Thursday, 6 June 2013

Sepia Saturday 180: A Life on the Ocean Wave


Sepia Saturday by Alan Burnett and Kat Mortensen

The Sepia Saturday image prompt this week reminded me of maritime uniforms, even though it was taken in quite a different setting, and I'll take the opportunity to use some images relating to this theme from my own family collection. You're welcome to start the music below to get you in the mood with an appropriate soundtrack, and then read on.



Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Willem Hendrik Schipper (1882-1932)
Photo button (12.4mm diameter) by unidentified photographer
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

We all have those relatives who appear in family albums, but about whom we know very little, and my great-uncle Willem Hendrik Schipper is one of those. Surviving genealogical records are mainly centred around an individual's birth, marriage and death. Census enumerations, which add to the basics in generating a basic framework of family history research in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, have not been kept in the the Netherlands. As a result, all I have to anchor the dates of a biographical history for Willem, since never married or had any children, are his birth in 1882 at The Hague and his death at sea in 1932, somewhere between Sierra Leone and Amsterdam.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

There are a few documents and items of ephemera which fill in some of the gaps, such as a "Testimonial of Attendance" for Willem at the Ambachtschoool te 's-Gravenhage, dated 1 July 1899, and a funeral notice in the form of a newspaper clipping. However, what we do have are plenty of photographs, both loose and in a loose-leaved album compiled by his younger sister (my great-aunt Gien) in the 1920s and 1930s. Using these, I have been able to piece together more of a story.

Image © and courtesy of H.A.W. Payne
Hendrik (Harry) Jan & Willem Hendrik Schipper, c.1901-1905
Cabinet card by unidentified photographer
Image © and courtesy of H.A.W. Payne

My grandmother and her three older siblings grew up in The Hague, where their father Jan Schipper (1857-1921) worked as secretary to the Director of Queen Wilhelmina's Cabinet at The Binnenhof. According to my mother (who presumably learned it from her mother, since Willem died when she was only eighteen months old), Jan Schipper became very embittered after a disagreement with his new boss, perhaps also from being passed over for promotion, which reflected on his behaviour at home and made life very unpleasant for his wife and children. Willem and his younger brother Harry both 'escaped' from this odious atmosphere by joining the merchant navy at a fairly young age.

Image © and courtesy of H.A.W. Payne
Willem Schipper, c.1909-1912
Silver gelatin print by unidentified photographer
Image © and courtesy of H.A.W. Payne

Willem Schipper joined Koninklijke Hollandsche Lloyd as an engineer in 1909, where his "zeal and devotion to duty earned him quick promotion." He appears to have spent most of his early service in the Dutch East Indies at a time when the Empire was reaching its maximum extent. The photograph above shows him in front of a lifeboat on an unknown ship, with what I believe is the rank of 2nd Engineer.


Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Willem Schipper (at right) and friends, Weltevreden, Batavia, c.1910-1915
Studio portrait, silver gelatin print (96 x 61mm) by unknown photographer
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Life in the tropics was not all work and no play, as is amply demonstrated by this studio portrait of Willem relaxing with two friends or colleagues in Weltevreden, the suburb of Batavia (then capital of the Dutch East Indies, now Jakarta) which housed the Dutch administrative headquarters. The cigarette in his right hand is indicative of what would becopme a life-long habit - rarely does Willem appear in photographs without a cigarette or pipe.


Batavia, 1910-1915, courtesy of YouTube

This series of silent film clips which I found on YouTube were probably taken from a moving motor vehicle, which must have been one of the few in Batavia at that time. It gives a very good feel fpor the ambience of the colonial suburbs and busy merchant quarters, complete with wagons, carriages, rickshaws and trams. Another YouTube film of 1920s life in Java includes a clip showing the arrival of a ship at the wharf, together with crowds of colonial men in their whites and solar topees.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Suikerfabriek (Sugar factory), Soemberhardjo, Java, c.1912-1915
Silver gelatin print mosaic (161 x 98mm) by unidentified photographer
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Willem must also have found time for some leisure travel, as demonstrated by this mosaic of a sugar factory at Soemberhardjo in central Java pasted into his sister's album. The factory was built in 1912, thus providing an earliest date for the photograph, and is apparently still operating, complete with geriatric steam locomotives used for hauling the sugar cane.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
2nd Engr. Willem Schipper and friends on board S.S. Gelria, c.1913-1916
Silver gelatin print by unknown photographer
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

