and just like that, I stepped into a painting by Vermeer

[caution: image-rich post ahead!]

Middelburg, the capital city of Zeeland located on the southwestern island of Walcheren, seduced me from the moment I stepped off the train in 2014. It didn’t matter that it was grey and rainy. It didn’t matter that my hotel room felt a bit like a cheap remake of a late nineteenth-century boudoir (the staff were lovely, it was clean, and the breakfast was lovely, I should add). What mattered was that Middleburg drew me in. It enticed me. It beckoned. It puts its arm around me and said, “Come with me and let me whisper some secrets into your ear.”


I was there for only three days, to spend time with the archives of the Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie, a commodity-trading company turned slave-trading company active in the eighteenth century. And so I spent most of my days indoors at the Zeeuws Archief, handling the most traditional of archival materials: historical documents that outlined the inner workings of the slave trade. But before the archives opened, and after they closed, I explored the streets of this city of 48,000, eagerly following its seductive call….

When I think of archives, I think of paper documents; that is, I think of text and image and of the stories they transmit. But recently I’ve been considering archives of a very different sort. In early June 2016, I travelled back to Middelburg. This time I wasn’t there to focus on the paper documents (which are no longer accessible since the Zeeuws Archief digitized them all); I was there to hone in on the city and its stories.

Building on my visceral response to this place in 2014, I wanted my body to fully experience and understand this space. I wanted to consider the archives of space and place and how they interacted. What could town planning reveal? How might cobbled streets work to shape ways of knowing? What of the sound and feel of wooden shoes on cobblestones? What could I learn from the kinds of house-naming patterns? What could I glean from the distances between properties? Or the sizes of streets?

Further, what could I learn about the way that the slave trade and in relation to this, products from the Caribbean, shaped the not only the economic fortunes of the inhabitants of this place, but also its landscape: What of the offices? What of the homes with names that hearkened to Caribbean holdings? What of the vast storehouses into which products like sugar, coffee, and cocoa beans were loaded? What of the ever-increasing number of cocoa mills in town?

I needed to walk this place. I needed to feel it in my bones, my muscles, my tendons. I needed to feel the air, to smell it, to taste it. And to be honest, I needed to be seduced again.

And so I left my B&B in the morning and allowed my feet to take me where they felt like going. I turned right and then left and then wandered down an alleyway that caught my fancy….

And just like that, I stepped into a painting by Vermeer.


the Kuiperspoort in the morning fog. June 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon


Looking the other way down the Kuiperspoort. June 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon


Later in the day when the fog lifted. Just because I had to go back and be there again. Photo: Sonja Boon

This is the Kuiperspoort, a group of sixteenth-century buildings that used to house the Coopers’ guild. Today, part of this row of buildings houses an art school and the Zeeuws Muziekschool. As I listened to students practicing, my body relaxed into familiar territory. This, I thought, I know.

And then I walked some more. And some more. I walked for eight hours straight. I listened to the town. I smelled it. I felt it underfoot. I listened for the whispers of ghosts. I mapped it into my body.

The city told me about weather, and about the damp that seeps through Middelburg. The cobbled stones are mossy, green. So, too is stonework.


Oosterkerk, back entrance. June 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon


The fog didn’t lift until well into the morning, and while to a certain extent this felt familiar – June is, after all, fog season in St. John’s – it lasted longer, and instead of fog fingers moving in and out of the harbour, this was a damp but light fog that settled over the whole town, making it almost like a dreamspace – eerily quiet and never quite in focus.

Sound echoes in strange ways in the fog. The church bells ring on the quarter hour (pop-like songs, mostly, and played on a 50-year old carillon in a tower rebuilt after the war, so very different from what seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Middelburgers would have heard, but the acoustics would have been very similar). I listened to echoes just out of sync but still remarkably resonant.

The city told me about the relationships between bodies and spaces. People were – and still are – close together. Many of the streets in the oldest parts of the town are narrow. This isn’t necessarily unusual for old European towns (and is certainly not unusual for The Netherlands), but Middelburg seems to have more than its fair share of streets that are really nothing more than glorified walking paths. There’s no way a car could even go through, let alone park. These are streets where your business was everyone’s business; privacy is a dream. The houses – and the people in them – are on top of each other.



