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Writing history together in the Transvaal

Alicia Schrikker doesn't usually get involved in urban history. As a senior lecturer, her research field is generally the colonial history of Asia and partly South Africa. So, the fact that she is going to carry out an urban history research project together with colleagues, is something that even she herself finds remarkable.

The project more or less forced itself upon her, very gradually, but apparently she couldn't avoid it. Schrikker lives in Transvaal, the neighbourhood in Leiden between the railway line and the Rhine, and it was here that she started to discover more and more links with her specialist field: colonial history. At one time, the area had many beautiful mansions owned by people who had become wealthy in what was then known as the Dutch Indies. A little further away there was an estate called Kampong Makassar, named after the estate on Java, near to Batavia, that served as a prisoner of war camp during the Japanese occupation and the struggle for independence. 

Colonial capital played a role in the development of the region, but products that were made in the area also found their way to the colonial world: in the 19th and 20th centuries there was a sugar processing factory and a preserving factory on the banks of the Rhine. The life of the Transvaal workers who topped and tailed the beans, peeled the carrots and made the sugary confection known as 'borstplaat' had many similarities with the inhabitants of colonial Indonesia and South Africa who consumed these preserved products. Schrikker was fascinated to learn that local and colonial history came together in the area.  

The same applied to the name of the street where she lives. It is named after General Christiaan de Wet, a hero of the controversial Peasant War. She got into discussion with neighbours on the subject of whether or not it was acceptable that streets in their neighbourhood were named after heroes from these contentious times. One neighbour said, 'It's what you pay attention to, isn't it', and she had to agree with him. 'Because that's how it goes with history. Everyone takes out of it whatever matters to them. And that's what makes it for me so facinating to study this together with the whole neighbourhood.'

Fun Mothers' Day activity

‘We've since quietly changed the street name into that of De Wet's mother.'But this fun Mothers' Day activity is just a side issue. The talks with her neighbours intrigued her. The discussion about colonial history is, of course, part of this, along with discovering and documenting history together and exchanging ideas. 'Can we write a combined neighbourhood history? It's something I'm curious about.' Neighbour Mariken Elsen added: 'That's what made me so enthousiastic about the project.' 

Elsen, alumna of Leiden University and committee member of the neighbourhood association, was not the only person who was keen to take part. Ariadne Schmidt, Professor of Leiden Urban History, also wanted to join the project. On a sunny afternoon a group of us walked along past the Morspoort garage. Schrikker pointed to the grey canal banks: ‘Next year we want to make them a bit more colourful with our exhibition. But first we need to get some funding.' 

'Axe' neighbourhood

Past the Social Boarding House and Ons Cafeestje and then we are in the residential area with its ground- and first-floor flats beside family homes and student houses. 'This is also often called the Axe neighbourhood,'Schmidt explains. Why? Everyone had heard a different story about what was behind this. This nickname, two of the students who did some preliminary research last year discovered, really appeals to the locals' imagination. Next year a group of third-year students are going to do some more research, looking into the archives and working in the neighbourhood, talking with local peole about life in the area, today and in the past.  

We walk into the Wolmarans Street. This is a cul de sac, closed to traffic, with whitewashed workers' cottages. Schrikker points out the notches in the brick wall beside a door. 'These notches were caused by the women who sharpened their knives here every day, year in and year out.'  

Abject poverty

Once you've noticed them, you see these notches everywhere beside the doorposts. One of the residents sitting in front of his house watches us with an amused look on his face. He walks to the house opposite his own home and points to a completely rounded corner ofthe brick wall. 'This was also caused by the knife sharpening. The knives were sharpened so often over such a long period that the corners of the bricks have been completely worn away.’

He tells us that the women sat here every day preparing the beans for the preserving factory. 'The whole neighbourhood did the same, as a way of earning some extra money. The men mainly worked in the building trade, and the women prepared the beans. Apart from earning some extra money, they were also able to keep the left-over beans. They really relied on the extra vegetables because there was abject poverty at the time and they all had large families. They slept seventeen to a house in houses like this.' 

Fight it out

He could tell us a lot more about the neighbourhood, but why do we want to know about the area, he asked. Schrikker sees her opportunity and explains her neighbourhood history project. The man and his wife are enthusiastic to hear about the research and invite the researchers to come back again if they want to know more. 'Do you know why this is called the Axe neighbourhood?' Without waiting for an answer, he carries on: 'The women who sat here in front of the foor every day topping and tailing the beans sometimes got into an argument with one another. When the men got home from work, often having been out drinking first, they were told to fight it out between themselves.' 

These kinds of conversations are easy to get into in Transvaal. They make Schrikker, Elsen and Schmidt even more curious about the findings of the research. Although, not everyone wants to know all the details, they discovered. Laughing, Schrikker says: 'One neighbour thought it as a fantastic project but she urged us not to try to find out where the nickname of Axe comes from. She was keen not to lose this wonderful myth.' 

Alicia Schrikker (1976)

  • Studied History in Leiden, where she also obtained her PhD.
  • Since 2008 senior lecturer in Colonial and World History at Leiden University.
  • Specialist in the history of colonial societies in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. 

Ariadne Schmidt (1972) 

  • Social-economic historian and professor of Leiden urban history, holder of the Magdalena Moons chair.
  • Since 2010 affiliated to Leiden University.
  • Is developing the public history programme that focuses on the role of historiography in society. 

Text: Marijn Kramp

Photo: Eelkje Colmjon

This article appeared previously in our alumni magazine Leidraad.

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