There are several photographs in the album taken on board the SS Gelria, a passenger steamer in service with KHL from May 1913 to March 1916 and again from 1919 to 1931, and it seems likely that Willem served on this ship during the earlier period. The Netherlands retained neutrality during the Great War and their ships continued to operate. The image above shows Willem (seated at left) apparently being congratulated on his promotion to Senior 2nd Engineer by Kapitein Brunt, Junior 2nd Engineer Visser and 1st Marconist (wireless operator) Vuyck.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Willem Schipper and friends on board S.S. Gelria, c.1913-1916
Silver gelatin print by unknown photographer
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Another group portrait on the Gelria shows him with junior officers, each with only one stripe on their epaulettes, seated on and standing around cane and wicker furniture in a more formal arrangement.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Willem Schipper and friends, off Calabar, West Africa, c.1920s
Silver gelatin print (71 x 102mm) by unknown photographer
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

En route from Amsterdam to the East Indies the ships often paused off the coast of West Africa. Willem and his colleagues took advantage of the opportunity to barter for curios with the locals who paddled out to the ship at anchor in the port of Calabar in Nigeria.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Willem Schipper and friends, SS Prins der Nederlanden, c.1920s
Silver gelatin print (85 x 111mm) by unknown photographer
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The steamship Prins der Nederlanden was a passenger ship of the SMN line (Stoomvaart Maatschappij Nederland/Netherlands Steamship Co.) which operated between 1914 and 1935, so I must presume that Willem was a guest on board when this group photo was taken.

Image © and courtesy of H.A.W. Payne
Willem Schipper on board the S.S. Zeelandia, c.1915-1920
Silver gelatin print by unknown photographer
Image © and courtesy of H.A.W. Payne

After some years in the East Indies, illness forced a return to the Netherlands, but he was quickly offered a position on the Royal Dutch Lloyd ship SS Gaasterland. On this and other ships, perhaps including the SS Zeelandia (above), he spent at least a decade plying the trade routes of the North and South Atlantic, calling in at ports on the coasts of several continents.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Unidentified ship, possibly at a South American port, c.1920s
Silver gelatin print (87 x 58mm) by unknown photographer
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

I found several crew lists from the SS Gaasterland arriving in New York in 1920 and 1921 but, juding from number of photographs from South America in the album, supplemented by a postcard sent to his recently widowed mother from Buenos Aires in July 1921, most of his trips headed further south. The print above shows timber and other goods being loaded from a wharf onto a cargo ship (or possibly unloaded) which unfortunately has part of its name clipped, leaving only "...LAND ...ERDAM" visible at the stern.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Unidentified ship, Patagonische Kanalen (Patagonian Channels), c.1920s
Silver gelatin print (87 x 116mm) by unknown photographer
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Some of his journeys ventured a little further afield almost into the Pacific, visiting the western coast of Chile via the Patagonian Channels. This ship also appears to be carrying a cargo of timber on the deck.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Willem Schipper (at right) and colleagues at work, c.1920s
Silver gelatin print (78 x 91mm) by unknown photographer
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

In a rare shot, Willem appears in his working clothes with two colleagues, apparently engaged in some real work (or at least supervising it), the now ever present pipe clasped firmly in his right hand. Another shows a group of people repairing a winch aboard the SS Rijnland.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Willem Schipper and friend, Funchal, Madeira, c.1920s
Silver gelatin print (67 x 109mm) by unknown photographer
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Criss-crossing the Atlantic regularly allowed them to stop off periodically in Funchal, the capital town of the Spanish island of Madeira, where they stayed at the Grand Hotel Belmonte, strolled through the municipal gardens, wandered the narrow cobbled alleys, and caught a ride from Monte down the steep streets on mountain basket sledges, which still catch the unwary tourist today.



Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Chief Engineer Willem Schipper and colleagues, c.1930
Silver gelatin print (64 x 98mm) by unknown photographer
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

In late 1931, while on a voyage of the coast of West Africa, Willem became very ill and he wrote to his sister and brother-in-law just before Christmas that he had seen doctors in Grand Bassam (Cote D'Ivoire) and Freetown (Sierra Leone), who diagnosed heart problems. He rested for a short while at the Grand Hotel in Freetown, but died on board ship somewhere between Sierra Leone and Amsterdam on 12 February 1932. A letter to his mother from an Evangelical Lutheran Missionary who travelled with him off the West African coast makes it clear that he "felt that he would not live long."

Image © 2013 Brett Payne
Silver ashtray, possibly from East Indies
Collection of Brett Payne

I inherited this rather battered and well used silver ashtray from my Dutch grandparents some years ago, and even used it for a while until I gave up smoking. I always thought that the engraving had a somewhat oriental look to it, but it wasn't until recently, when I started examining the photographs in Aunt Gien's album in greater detail, that I realised that it may well have been picked up by Willem in Dutch colonial Batavia. The maker's marks on the base don't mean much to me, but perhaps a knowledgeable reader will recognise them and enlighten me. I'm not sure that I feel quite the same way about it, now that I know it may have been so closely associated with Willem's heart disease, and therefore his death.

