During the two years that my husband and I lived in The Netherlands in the 1990s, we lived in what was, quite possibly, one of the most adorable streets in The Hague. Narrow, with tall nineteenth-century row houses rising up on either side, the 2de de Riemerstraat, just a few minutes’ walk from Paleis Noordeinde in one direction, and about ten minutes from the city’s historic downtown core in the other, had an uneven cobbled street worn uneven by a century of traffic and a history that included the photographer Adolphe Zimmerman, known as the the first person to own a car in The Netherlands. The neighbours took good care of the street, too. Monthly community street sweeping – a tradition dating back to the 1970s – and community-adopted square planters meant that everything was neat, tidy, and quintessentially Dutch.
Everything, that is, except for our building. In principle, our house was like all the others. Tall and brick, with three storeys. But ours was a rental property. And so where the other houses were bright and shiny, ours had a dull patina. The brick walls weren’t quite as crisp. The door was flat, drab, and peeling. There was no pleasing uniformity to each of the floor’s windows, because each floor was another apartment.
No matter, a friend told me. You don’t have to look at your house when you’re inside; you get to look at all the other houses. And she was right. They were the ones who had to look at us. Our view was different. Looking through the slight distortions of century-old glass, our perspective was magical, and we could almost imagine ourselves back in the nineteenth century, when the street was new.
I’ve been thinking a lot about perspective lately, about how it is that we see the world, and how it sees us. Perspective was at the forefront of my thinking in Suriname, too, as I walked along the Waterkant with its grand, white buildings, once home to wealthy planters and others. The Waterkant, as the name implies, is the waterfront – much like Water Street in downtown St. John’s. The grand homes here face directly onto the waters of the Suriname River, and are located just down from what has historically been the busy commercial port area, with the Waaghuis – the weighing house – and what used to be a series of finger piers near what is now the central market.
Paintings and other forms of visual art suggest that the Waterkant homes have stood in these locations for centuries, standing sentinel over the river that managed transnational exchange. Gerrit Schouten’s 1820 diorama of Paramaribo’s Waterkant, for example, shows a row of houses facing the river (this row burned down in a city fire one year later).
Another work, this time three-panel photograph, dating from before 1916, shows a row of grand white houses in the colonial style, lined up in front of the river.
What did the Waterkant residents see, when they looked out their windows? Was the river filled with boats, as some early historical paintings suggest?
And if so, what did those boats represent to the residents? Power? Goods? Slaves? Workers? Home?
Did they look forward to the arrival of the ships? Did they watch ship loadings and unloadings, or did all of that happen out of sight, down the road by the piers? Were they eager to see what new treasures – fabrics, china, foods, pianos – the ships would bring? Were they already humming as they imagined a perfect spot for the new china angel? Or a fashionable dress designed with the newly imported embroidered muslin? Or were they already tasting flavours they’d missed since the last ship’s departure?
And what about the centuries of migration? Could the Waterkant residents watch people disembark and embark? Did they see shackled and enslaved Africans walking in front of their homes (as one of the eighteenth-century ship’s diaries in the Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie archives suggests) or did this happen somewhere else? Did they watch indentured labourers from India arriving in port, descending the gangplanks, and walking to the immigration depot, as this photo of Javanese labourers suggests?
Or did they imagine their own journeys to this colonial outpost? Their own months at sea, on rocking boats? Their own arrivals and departures?
And if they saw all of these things, how did they see themselves? Who were they in relation to what they saw?
I’ve been reading Julia Blackburn’s Threads: The Delicate Life of John Craske, as part of the Storying the Past virtual reading group. Craske was an English fisherman who fell into what was described as a “stuporous state” in 1917. No longer able to go out on the sea, he instead turned to depicting it, first in paintings and then later, through embroidery. Craske’s life, lived along the coasts, was profoundly shaped by the sea.
Like the residents of the Waterkant, Craske’s perspective was not towards the land, but rather, faced outward – toward the ocean. But unlike the Waterkant elite, his view was not just towards the water, but right inside it.
This perspective fundamentally shaped his artistic representations:
“Craske understood the sea,” said Emily [a friend of the author], who has done a lot of sailing and also understands the sea. “He really knew how a boat sits on the water, how it moves, what the wind feels like, the swell of the waves, the danger, the isolation.” (9)
This perspective emerges not in Craske’s writing, of which virtually nothing remains, but rather, is evident throughout his art works.
But what does it mean to imagine oneself through sea, rather than through land? How does one’s perspective shift? Blackburn offers some insight on this, drawing from a conversation with an unnamed friend:
[the friend] began talking about what it was like to spend several weeks at sea. He said something changes in your head because you and the boat you are on are nothing but a tiny and insignificant speck within the vastness of the ocean and yet you feel yourself to be all there is, poised at the centre of the universe, with the sun watching over you by day and the starts and oon racing alongside you during the hours of darkness. And if there are sudden mists or storms or other dangers, then you are confronted face to face with your own isolation and helplessness and you have to combine the energy of survival with a submission to the present moment and whatever destiny it holds for you. A sailor, said my friend, learns the rules of navigation, but in a crisis he must learn to let go of all rules, so that he can trust his own intuitive response to the situation.
