Marijn and the Smugglers
Storms and pirates
This historical youth novel is out on its own where its approach to Dutch colonial history is concerned. The central theme is slave trading in the Caribbean. The three children of a Dutch dignitary lose both their parents in a hurricane in Curaçao, in 1681. Sixteen-year-old Marijn goes to work as an apprentice surgeon on the ships of various slave traders, including that of the infamous smuggler, Jacob Pieterz, a transporter who avoids the regulations of the West Indian Company.
On board, Marijn becomes acquainted with the degrading business of slave trading and the harsh life of the seaman. Slaves are treated not as people, but as goods. Using numerous details that seem incredible to the contemporary reader, the author demonstrates how great the economic importance was of keeping the cargo as healthy as possible. Life was hard, for the uncivilised crew, too, as ‘hunger, disease and fear are the invisible fellow passengers at sea’. Marijn experiences thrilling adventures, to put it mildly, with storms and pirates. He is even sold as a white slave to the overseer of a sugar plantation and undertakes a search for the runaway slave girl owned by his family, with whom he is in love.
The narrative perspective, chiefly that of the youthful surgeon, sometimes jumps to the two younger sisters he left behind, working on a slave plantation. The elder as the law-abiding wife of a physician, the younger as a rebellious idealist, who sympathises with the slaves. Through her three young main characters and their adult, worldly-wise adversaries, Diekmann manages to shed light on many aspects of slavery. It is evident that she has carried out careful research for the book. She also, however, tells a compelling personal story, in which, under the influence of their alternative upbringing, three young people break with the prevalent traditions that are supported by politics and religion. It cannot be rewarded with a happy ending, but this dignified treatment makes the historical reality more or less bearable for the reader.
By Bregje Boonstra