Tessa de Boer and Ramona Negrón

University of Leiden

The Future of the Past: Unlocking the Mediterranean in the Amsterdam Notarial Archives

On 8 January 1676 we first meet Anthoine de Lespaul in Amsterdam, on his way to the altar with his bride Marguerite.NL-SAA, 5001, Archief van de Burgerlijke Stand: doop-, trouw- en begraafboeken van Amsterdam (retroacta van de Burgerlijke Stand), inv. no. 502, scan no. 169: marital registration of Antonio de Lespaul and Margrita de la Court, 8 January 1676. Hailing from Roubaix, nestled on the present-day border between Belgium and France, we can only presume that he counts among the many Huguenots that made their way north to the Dutch Republic to escape religious persecution in France. His world would only grow from there as he expanded his family and his business. Over the next two decades, we find him embroiled in court cases against Armenian merchants, testifying on convoys, coins and capital in the Levant (doc. 22), and, finally, identifying a prime – or so it seemed – business opportunity in the late seventeenth-century Ottoman empire: wool manufacturing in Turkey.NL-SAA, 5075, Archief van de Notarissen der Standplaats Amsterdam, inv. no. 4124, scan no. 10: acquittance, 2 November 1686; inv. no. 4123, scan no. 23: witness testimony, 5 September 1686; M. Bulut, Ottoman-Dutch Economic Relations in the Early Modern Period 1571–1699 (Hilversum: Verloren, 2001), 192–95. For this purpose, in 1692, he sent youngster Jan Brouwer on his way to Constantinople. As fond as Lespaul was of doing business in this part of the Mediterranean, there was still a sliver of doubt: he slipped Brouwer 1,000 guilders, to insure and protect himself against the surely rampant ‘bandits and barbarians’ that would be roaming there (doc. 25).NL-SAA, 5075, inv. no. 5844, scan no. 4: contract, 1 August 1692. 

Whereas Dutch-Ottoman trade in the late seventeenth century had passed its peak due to increased English and French competition, evidently Lespaul’s wider business strategy paid off and he and his descendants were among the hundred richest individuals in the early modern Dutch Republic.K. Zandvliet, De 500 Rijksten van de Republiek: Rijkdom, geloof, macht en cultuur (Zutphen: Walburg, 2018), 335.There was money to be made in Amsterdam, in the Mediterranean and, especially, in both of them together. Whereas Amsterdam was geographically outside the Mediterranean, it was connected to it in countless ways through demographic diasporas, flows of capital and goods, and cultural admiration.

Historical background
The Low Countries were quite prosperous in the late medieval era, boasting a relatively high degree of urbanisation, cheap capital and innovative agriculture. Nevertheless, the focal point of European trade and banking at the time laid with the city states of Northern Italy, which continued to profit from the long-standing trade relations with the Levant and other parts of the Mediterranean. However, this focal point started moving northwards over the Alps and eventually further towards the Low Countries in roughly the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries due to a multitude of factors; among others, Italy being continuously plagued by war and pestilence, a silver boom in Germany and the increasing forays into the New World via the Atlantic ports. These and other new economic and financial opportunities aided the development of sophisticated institutions and instruments to support them, such as joint-stock enterprises (and dedicated bourses to exchange stock), a central bank (the wisselbank) and more. Whereas Antwerp initially functioned as the commercial centre of the Low Countries, its 1585 fall to the Spaniards during the Dutch Revolt (1566–1648) shifted the centre to Amsterdam. Compared to the economic and demographic development of other towns in the Low Countries, Amsterdam was a latecomer, but its growth would be spectacular. Aided by the capital and expertise of the fleeing Antwerp merchant elite, as well as housing the staple market for Baltic grain, Amsterdam quickly amassed commercial and financial primacy in the Low Countries in the early seventeenth century – a primacy which, according to some, extended to Europe and, perhaps, the world. In the later seventeenth century and into the eighteenth, its fortune stagnated at a relatively high level, ultimately pushing the new centre of financial gravity even further west, to London, at the dawn of the 1800s.J. I. Israel, Nederland als centrum van de wereldhandel 1585–1740 (Franeker: van Wijnen, 1991), 71–78, 90–95; P. Dehing, Geld in Amsterdam. Wisselbank en wisselkoersen, 1650–1725 (Hilversum: Verloren, 2012), 38–42; J. de Vries and A. van der Woude, The First Modern Economy. Success, Failure, and Perseverance of the Dutch Economy, 1500–1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 131–32; A. M. Carlos and L. Neal, ‘Amsterdam and London as Financial Centers in the Eighteenth Century,’ Financial History Review 18, no. 1 (2011): 21–46; Y. Cassis, Capitals of Capital. A History of International Financial Centres 1780– 2005 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 9–24.