And, while today, the city presents itself as a gracious, genteel place with a busy weekend marketplace with lots of cafés, it would have felt quite different went it was a busy town organized around maritime trade (including privateering, piracy, and the slave trade). The Dutch East India Company (VOC) and West India Company (WIC) both had offices here, as did – later – the Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie (MCC), and these companies employed many locals in a range of roles. So, too, would there have been local merchants, whose goods provisioned the ships, and seamen. Indeed, the MCC collection at the Zeeuws Archief gives insight into just how long the tentacles of these trading companies were. Middelburg would have been a bustling, busy, market-driven place.


VOC logo on a harbour front building that was once….

Along the grachten – or canals – there are grand houses that speak to the immense wealth in this area (especially during the seventeenth century). The houses rise, stately, three and even four storeys high.

And they are not shallow houses, but deep. Indeed, my own bed and breakfast, near the Dam, is a spacious place with stairs that go up and up and up and up past the family’s living quarters until you reach the top two B&B rooms, and even these are not fully in the attic area. These houses were built to make an impression, and an impression I’m sure they made.



So, too, did I get a bit of insight into the imaginative engagement with space through house-naming practices. House-naming was common in the era before house numbers, but fell out of fashion in the nineteenth century as numbers took over. But dedicated volunteers and researchers – in a project entitled “Huisnamen en documentatie van huizen in Middelburg” – have done much to revive the original names, and now many houses carry both a number and a name. These names, part of the material history of this place, can give us a bit of insight into the way that people thought, what they valued, and how their imaginations shaped their understandings of place and space. Looking for house names quickly became a game, and I found myself taking photo after photo after photo after photo, and wondering how and why certain names were chosen and how they related to the individuals who lived there, and to the houses themselves.

It would take a whole research project to work all of this out at a detailed level, but a few patterns emerged during my short visit.

First, real or fictional animals were a common theme – the city abounds with lions, chickens, cats and roosters.


The black cat.


The white turtledove


The turkey


The white rooster


On the left, The Playing Lion. On the right, The Skipper’s House



I even encountered a phoenix…



and a rooster on a horse!



So, too, did naming practices reference exotica: names recall Persia, Constantinople, pomegranate. And, of course, house names reference the slave trade and Zeeland’s economic interests overseas: “De Bogt Van Guinee” references the African Gold Coast. “Demerarij,” meanwhile, brings to mind Demerara and the cane sugar harvested there.



Some names are humorous. Thus, Groote Clocke house is right across the street from Kleyne Clocke house.

Other names are descriptive: the “house on the Spui Bridge,” for example, is – unsurprisingly – next to what was formerly a bridge.

One name, meanwhile, returned me right back to the world of eighteenth-century music.


While “Het Misverstand” – “The Misunderstanding” – could link me back to the seventeenth-century Carte de Tendre, my brain more immediately dropped into a musical frame of mind: gallant eighteenth-century French character pieces designed to flatter and tease the ear. I played many of these during my years as a professional early musician, and flatter my ears they definitely did.

Finally, the town’s buildings told me about the ubiquity of the slave trade in this part of Holland. The town’s core is littered with buildings directly linked to the various trading companies engaged in the transatlantic trade in commodities and humans: the WIC had offices here, as did the VOC. So, too, was the MCC – whose archives are listed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World register due to the thoroughness of their extant records – based here. Pakhuizen – storehouses – are still easy to locate.




Embedded above the door of the big storehouse above.



There is also physical evidence of the secondary industries that flourished as a result of these trading companies’ work. In the eighteenth century, Zeeland became known for its chocolate, and Middelburg proper had 12 cocoa mills processing Caribbean cocoa beans. While these mills have now disappeared, their stories remain in the landscape. It would be interesting to track down the addresses of other businesses whose fortunes were shaped by the slave trade: bakers, coopers, smiths, liquor merchants, textile merchants, and more.

