were scared the boss of your own property. Centuries long on high ranks.

Now back on the Bickerseiland to watch over your old neighborhood. Residents are now sleeping calm and they thank the ones that have sent you back.

 

I think about the first words of the poem: Blossomed out of the ghost of Jan Bicker. I walk back to Bickersgracht, the place where the large house of Jan Bicker used to be. The house with the high towers that overlooked the incoming ships that were pushed back to the city by the strong wind. Now I listen.

I end my walk at ’t Blauwhooft at Hendrik Jonker plein. It is a café next to the place where the warehouse of Jan Bicker was use to be. His warehouse could have been full of the goods that were common at this time: pitch and tar, coffee, grain, tabacco and wine. As I enter the café and with this history in mind, the coffee beans in the coffee machine, the sound of wine glasses, the sound of a cash desk, the prices asked to one other, all of these sounds now have a slightly different resonance to me. 

During the development of this sound theme, the words of Vikki Bell (2018) continuously echoed through my mind. In her hauntological work, she explained a physical place as a collection of mere materials until it is inscribed by a narrative of a history.

 

It is merely a collection of wood and poles until a narrative or proposition does that joining for us (…) It is ‘rubble’ until it becomes inscribed, animated, by and with those who care to sustain this past, those who take care of the words and images they make of it; and, of course, those who care to listen.
(Bell, 2018, p. 139)

 

After the introduction of a narrative, the animated place becomes part of our personal and collective memory. Tony Morrison pushed this insight towards an understanding about places that can be seen as actual physical traces of a continuous history in which every sound that lingers around this place can be seen as an echo of different histories of this specific place.

 

Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place–the picture of it–stays, and not just in my remory, but out there, in the world.
(Morrison, 1987, p. 42)

 

These pictures of The Stored are still out there in the world and without a narrative the places of The Stored would merely be ‘rubbles’ of wood and poles. Now that we listen, the rubble starts to talk.