Image © 2013 Brett Payne

29 comments:

  1. Nice to see pictures from your own album and an aptly named relative too! What a pity he died quite young, but he seems to have had plenty of friends and lived an interesting life.

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    1. I'm sure the surname does indeed derive from the profession of some distant ancestor.

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  2. You are so lucky to have so many photographs of your ancestors. There are enough here to assemble a fine story of a life. Good post.

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    1. Thank you and yes, very lucky indeed.

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    2. Ditto anyjazz. A fine story indeed.

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  3. Some time ago I wanted to identify a silver napkin ring by its foreign hallmarks, and I managed a fast answer at this site:
    http://www.925-1000.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=23905

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    1. Many thanks Nigel - done. I'll update the article above if there are any further clues provided.

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  4. A very interesting collection, Brett, and a perfect fit to the Sepia theme. Photos and films of foreign colonies always seem to have more historical contrast than those of the first world. Willem's photos have that allure of exotic adventure that make them real treasures.

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    1. Having grown up in a "foreign colony" of sorts, I think I know what you mean. I've always had the yen to travel, and these images make me think it's time to start doing so again. A very different world now, of course, but perhaps even more fascinating.

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  5. I'm jealous, my husband's Dutch forebears have left us so few photos and mementos although we did get a pretty good feel for their life at the Dutch Resistance Museum in Amsterdam last year - and amazing collection and so well presented. Hopefully we can fill in some more gaps on our next visit.

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    1. I haven't done much reseach on which places in the Netherlands would be good to visit to learn about my forebears, but I must do so before I go there again.

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  6. Willem lived an interesting life and saw so much of the world. I envy that, but not dying at sea away from the comfort of home. The ashtray reminds me of a bracelet I received from my great-aunt, the carved design and material, that is.

    In the photo where Willem is in work clothes, he appears to be wearing sandals.

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    1. I hadn't noticed the sandals, a sign that perhaps he was merely idling away his rest time on deck.

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  7. Brett, I think it is wonderful that you are remembering Willem as he has no direct line family to do so.

    He looks in his prime in the photo with the lifeboat. Very dashing.

    Sharon

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    1. The reasons for he and his brother going to sea were not good, but he seems to have adapted well to the lifestyle.

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  8. Interesting post. I especially liked the first video. It feels odd traveling the streets 100 years ago. There sure was a lot of activity. I wonder how much of it was choreographed.

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    1. Yes, I rather liked the first one too. It gave a very good feel of a busy colonial capital, and I doubt much of it, if anything, was choreographed.

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  9. You certainly ended up telling his whole life story just as I was sad you didn't even have census records to fill out the birth and death dates! The photographs and memories tell so much more.

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    1. I didn't realise that I would be able to deduce so much when I first started the article. I thought, "Well I'll have to just make a short contribution this week," and then, well ...

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  10. This is just fascinating. Really well done. I've known three men who set sail in the merchant marines, and each lived amazing lives, but there was always something about them that you knew you could never pin them down. I'd say Willem found the life that he was meant for, even if cut short by the dreaded tobacco. Nice that you have the ashtray. I think that might have made him very happy.

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    1. Yes T+L, I like to think so. I feel there's a bit more to Willem, too, but we may never know. I would some day like to see if his employment records with K.H.L. have survived - his death certificate might also be informative.

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  11. How wonderful to have all the images relating to Willem's life - they made a fascinating family history post.

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  12. Interesting what a handful of photographs can reveal. Great journey one could say, even if the man remains cloaked in mystery. That Batavia vid doesn't tell of the political/social climate of the times, but it seemed like a lovely place to visit.
    :)~
    HUGZ

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    1. Interesting indeed - I was thinking exactly that when I was watching the film clips, how there must have been simmering tensions even then. I read that when the Indonesian military took over after the Dutch pulled out, they continued the repressive, brutal behaviour on the population that they were taught by the Dutch authorities - which doesn't say much for the conditions prior to "independence."

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  13. A fascinating set of photos. A fine tribute to the man and the times. The Batavia video was very interesting - especially the various modes of transport.

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    1. I'm glad you noticed the variety of transport too, as that was one of the things that struck me.

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  14. This whole story has the aroma of a Somerset Maugham story!

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    1. That hadn't occurred to me, which is odd, because I'm a long time fan of his writing, but you're quite right. His stories are very rooted in that era and locale.

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