Introduction to the (notarial) archives of Amsterdam
In the seventeenth century, Amsterdam was a spider in a set of interwoven webs – some local, some regional and some global. Its resources were sent to and carted in from all directions; perhaps the most poignant were those generated through the exploitation of its colonial empire, and the empire of other European states. The global and cosmopolitan nature of early modern Amsterdam is mirrored in its archival deposits. Far from ending at the city bounds, the people, subjects, languages and alphabets arrived from all over the world. But not everyone was as willing to look beyond Europe. For some, the Mediterranean was exotic enough. The aforementioned Anthoine de Lespaul found his fortune in this particular web, as did many like him. Armed with contracts, insurance policies, passports, banknotes and bills of exchange, Amsterdam businessmen made their way south. It is this paper trail, too, that we can minutely and now effortlessly trace in the Amsterdam City Archives (ACA).

The wide variety of archival collections held by the ACA offer insight into early modern international commerce. Examples are family deposits, diplomatic correspondence and the burgomasters’ archive. However, few collections can compete in size and utility with the notarial archives of Amsterdam.NL-SAA, 5075, Archief van de Notarissen der Standplaats Amsterdam. Ranging from 1578 to 1915, this collective labour of 733 notaries encompasses 3.5 kilometres of shelf space. It is estimated that the protocols contain approximately 5 million deeds on 20 million pages.E. Fleurbaay et al., Programma- en projectplan Alle Amsterdamse Akten (Amsterdam: Stadsarchief Amsterdam, 2015), 4, accessed 2 September 2021, https://www.amsterdam.nl/stadsarchief/organisatie/projecten/alle-amsterdamse/.  The gargantuan size of the archive is explained by the fact that notaries and notarial deeds were utilised for a much wider range of transactions in the early modern era compared to today. We do not only find ‘standard’ contracts related to monetary loans, prenuptial agreements or real estate, but many other types of deed. For example, it was also common to record any and all types of witness testimonies in front of a notary, usually as a precursor to judicial action. Aside from lively tales of social incidents or sleazy behaviour, testimony on business operations and especially shipping abound: where are French privateers lurking?NL-SAA, 5075, inv. no. 10244, scan no. 1135: ship’s crew testimony, 28 June 1748. How did a ship’s crew in Smyrna circumvent quarantine?NL-SAA, 5075, inv. no. 10158, scan no. 14: ship’s crew testimony, 4 January 1759.Who found himself enslaved and rowing in a galley in Algiers?NL-SAA, 5075, inv. no. 1624, scan no. 312: witness testimony, 18 November 1639. It is because of the broad range of information typically required and recorded by early modern notaries that their deeds grant unique and unprecedented insights into the relationship between Amsterdam, and, in this case, the Mediterranean. With a near-infinite number of viewpoints – from affluent business tycoons, through Greek monks, to mothers of enslaved sons – a multitude of different aspects of this relationship can be elucidated.

The relationship illustrated
The selected deeds represent several of the best known interactions, circuits or exchanges between Amsterdam and the Mediterranean. Though most of them appear to contain just a very small nugget of isolated information, they can instantly be connected to the larger historical processes at play. For example, notary Hendrick Schaef duly noted that Pieter Barentsz was in possession of ‘four books on Italian accounting’ upon the latter’s death in 1640 NL-SAA, 5075, inv. no. 1281, scan no. 10: estate inventory, 11 January 1640.(doc. 71) – symptomatic, as it turns out, of the enduring popularity of and regard for the ‘modern’ accounting methods developed in late medieval Italy.   

