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Eighteenth-Century Life 25.3 (2001) 20-42

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Incestuous Relations and their Punishment in the Dutch Republic

Florike Egmond

The South and the North: Regional Cultures

"Adieu mijn Baiea tan bon mi hati lobie." These are the final words of a letter dated 18 March 1774 that forms part of the correspondence exchanged in the Dutch Republic between Johan and Petronella Biertempel. When asked what these words meant, Petronella declared that it was "Negro English" and could be translated as: "Adieu my love, farewell my sweetheart." Other expressions of affection are to be found in their still extant letters: "love, my darling, yesterday I wrote to you" / "my dearest darling and only consolation on this earth" / "my heart longs for you" / "the only object of my heart's desire" / "you are not a moment out of my thoughts" / and "I love you too tenderly." These affectionate expressions used by both correspondents sound innocent or even touching. However, Johan and Petronella shared their surname not as wife and husband, but as father and daughter, and during the period in which these letters were written Petronella was in the final months of pregnancy and gave birth to Johan's child. 1

Father and daughter lived in Surinam for a number of years, which explains their use of "Negro English." They returned to the Dutch Republic in 1771 or 1772 and together with Petronella's two younger half-sisters and her half-brother found a new home in the village of Helmond in the southern province of Brabant. 2 Biertempel had long been a widower: all his wives--the respective mothers of Petronella and her siblings--had died years earlier. Petronella was twenty-five when she discovered she was pregnant by her fifty-year-old father. When an attempt at abortion by means of potions failed, Biertempel sent his daughter--then only six weeks from confinement--to Amsterdam. Shortly after she gave birth to a healthy boy in April 1774, news of the incestuous liaison broke; and in May, Biertempel was taken into custody. Fearing the strength and speed of rumor, Petronella by then was fleeing to the town of Cleves just outside Dutch territory. In June sheriff Daniel Canisius--who, like all sheriffs in the Netherlands at the time, combined the offices of head of police and chair of the local court--managed to arrest her by subterfuge. Like her father, Petronella ended up in custody in her home town. [End Page 20]

Until his arrest Biertempel had been a well-to-do and respected local resident. As one of the members of the local court that dealt with both criminal and civil cases, he belonged to the local élite. 3 He was influential, seemed to be able to get away with minor and even not so minor misdemeanors, and was wealthy enough to send his daughter away for her confinement and pay for doctors, inns, her upkeep, and the maintenance of their child. Taking all this into consideration and given the fact that neither their correspondence nor their mutual exchange of expressions of affection ceased during Petronella's pregnancy or even after Biertempel's arrest, it looks as if his daughter might have returned to him and their Brabant home if things had not taken a turn for the worse.

Circumstances were very different in a second case. We have to move back to the years 1753-54 and leave the predominantly Catholic south for the largely Protestant northern part of the Dutch Republic, where just off the east coast of Holland a less prominent, less wealthy family lived on the island of Wieringen. 4 This family consisted of forty-year-old Wabe Douwesz, his wife Diewer Lammerts, their five children, and Maartje Dirks (a daughter from Diewer's first marriage). Maartje was nearly eighteen when she became pregnant by her stepfather in 1753. As in the Brabant case, we hear of an unsuccessful attempt at abortion; but this family did not send their daughter away to the anonymity of the big city. She was delivered of her child at home...


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