African Servants at the Hague Court

At the moment (21 September 2017 to 28 January 2018) there is a small, rather interesting exhibition at the Historical Museum of The Hague: “African Servants at the Hague Court”. In times that many people had never seen a coloured person it was rather fashionable at royal courts and in upper class circles to have servants with a non-Western appearance. Little is known about these “African” servants, that gave the court an exotic, international allure. Often they were given as a present. The exhibition tells the story of a few of these servants. Texts are both in Dutch and English.

The main characters of these exhibition are Willem Frederik Cupido and Guan Anthony Sideron, who were still very young when they were presented to the Dutch Stadtholder Willem V, Prince of Orange, in the 1760s. Esther Schreuder – who is also the guest curator of the exhibition – researched their lives and found quite a few documents about Cupido and Sideron in the Royal Archives in The Hague. The result is also presented in a book (Dutch only thus far): Cupido en Sideron. Twee Moren aan het hof van Oranje (Cupido and Sideron. Two Moors at the Court of Orange). I haven’t read it yet, but heard enthusiastic stories about it.

People of African descent worked at European royal courts between the 14th and the 16th century. They had various roles, from musicians and soldiers to servants. Not seldom you see paintings with one or more African servants on it, especially from ladies and an African servant in the late 17th century. According to the exhibition, it is not sure whether these servants really existed or just were depicted on the painting. The exhibition shows several of these paintings, servants standing next to their lady, or are just part of a bigger painting of for example a hunting party.

At the Dutch court were African servants since the 17th century and their owners loved to have them painted. Almost nothing is known about them, not even their names. In the 18th century the Dutch royals employed Jean Rabo, Cupido and Sideron and surprisingly lots about them can be found in the Royal Archives. According to Schreuders research Sideron actually came from Curacao and Cupido from Guinea.

They were slaves, but probably had a better life at court, although they would never see their families again. They came to the Netherlands as children of about 7 years old and actually received an education. They could read and write, learned French and dancing. They took part in parades and public occasions and had to be visible. They also served sometimes on special occasions. For about 40 years Cupido and Sideron worked at the court and ended up as chamber attendants. For who wonders: they did earn the same salary as their colleagues.

When the family of the Stadtholder had to flee the country in 1795, Cupido and Sideron came with the family to England and Germany. In Germany Cupido married a German woman and had a daughter. He died in 1806, three years after Sideron. They were deeply mourned by Willem V, who himself died only three weeks after Cupido. The royal family took care of Cupidos family for many years. Wilhelmina, Cupidos daughter, married, had children, grandchildren and many other descendants. At the end of the exhibition is a huge family tree showing several of her descendants.

Already 20 years ago, in 1997, Arthur Japin wrote the book “De zwarte met het witte hart” (The Black with the White Heart). It tells the story of the two Ashanti princes (from Ghana) Kwame Poku and Kwasi Boachi, who were presented to King Willem II of the Netherlands in 1837.

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