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A New York Times Editor's Choice
An immensely moving account of a strange and magical interracial love affair, The Winter Queen illuminates the Netherlands of the seventeenth century. Amid the dark ambiance of the time, the exiled Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia and Pelagius, a West African prince and former slave, fall in love and secretly marry. Jane Stevenson vividly renders both a portrait of an extraordinary relationship and a tumultuous political history.
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JANE STEVENSON was born in London and brought up in London, Beijing, and Bonn. She teaches literature and history at the University of Aberdeen. She is the author of Several Deceptions, a collection of four novellas; a novel, London Bridges; and the acclaimed historical trilogy made up of the novels The Winter Queen, The Shadow King, and The Empress of the Last Days. Stevenson lives in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
10 February 1639
A woman is sitting in a great chair under a cloth of estate, in a room hung
with black velvet. She is dumpy, deep-bosomed and straight-backed as a
trooper. Her cheeks are doughy with adversity and time, but her hazel eyes
are clear. Dusk is falling outside in the Voorhout, and in the dim, candle-lit
velvet cavern of the presence chamber her face, breast and hands shine
dimly pale against the black behind her and the black of her dress. Of the
tall man standing before her, clad in scholar"s black broadcloth, nothing can
be seen but the chaste, starched-linen gleam of his collar and cuffs. The
hand which holds his black beaver hat is invisible: as she peers into the
gloom, she can barely discern his face, let alone his expression. Only a
sudden liquid shifting in the gloom makes her realize, with a sudden qualm,
that she has been staring straight into his eyes. She turns her head away,
settling the black silk scarf around her shoulders against the creeping chill of
the Dutch winter, adjusting her rings.
"Tell me a story," she says, her eyes downcast. Her voice is a
strangely youthful one to come from so still and matronly a figure.
"What story do you wish, your majesty?" he responds. His voice
is deep and resonant, but husky, like the sound of a bell made of wood.
Still she does not look at him, and when she speaks her tone is
wistful. "Are there truly men in Africa whose heads do grow beneath their
"I have not seen one," he says gravely.
"Oh, I hoped it might be true. There is a phrase, is there not – "ex
Africa semper aliquid novi"?"
"It was Pliny, I believe, who said that. And perhaps it is true. There
are many things I saw in Africa which would seem strange here and,
doubtless, many strange things there which I have not seen at all. I have
seen Oyo Ile, where I was born, Igboho, Ifa´, the city of the oracles, and El
Mina, the great fortress of the Portugals. I have seen Bornu and Gao of the
Songhai Mussulmans, where I went to buy Barbary horses for my father the
king. I have seen the jungle and the desert, the plains, and the sea, and
animals of many kinds. But all the men I saw in Africa were shaped like
men anywhere else."
"What is the strangest thing which you have seen, Dr Pelagius?"
"If anyone had told me, when I was in my father"s house, that he
had seen water solid like crystal, burning to the touch, with men walking
upon it, I would have called him a liar. That is the strangest thing."
27 June 1634. A great day for Amsterdam, daughter of the sea. For it was
on that day that the spring sailing from the East Indies finally arrived in
Holland. The gulls were screaming cheerfully overhead and light dazzled on
the waters of the harbour, broken into a million sparkling diamonds. The
herring fishermen had spotted the tall ships soon after they entered the
Narrow Seas and alerted the port authorities, so an expectant city was
standing on the quays to greet them. They came into the great harbour at
Amsterdam one after another, great ocean-going vessels, three-masters fitted
to fly before the endless winds that girdle the earth in the Roaring Forties,
manoeuvring in that narrow space with all the grace of an albatross in a
duckpond, clawing their way to haven amid a throng of small boats come out
to escort them. As the anchors finally rattled down, a cheer went up from the
thronged docksides and a salute was fired from the Admiralty Depot. The
wealth of the Indies was coming to the city: the journalists from the courants
were there, jostling shoulder to shoulder with wharfingers, investors waiting
impatiently to speak with the captains, and pickpockets, merchants, wives,
whores and simple bystanders.
In the next few days, as the courants triumphantly reported,
326,733 Amsterdam pounds of Malacca pepper, 297,466 pounds of cloves,
292,623 pounds of saltpetre, 141,278 pounds of indigo, 483,082 pounds of
sappan wood; 219,027 pieces of blue Ming ware from China; 52 further
chests of Korean and Japanese porcelain; 75 large vases and pots containing
preserved confections; 600 pounds of Japanese copper; 241 pieces of fine
Japanese lacquer work; 3,989 rough diamonds of large carat; 93 boxes of
pearls and rubies (of miscellaneous weight and water); 603 bales of dressed
Persian silks and grosgrains; 1,155 pounds of raw Chinese silk; 199,800
pounds of unrefined sugar from Kandy; an elephant and a tiger were all
disgorged into the long, waterfront warehouses of the East India Company.
