Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

WIC-opvarenden (Seafarers of the Dutch West India Company)

Due to the almost complete disappearance of the archive of the Old Dutch West India Company (WIC, 1621-1674) not much is known about the ships and crews of this company. In this project we start the reconstruction of this basic information making use of new digital humanities techniques to extract this information from deeds signed by early modern Amsterdam notaries.

2023 - 2024
Jirsi Reinders
Samenwerkende Maritieme Fondsen

Amsterdam City Archives

Despite the scarcity of available archival material from the Old Dutch West India Company (WIC, 1621-1674), a significant volume of rich information can be found in the Notarial Archives of Amsterdam. From 2016 onwards this archive was partly indexed and automatically transcribed thanks to investments made by the Amsterdam City Archives. By focusing on so-called transport deeds, a type of notarial deed documenting sailors' debts to innkeepers or other creditors, we aim to create two interconnected datasets in this project: one featuring all WIC sailors mentioned in these transport deeds, and another with data about WIC ships.

The highly formalized language found in the transport deeds provides a systematic structure for data extraction, revealing the identities of many sailors, their ranks, places of origin, and more. Our most important source consists of automated transcriptions of deeds from notary Henrick Schaef (1599-1665). Using these transcriptions, we explore how the recurring textual patterns can be used to structure a database of WIC sailors.

We intend to evaluate and document the data extraction process as a replicable model for studying similar historical sources. Within the scope of our own project, we will extend our approach to analyze the deeds of other notaries and other types of deeds (for instance: last wills). The study and exploitation of patterns in formulaic language promises to broaden the scope and depth of our knowledge on the early history of Dutch colonial endeavors in the world.

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