Naturally, documentation on trade (of goods, capital or the occasional human) between Amsterdam and the Mediterranean abounds in these archives. A business operation spanning this geographic range required quite a lengthy chain of people and transactions to set it in motion and, ultimately, to successfully execute it. Usually, several notarial deeds were needed at different stages to accomplish this. The labour agreement (doc. 25) contracted between Anthoine de Lespaul and his young apprentice Jan Brouwer, for example, outlined the aims of Brouwer’s mission to Turkey. Brouwer was to become acquainted with the wool-working industry, and, if the auspices appeared right, set up a legitimate Amsterdam-Constantinople firm in which the profits would be split accordingly.NL-SAA, 5075, inv. no. 5844, scan no. 4: contract, 1 August 1692. This is an example of a notarial deed brokered before the actual ‘business trip’ to the Mediterranean. At least as common, however, are deeds drafted after the arrival of the partner and/or the merchandise in Amsterdam. Sometimes, this was just to officially confirm receipt. In 1668, the Amsterdam-based Armenian merchant Wartabiet confirmed (doc. 38) in front of the notary that he had received 200 reams of paper from fellow merchants Lucas van Coppenol and Fredrick Schulerus, and added details regarding the amount he paid for each respective type of paper in the batch. An additional confirmation of receipt, identifying the next buyer in the chain, is found in a small postscript in Armenian script: evidentially, Wartabiet sold the paper to the Armenian priest Voskan, and charged 872 guilders for it.NL-SAA, 5075, inv. no. 3606, scan no. 94: witness testimony, 25 February 1668; our gratitude is due to His Excellency Tigran Balayan, Armenian ambassador to the Netherlands, for his translation (accessed 2 September 2021, https://twitter.com/tbalayan/status/1384861933795516420). However, not all merchandise was as worth as much money as Wartabiet’s paper. In 1631, the Jewish merchant Jacob Bueno was much less content with the textiles he had received from Constantinople. Calling upon the notary to accompany him to the Amsterdam port to inspect the goods (doc. 24), they found that they had been stored in the ship’s hold right underneath some profusely leaking barrels of wine. The wine had caused the textiles to rot, which could not be remedied even with a thorough wash. Having lost their beauty, as Bueno put it, these Turkish textiles were regrettably, irreversibly and completely unsellable in Amsterdam.NL-SAA, 5075, inv. no. 941, scan no. 33: witness testimony, 9 January 1631.

