Roelof van Gelder
The life of a Dutch East India Company sailor (1731-1793)
In 1757, Georg Naporra began chronicling his life, which produced a unique document. The first part of Naporra’s hand-written autobiography, covering his youth and his life as a sailor in the service of the Dutch East India Company, was discovered a few years ago by the historian, Roelof van Gelder, in the Rotterdam Maritime Museum. The detailed descriptions provide a probing look into life on board an East Indiaman, seen through the eyes of a crewmember.
Naporra was just twenty-five, but he had already seen more than most people in an entire lifetime. Born into a free farming family in East Prussia, he had left for Amsterdam and joined the East India Company. He had sailed to the Dutch East Indies and, unlike many of his comrades, had survived both the outbound and the homeward voyage.
Based on Naporra’s life story, embellished with information from numerous other sources, in Naporra’s omweg Van Gelder reconstructs the task division on board, the sickness and dangers that threatened the crew and the mutual relationships between officers and men. Naporra was an accurate observer and even noted down the complete week’s menu served to the crew. He is discrete about the regular incidence of sodomy, but Van Gelder even succeeds in describing the scope of this phenomenon and the strict punishments it carried.
Like many another seaman, Georg Naporra continually cursed his lot in life. How someone nevertheless ends up joining the merchant navy is described in the first part of Naporra’s chronicle. Superfluous on his father’s farm, too good for the life of a lackey and a failure as a merchant’s assistant, he is seduced by the mystery of the Orient and the promise of getting rich quick.
He finally succeeded in the latter. Naporra ends up in Danzig as a well-to-do merchant, probably trading in spices. For the last part of the story, Van Gelder could not draw on Naporra’s autobiography, as the second part is still missing. Thanks to his great knowledge of history, local research and, above all, his lively pen, he still manages to steep the reader in the rich details of his later life. In this book, Naporra’s voice from the past sounds as if he is recounting his own life story to us personally.