The Johanna Maria
The romance of an obsessive desire
For many centuries the Netherlands was a leading and prosperous seafaring nation, and a colonial power. Its leaders combined adventure with a high degree of business sense – both evident in Arthur van Schendel’s (1874-1946) historical novel The Johanna Maria (Het fregatschip Johanna Maria). The tale begins with the vessel’s launch in 1865 and goes on to describe the ship’s adventures and those of sailmaker Jacob Brouwer over a period of forty years.
For Brouwer, the Johanna Maria is not just a sailing ship, she’s a substitute for the love he felt as a child for his sister, who died young - a deeply nourished, unattainable love that he pursues all his life and which grows into an obsession. Brouwer is then more knowledgeable than any captain alive when it comes to handling the Johanna Maria.
When he is taught how to sail and, secretly, takes the wheel one night, he guides the ship to follow a perfect course at record speed: ‘Then (…) it was as if the ship had begun to produce a gentle music. The little ropes and float lines squeaked a bit, the heavy clews whistled with a kind of satisfaction as they stretched, and all the sails murmured in a tone that matched that of the water seething on the bow. The ship was enjoying itself. It no longer bumped or jolted against the waves striking it athwartships, but rocked slowly in a regular rhythm without the resistance of the sea.’
This quotation nicely illustrates Van Schendel’s style and his character’s sensitivity: poetic and romantic yet realistic, as we see from the nautical terminology. It is this combination of romantic longing and realism that leads to tragedy. Although after years of wandering Brouwer is able to realize his dream and buy his beloved ship, he has first to resort to smuggling. Not only does he corrupt the purity of his desire, but when he finally does acquire the Johanna Maria she is old and shabby, and outdated; by the beginning of the twentieth century, sail is being replaced by steam.