The appearance of Armenians Wartabiet and Voskan, and Sephardic Jew Bueno describes the extensive multicultural scene represented by Amsterdam trade in the seventeenth century, and the share of participants hailing from different corners of the Mediterranean. Whereas Armenian dealings in Amsterdam have enjoyed increased exposure in recent historiographySee, for example, the works of S. D. Aslanian, such as From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean: The Global Trade Networks of Armenian Merchants from New Julfa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011); for a more popular example, see F. Deen, ‘1743 Armeniër trouwt met Amsterdamse,’ Amsterdam municipality website, 10 May 2021, accessed 2 September 2021, https://www.amsterdam.nl/stadsarchief/themasites/amsterdam-migratiestad/1743-armenier-trouwt-amsterdamse/. , and deeds entirely in Armenian script occasionally surface in the notarial archives (doc. 11)NL-SAA, 5075, inv. no. 956B, scan no. 96: accord, 1 January 1640., it is the Jewish population – Ashkenazi, but especially Sephardic – that has traditionally been featured as the prime group of ‘outsiders’ in the Amsterdam commercial and financial circuits. Driven out of Iberia, principally, through persecutions in the centuries and decades before the seventeenth century, many Sephardic Jews chose to settle in Amsterdam, where the religious climate was perceived to be temperate – and to some extent, it was, as they were allowed to build synagogues to worship, and cemeteries to lay their dead to rest. Merchantry and finance were attractive undertakings for the Sephardic population, as they were prohibited by Amsterdam law from running shops or joining guilds, whereas Christian/Catholic distaste for (high) interests and usury left them a free rein.F. Trivellato, The Familiarity of Strangers. The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross-Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 48; De Vries and van der Woude, The First Modern Economy, 151, 370; J. I. Israel, The Dutch Republic. Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall 1477– 1806 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 1025. Merchants and financiers of Sephardic origin got involved in business all over the globe, including in their ancestral home of Mediterranean Iberia. This, too, is extensively reported in the notarial records. For example, hundreds of thousands of (protested) bills of exchange – a supposedly Jewish inventionF. Trivellato, The Promise and Peril of Credit. What a Forgotten Legend about Jews and Finance Tells Us about the Making of European Commercial Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019), 1–18. – survive in the archive, and were used to transfer capital to and from Amsterdam and Iberia by Jews and non-Jews alike. In 1632, testimony by ‘Portuguese’ (=Sephardic) merchant Manuel Lopo de Leon (doc. 13) details how drawing a bill of exchange from Amsterdam to Lisbon worked, and at the same time demonstrates the solid Sephardic network that they could count on in these transnational exchanges: on behalf of Pedro Home Coronel and Joan de Leon he expected to receive 550 cruzados from Gaspar Nunez Rodriguez.NL-SAA, 5075, inv. no. 941, scan no. 503: witness testimony, 20 April 1632.  He mentions correspondence between them, and ultimately testifies in Spanish, an indication that this deed was intended to circulate among Spanish-speaking business partners.

The wide range of cultural, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds found in Amsterdam’s notarial clients is clear to see. However, whereas with the Sephardic diaspora their connections with the Mediterranean are somewhat self-evident, this is less the case with the Ashkenazi population of Amsterdam, who originated from Germany and Eastern Europe. Yet on occasion the Ashkenazi were also culturally and linguistically represented in Mediterranean-oriented transactions in Amsterdam. Late in the seventeenth century, in 1694, we find notary Joan Hoekeback providing a service that was common for multilingual clientele: the issue of a deed (doc. 14) wherein the authenticity of a document in an exotic language, and more importantly, its translation, is verified. In this case, the language in question is Hebrew, and the document contains the consent of the widow, son and cousin of hakham rabbi Ephraim Abrams Cohen for his Amsterdam-based nephew Isak to examine and take into his custody Cohen’s assets and estate in Barbary. The original Hebrew document was drawn up in Lithuania, and Isak required its translation into Dutch, presumably to facilitate the Amsterdam leg of the organisation of his executory task in Barbary.NL-SAA, 5075, inv. no. 5847, scan no. 44: witness testimony, 13 January 1694.  Several regions of Europe are connected in this single deed: evidently, Amsterdam was a hub between the Baltic and the Mediterranean, and Hebrew and Dutch were the languages that connected them.

The Barbary coast, in turn, was the central heartland of the so-called Barbary slave trade, with officially Ottoman, though in practice semi-sovereign cities such as Algiers or Tripoli thriving on the labours and trade of enslaved European sailors and other captives, including some from Amsterdam. Though the notarial deeds of Amsterdam contain many intimate insights into this particular type of slavery, they are still awaiting comprehensive analysis. Much more work has been done on the transatlantic slave trade. This institution, a key feature of early modern history, exemplifies the functioning of the Mediterranean as a sub-circuit in a much larger, arguably global system. Around the 1670s and 1680s, when Dutch parties were involved in asientos (contracts to supply enslaved labour to the Spanish Americas), we find a range of expansive and complex notarial deeds arranging the execution of these slave-trading expeditions, the first leg of which consisted of contracts between Amsterdam and Iberia, involving firms, monopoly companies, diplomats and civil servants.A. García Montón, ‘The Cost of the Asiento: Private Merchants, Royal Monopolies, and the Making of Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in the Spanish Empire,’ in Mechanisms of Global Empire Building, ed. A. Polónia and C. Antunes (Porto: CITCEM, 2017), 11–34; G. Scelle, La traite négrière aux Indes de Castille. Contrats et traités d’assiento (Paris: Ancienne Maison L. Larose & Forcel, 1906). One of these notarised contracts (doc. 87), drafted in 1685, contains the stipulations regarding the enslavement and trafficking of 1,200 Africans to the Americas. Special attention is granted to the infrastructure regarding the procurement of payments in the Spanish and Dutch colonies respectively, Amsterdam and Spain.NL-SAA, 5075, inv. no. 4771, scan no. 338: contract, 10 April 1685.  In all, contracts such as these featuring Amsterdam-Mediterranean transactions are only one part of a larger, and arguably terrible, system.