This fabulous hoard, as the papers reported, was put on display; and the
fashionable, the merely wealthy and the dealers descended like vultures. This
is a matter of public record: clearly established, abundantly corroborated
fact – recorded, for example, in the Amsterdam Courante uyt Italien en
Duytschland for 27–8 June 1634, which, since it spoke only to the readers of
its day, can have had no interest in deceiving us.
The activities of Pelagius van Overmeer at this time, on the other
hand, are attested only by a personal chronicle which he wrote almost thirty
years later. His primary concern in this document is to explore the
providence of God as it was manifested in his own life. He records no dates
and material facts are referred to only indirectly, insofar as they illustrate
the subtle directions of God in his affairs. But as far as it can be
reconstructed, this is what must have happened. The precise date can be
established by juxtaposing two facts: that there was only one sailing from
Batavia which could have brought him and that he refers to the curious
coincidence that he arrived in Holland in the year of the Elector Palatine"s
death, which would take place on the morning of 19 November 1634, five
months in the future.
Therefore, along with the fabled luxuries of the mysterious East,
an unregarded piece of supercargo must have made his own way, not
without difficulty, down the great wall of a ship"s side on a dangling rope
ladder and into a rowing boat. If he had looked up from the uncertain little
skiff, deadly dangerous in its near invisibility among those ighty ships, he
would have seen the quay walls ringed with broad, fair Dutch faces, avid with
an interest which in no way included him. But perhaps his strongest emotion
was relief. For the first time in his life, he will have travelled in the relative
comfort enjoyed by a passenger rather than chained in the reeking hell of a
slave deck, but all the same, after months at sea, he will have been glad to
have land under his feet. Once on the dockside, he will have attracted little
attention. A tall, soberly dressed, middle-aged black man was no unusual
sight in Amsterdam, where the rich had already begun to regard black
servants as fashionable accessories: there were too many for one to be
interesting and not enough to provoke hostility.
It is even possible, though unlikely, that Elizabeth was on the
dockside. The arrival of the fleet was an event, and she was as interested in
orient pearls and silks as any other lady of rank: the news would have
reached her palace in The Hague long before the fleet actually landed. By
June the Elector Frederick had already been away on campaign in
Germany for six long months: she may have welcomed an opportunity for a
little excursion to break the gentle monotony of her days.
Pelagius, then, landed in Europe without attracting public
attention of any kind. He had a little gold in an inner pocket and, sewn into
his belt, a few precious stones, pearls and sapphires; the two sailors he
had paid to act as his porters were carrying his books and his few clothes.
He had a letter of introduction, nearly as precious as the sapphires, and no
idea where he was going.
His narrative is a blank about these first days, though Holland
must have seemed very strange to him after twenty or more years in the
East Indies. It was early summer, so he would not yet have been shivering,
and the style of architecture, the tall, flat-fronted houses with their big
windows and crowstep gables, would have been broadly familiar to him, since
the principal houses of Batavia, the East India Company"s headquarters in
Indonesia, were built in the Dutch style. The town had even acquired a
canal system in 1621, which brought the waters of the Ciliwang through the
city in true Dutch fashion, so this would also have been a familiar element in
the townscape before him. Amsterdam"s Prinsengracht was bigger than the
Tijgersgracht, of course, the houses which lined it grander than those of
colonial Batavia, but they were essentially similar.
All the same, apart from these meagre points of congruence, the
differences must have been inescapable, crowding relentlessly upon him:
the relative dryness of the air, the tang of tar, coal smoke, drains, horses,
and alien sweat which it carried; the refusal of even the most obviously
menial to carry burdens on their heads; the white faces verywhere. The
background noises: harsh mewing of gulls, the liquid whistle of starlings, the
complacent roo-coo-coo of pigeons, sounds which for some time he did not
even associate with birds, and everywhere harsh Dutch voices, unmixed with
Chinese, Javanese or Malayan.
So: somehow, Pelagius, Mynheer van Overmeer as he was
known, the Man from Over the Sea, got himself a place on a coach bound
for Leiden. It is probable that he was cheated outrageously and that the
colour of his skin drew impertinent comment, but he does not choose to
mention it. For as the slow, unsprung, smelly vehicle rumbled towards
Leiden, that dull, provincial little manufacturing town just inland from The
Hague, he was taking the final steps towards his heart"s desire. He was no
longer young and he had been a slave for a long time, too long to be still
dreaming of a life which involved him in great events. The prospect before him
was in itself a hope bigger than he had had since he was taken from Africa.