By walking the town, I can get a sense of the distance between places. I can also think about smell and how it travelled in this town: what did a cocoa milling operation smell like, I wonder, and how did it operate? I can think about how sound travelled, and about the impossibility of a silent arrival on cobblestones. And I can think of a life shaped by the workings of the sea, on the one hand, and the regular tolling of the church bells on the other.

So, too, can I get a sense of the old harbour through which ships had to pass on their journeys out.


“Gezicht vanaf de Punt op de haven van Middelburg,” Jan Luyken, Johannes Meertens, Abraham van Someren, 1696. Illustratie uit: Smallegange, Mattheus. Nieuwe cronyk van Zeeland, eerste deel. Amsterdam en Middelburg: Abraham van Someren en Johannes Meertens, 1696. Public Domain. Rijksmuseum. Rijksstudio.


Water – the rivers, the sea – remains an important part of Middelburg’s identity. The Saturday after I arrived was Watersportdag and the old harbour area – right next to the original VOC office building – was busy with activity, with people of all ages enjoying themselves on the water. Dutch beer tent music (or at least that’s what I call it!) blared from speakers and smoked fish was on sale.


Poems on building walls, with a large number of them in some way about the sea.


On the surface, Middelburg is a town that appears to exist outside of – or beyond – time. Consider, for example, this 1746 print of the Oosterkerk.


“Gezicht op de Oostkerk te Middelburg,” Jan Caspar Philips, Isaak Tirion, Staten van Holland en West-Friesland, 1746. Prent ook gebruikt als illustratie in: Boddaert, Pieter, e.a., Tegenwoordige staat der Vereenigde Nederlanden; negende deel, behelzende eene beschryving van Zeeland. Amsterdam: Isaak Tirion, 1751. Public Domain. Rijksmuseum. Rijksstudio.


Now consider my own rendition (taken at closer range).


Apart from the people in eighteenth-century dress in the print and the cars and streetlamp in my photo, this view has not changed in over 250 years. Given that the church was built in the mid-seventeenth century (and that its construction had required the demolition of seventeen houses), this neighbourhood was already well established by the mid-eighteenth century. What was it like to live in a town that had looked (virtually) the same for a century? And what might it mean for Middelburgers today that their vistas are almost exactly the same vistas seen and experienced by all those who have walked these streets over the last 350 years?

Middelburg has over 1100 registered heritage structures (take note, City of St. John’s). But this seemingly timeless city also carries its secrets. Bombed extensively during the Second World War, Middelburg had to rebuild much of its historic centre. These photos  show the extent of the devastation. But Middelburg rebuilt itself, and it followed the original plans so closely that it’s almost impossible to tell the difference.

The magnificent abbey, home to the Zeeuws Museum as well as other regional offices, was substantially damaged; the restoration is indistinguishable from the original.


Abdij van Middelburg. Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl (, via Wikimedia Commons


Abdij, 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon


Abdij, 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon


Abdij in the rain, at the entrance to the Zeeuws Museum. Photo: Sonja Boon.n


The St. Joris Doelen, just next to the Abbey, was also almost fully destroyed.


St. Joris Doelen, Middelburg. Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl (, via Wikimedia Commons

Today, it masquerades – at least to outsiders – as a gracious, late sixteenth-century structure, complete with its construction date. But as the immediate post-war photos reveal, its building history is much more complex.


St. Joris Doelen in the sun, 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon


St. Joris Doelen in the rain, 2014. Photo: Sonja Boon

Middelburg is not, therefore, the timeless, untouched place it seems to be. Its façade, although seductive, is deceptive. There are many, many stories behind the varnished beauty of the Vermeer painting of the city.

After two days of walking and thinking and writing, I know more about this city and its stories. I would have to stay much longer to find all of its nooks and crannies. But I can better situate my conventional archival materials; I know how these texts and images fit into the bigger picture. I can build connections between the various merchants commissioned to provision ships. I can imagine how people lived in relation to one another, and how they moved through this town – from the squares, to the churches, and down the narrow streets. I can begin to envision the shape of the slave trade in this place.

Middelburg continues to bewitch; it continues to seduce. And like an eager suitor, I welcome the seduction.


(c) Sonja Boon, 2016  sboon @


One thought on “and just like that, I stepped into a painting by Vermeer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s