Unlocking the Mediterranean anew
All of the aforementioned larger historical processes and phenomena are not  necessarily historiographically obscure; indeed, there is a vast wealth of historical data contained in the notarial archives in question. Using the notarial deeds, these large historical themes are suddenly enriched by millions of little pieces of information, many of which provided from highly original and previously unknown perspectives. However, the fundamental problem in using this archival collection, which prevented its large-scale utilisation until quite recently, is its sheer size. Without highly concrete clues in other sources on where to look in the notarial deeds, for who and when, it was challenging to find the information one was looking for.

Earlier generations of Amsterdam archivists, ever aware of the historical wealth on their shelves, attempted to improve accessibility with the means at their disposal. An honourable attempt was made by municipal archivist Simon Hart and his team in the mid-twentieth century, and though they managed to produce an impressive amount of index cards (approx. 2 million), small-scale manual labour was no match for the size of the archive, and years of work covered no more than ca. 8% of the total data.Fleurbaay et al., Programma- en projectplan Alle Amsterdamse Akten, 5.

However, two factors have breathed new life into the ambition to unlock the notarial archives of Amsterdam. Firstly, the rapid and ongoing development of digital archiving tools, such as digital indexing and large-scale, high-definition scanning of documents, has dramatically reduced labour requirements. The successful building, generation and publicising of digital indexes of other collections of the Amsterdam City Archives, such as the marital, baptismal and burial registersThe search engine for the collective indices of the Amsterdam City Archives can be found at https://archief.amsterdam/indexen/persons (accessed 2 September 2021). , has generated the interest and confidence to tackle its largest project yet. Secondly, a generous amount of public and private funding was and still is available for the purpose, in recognition of the expected value that full searchability of the archive will offer for the history of Amsterdam, the Netherlands and the world. This sense of importance was further strengthened and recognised when the archive was placed on the UNESCO Memory of the World register in 2017.‘Notarieel Archief Werelderfgoed,’ Alle Amsterdamse Akten website, 30 October 2017, accessed 2 September 2021, https://alleamsterdamseakten.nl/artikel/1342/notarieel-archief-werelderfgoed/; ‘International Memory of the World Register. Recommended Nominations List 2016-2017,’ UNESCO website, 30 October 2017, accessed 2 September 2021, https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/mow_recommended_nominations_list_2016-2017.pdf. 

Currently, two projects centred around improving the accessibility of the notarial collection are simultaneously being conducted in the Amsterdam City Archives. The first, Alle Amsterdamse Akten (‘All Amsterdam Acts’; AAA), was initiated in 2016.‘Alle Amsterdamse Akten,’ Amsterdam municipal website, 28 April 2021, accessed 2 September 2021, https://www.amsterdam.nl/stadsarchief/organisatie/projecten/alle-amsterdamse/; Alle Amsterdamse Akten project website, accessed 2 September 2021, https://alleamsterdamseakten.nl/. It strives to provide a (digital) index – names, places, dates and occasionally subjects – of the entire notarial archives, though priority is given to the early modern records (until approximately 1811). This is being accomplished via crowdsourcing on the VeleHanden platform: volunteers are allocated scans of a deed and tasked with extracting indexable data. This input is subsequently cross-checked and, if necessary, corrected by experts.Alle Amsterdamse Akten VeleHanden crowdsourcing platform, accessed 2 September 2021, https://velehanden.nl/projecten/bekijk/details/project/amsterdam notarieel_2. With five years under its belt, AAA has proven a success in improving the accessibility of the archive. Nearing 3 million indexed names, extracted out of 600,000 notarial deeds by 1,163 members of the ‘crowd,’ approximately 10% of the deeds are currently searchable in a user-friendly, digital environment, with production increasing rapidly on a yearly basis.Index to the Notarial Archives of Amsterdam, accessed 2 September 2021, https://archief.amsterdam/indexen/persons?f=%7B%22search_s_register_type_title%22:%7B%22v%22:%22Notari%C3%ABle%20archieven%22%7D%7D. Serendipitous, relevant or otherwise interesting finds are frequently shared on social and traditional media platforms, bringing the newly revealed historical data to popular, professional and academic audiences.