Having presented his letter to the Rector of the University, a large and genial
man who vaguely recalled Pelagius"s patron from his own student days, he
was successfully matriculated as a student in the Faculty of Theology, the
first step to becoming a Protestant minister. He joined the household of
Johannes Sambucus, Professor of Theology and author of De Tertio et
Quarto Regno in Prophetia Danielis, a lengthy and learned commentary on
the Book of Daniel, and began his studies.
His intention was that, having completed a degree in theology and
added Greek and Hebrew to the languages he already commanded
(Yoruba, Dutch and Latin, with a few words each of Arabic, Bantamese,
Portuguese and Scots), he would return to Batavia as a fully fledged Calvinist
predikant. He had been converted soon after his arrival in the Dutch colony
and his faith was the most precious thing he possessed. But it had become
obvious to him that the cause of true religion in the colony was under threat
because of the shortage of educated clergy prepared to serve in a tropical
climate: to him, therefore, and also to his patron Robert Comrij, ordination
seemed a path marked out for him by the finger of God. It also promised him
a future, dignity, independence. No small thing for a man who had been a
slave for more than twenty years.
He was a good enough student to cause no comment whatsoever.
For nearly three years, he appears blamelessly in the laconic notes kept by
the University authorities, but in the third year he disappears. For this, and
how he felt about it, it is necessary to turn to his own account. "In tertio
anno meae novitiatis, Dominus me probat, et temptavit oboedientiam meam.
Haud voluntate mea, Lugduni exii. Nam patronus meus, subito revertens in
Europam, me vocavit ad Hagiam ut eum adjutaverim . . ." He does not tell
us how he felt about this, but it is easy to imagine from the word "haud":
scarcely, hardly. It is the sort of word used by a man committed to
understatement, or to classical forms of emphasis by understatement. "Not
exactly at my own desire, I left Leiden. For my patron, suddenly returning to
Europe, summoned me to The Hague in order to assist him."
Pelagius, in his neat, bare student"s room in Sambucus"s house
on Leiden"s Herengracht, turned the letter over and over in his hands. It
spelt the death of all that he had hoped to be and to achieve in this second
half of his life. But Comrij had taken Pelagius up from the living death of
slavery, baptized him and brought him to God, made of him something
almost like a son, and, as far as the law went, freed him. But the legal
aspect was secondary: regardless of his legal status, both the Yoruba
morals which had formed him and the European sense of rights and
obligation which he had learned in Batavia told him that Comrij"s will could
not be gainsaid. But. But, Pelagius thought painfully, his mind moving stiffly
in unfamiliar channels as the familiar despair of slavery enfolded him once
more, what of the will of God? I hoped, I intended, to return to Batavia to do
God"s work. Do I have a clear call to disobedience? He laid the letter aside
and knelt by his bed, letting his forehead rest on his clasped hands. "If any
man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife and children,
and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my
disciple." He knelt for a long time, in silent agony. Were these words of the
Lord the words which should guide him? Jesus"s warning tormented him: was
it his will speaking or his duty? Finally his path seemed clear: if God"s will
was that he should return to Batavia, then this would, in the end, be
compatible with answering Comrij"s call. If not, perhaps some yet inscrutable
purpose was laid up in the bosom of time. As soon as this thought entered
his mind, he knew he was lost.
It took a week to disengage himself from Leiden. He explained the
situation to Professor Sambucus, who expressed decent regret and good
wishes for his future, paid his bills, packed, hired a horse and went to The
Hague. On the level of pure sensation, it was pleasant to be riding again, to
be out in the fresh air, but this was in itself depressing to him: getting what
he could from casual and fleeting pleasures was a habit of mind he had had
in slavery, when there was nothing else to keep him from despair. As a free
man, a man with hope, he had not needed such moments. As he
approached The Hague slowly from the north on a tired old livery hack, the
road was straight and unmistakable in front of him, embanked up from the flat
lands to either side, under a huge, open sky. But at its vanishing point it
seemed to disappear into a wood. Gradually he began to discern church
towers rising among the trees, a windmill, and later, the irregular outline of
great houses and the gleam of water. The impression of wildness was a false
one: the trees turned out to be in regular lines, guarding gardens, market
gardens, the banks of the canals. Once in the town – and it was not even
that, he knew, but officially speaking the biggest village, without the civic
status the Dutch held dear – he left the horse at the agreed inn, with some
relief that he had parted from...
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