Arthur van Schendel

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does he corrupt the purity of his desire, but when he finally does acquire the Johanna Maria she is old and shabby, and outdated; by the beginning of the twentieth century, sail is being replaced by steam.

One of the great love stories of our literature, although the protagonist, Jacob Brouwer, isn’t pursuing a man or woman, but a ship.

Willem Jan Otten, Tirade 1993


Arthur van Schendel

Arthur van Schendel (1874-1946) made his debut in 1896 with Drogon. His breakthrough came in 1904 with Een zwerver verliefd (A Wanderer in Love), followed by Een zwerver verdwaald (A Lost Wanderer; 1907). In 1920 he decided to devote himself fully to his writing. Van Schendel wrote twenty novels in…

lees meer


Het fregatschip Johanna Maria (1930). Fiction, 144 pages.

46th edition 2000


Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep

Weteringschans 259
NL - 1017 XJ Amsterdam
Tel: +31 20 760 72 10

[email protected]

lees meer