Whereas AAA focuses more on ‘traditional’ indexation, which focuses primarily on finding people or places (and is thus welcomed by genealogists, for example), a second project titled Crowd Leert Computer Lezen (‘Crowd Teaches Computer to Read’; CLCL) is helping to develop what has come to be regarded as a game-changing feature in future historical and archival research, namely Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR).‘Crowd leert computer lezen,’ Amsterdam municipal website, 25 September 2019, accessed 2 September 2021, https://www.amsterdam.nl/stadsarchief/organisatie/projecten/crowd-leert-computer-lezen/; ‘Crowd leert computer lezen,’ VeleHanden crowdsourcing platform, accessed 2 September 2021, https://velehanden.nl/projecten/bekijk/details/project/amsterdam_correct_notarieel_transkribus.  The aim of HTR is to develop computer-based models which are able to scan, decipher and generate transcripts of (early modern) script. In the 2010s, pilots were conducted at several archives in Europe to experiment with the technology and now it is in the refinement stage.G. Muehlberger et al., ‘Transforming Scholarship in the Archives Through Handwritten Text Recognition. Transkribus as a Case Study,’ Journal of Documentation 75, no. 5 (2019): 954–76.  As scripts in the early modern era were by no means uniform, it is difficult to develop a one-size-fits-all model. Hence, a model needs to be developed for each individual/similar-looking hand. Within CLCL, the computer is fed scans of notarial deeds and produces a transcription of them; any mistakes in the transcriptions are corrected by a member of the crowd, and fed back into the computer, which thus continuously refines its skill in ‘reading’ a certain script and ameliorating the quality of its subsequent transcriptions. The accuracy of ‘trained’ transcriptions in the early 2020s hovers around 95%. The quality and applicability of transcription models is expected to increase in the near future and will have a profound effect on the accessibility of archives and archival research in several ways. Firstly, documents in difficult (often older, pre-humanistic) script will become accessible to read for researchers with fewer palaeographic skills. Secondly, the time and effort required for large-scale, quantitatively oriented archival research will be cut drastically, as entering a keyword in a search engine will render any and all results in a completely transcribed series, without having to manually leaf through any paper at all. Thirdly, it is not only quantitative research that profits – imagine a world in which all archival documents are digitised and transcribed, and ‘googling through history’ suddenly becomes a reality. Though this reality is still some time away, a tentative start has been made in the Amsterdam notarial archives, and the ability to ‘google’ through the transcriptions of half a million deeds (and counting) is very much here.Search engine for the CLCL-generated transcriptions of the Amsterdam Notarial Archives, accessed 2 September 2021, https://transkribus.eu/r/amsterdam-city-archives/#/.

Perhaps Amsterdam and its archives are not the first place one would think of to look for pieces of Mediterranean history. However, the extensive historical connections between Amsterdam and the Mediterranean, especially in demographics, business and trade, have left their traces, with the notarial archives of Amsterdam leading the charge. Traditionally held back in accessibility and usability through sheer size, thanks to two projects geared towards improving digital access to the archives, a wealth of new historical data on the Amsterdam-Mediterranean relationship is continuously being uncovered. With cutting-edge tools at our disposal, this is only the beginning: the future of the past is here.