He said there is a weightlessness to being out at sea, carried along by air and floating on water, making you feel as if you do not have a body and the whole world is without any solidity. And when you approach the land again it shocks you because it smells so harsh and visceral. And when you tread on it, it’s like waking up out of a wild dream of freedom and falling back into a clumsy earth-bound existence. (34-5)
Is it any wonder, then, that one of Craske’s doctors prescribed an ocean cure: “He must go to the sea, only the sea will save him.” (119, italics original)
The stories gathered in A Beautiful Sight: Stories from the Port of St. John’s show a similar water-based perspective on life.
Glenn Critch, who comes from a long line of fisherfolk based out of St. John’s, locates his landscape through family stories and histories, and understands the relationship between land and sea through embodied experience rather than through technology:
My brother and I, we still use landmarks to locate our fishing grounds. When we are fishing cod, we use the same landmarks to find pieces of ground that our father and grandfather used. Fisherman are more reliable than sounders and finders, because they just know the landmarks. We have the technology on board and we know how to use it, but we don’t bother to turn it on. If we can see the land, we know we gotta have this point over this rock, line up with this tree, or whatever the case may be. We know when we are on the right fishing grounds or not. We still use those same old ways because they are reliable. (84).
Critch’s comments make it clear that a consideration of perspective, as it might relate to life along the coast of Suriname, also goes the other way: what did the enslaved and the indentured see when they came into Paramaribo?
They’d been on board a ship for a few months, and for most of this time, they likely hadn’t been anywhere near land. They couldn’t have had much of a sense at all of where they were going or of what awaited them. It’s highly unlikely that they spoke any Dutch, unless they’d picked up a smattering of words during their journeys. They hadn’t walked on solid land for months.
When they looked from ship to shore, what did they see? What did the Waterkant with its row of planters’ houses, mean to them? And when they were hurried down gangplanks and walked, shuffling, down a sandy street, what were they thinking? Who were they in this space, and what did this space mean for them?
“Water,” Dionne Brand writes of her Trinidadian childhood, “is the first thing in my imagination” (6). Writing in A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging, she continues:
The sea behind the house where I was born was a rough country sea, with a long wide shining white beach. I recall waking up each day to discover what it had brought us, and what it had carried away. The word gaze only applies to water. To look into this water was to look into the world, or what I thought was the world, because the sea gave one an immediate sense of how large the world was, how magnificent and how terrifying. The sea was its own country, its own sovereignty. There was always some uncontrollable news from it. Either it had taken a fisherman or it was about to wash a house away. It was either taking a child or would take a child. To take a child away. That type of away was the most fearsome news. The sea was feared and loved, generous to a fault. The sea was feared and loved, generous to a fault. Boats laden with kingfish, red snapper, lobster, and bonito came in with a fisherman who had cut his foot on a fatal coral. Logs and stone which once were churches, sand which once was human, or animal bones arrived on surprising tides. “Never turn your back on the ocean,” was the counsel.
Water is the first thing in my memory. The sea sounded like a thousand secrets, all whispered at the same time. In the daytime it was indistinguishable to me from air. It seemed to be made of the same substance. The same substance which carried voices or smells, music or emotion. (7-8)
I grew up on the prairies, living just outside Edmonton between the ages of six and seventeen. Like coastal dwellers, I understand myself through a low horizon with an endless sky. But unlike coastal dwellers, who imagine themselves through the swells of the ocean waves and the endless emptiness of an ocean that seems to go on forever, my landscape is solid, firm, flat. As a child, I learned to watch for thunderstorms in the distance, to follow clouds that sometimes raced across the sky, to hike through grassy open spaces. Because the prairies stretched out before me in every direction, land, for me, is something that reaches forever. Like the sea, it undulates gently. Vast and empty, it reminds me just how small I am even as it tells me that I can be the centre of my very own universe.
I didn’t realize how much this perspective had shaped me until I began to feel claustrophobic in the treed neighbourhoods of Vancouver, where my husband and I lived for just over a decade (almost exactly as long as I lived in Alberta, incidentally). Vancouver’s natural beauty is stunning, on that point we can agree. But my Faroe Islands-born husband and I also agree that these natural wonders get in the way. The mountains and the trees restrict our views. We can’t see far enough.
My husband’s eyes are attuned to the ocean and mine to the land. But both of us can see forever.
Blackburn, Julia. Threads: The Delicate Life of John Craske. London: Jonathan Cape, 2015.
Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2001.
Byrne, Allan. A Beautiful Sight: Stories from the Port of St. John’s. St. John’s: Flanker Press, 2015.
© Sonja Boon (firstname.lastname@example.org), 2015