(only known portrait of Willem Bosman)
Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.
When Bob Bengel and his crew drove down the overgrown access road, the dense fog started to lift from the wintry wet meadows and placid river and revealed an old, stately home with a proud facade and weather-beaten shutters. The brick was just as red as when the first stone had been laid, but the garden was overgrown with years of neglect, and the tea pavilion missed its little roof. The house was a ghostlike presence of what it had once been. Built in the eighteenth century by Willem Bosman, the house had last been used as a convalescent home for army veterans in the 1950s, but when the time came to modernize, the restoration turned out to be so costly that the province of Utrecht voted for its demolition.
The demolition, or rather, the paper work and signatures which were required to kick off that entire process, was postponed and the house sank into oblivion, exposed to the elements of weather and time: the wind played through the hallways, rain rushed through holes in the roof and the sunlight of many a season played hide and seek with the crumbling facade. Ivy and roses stifled the walls and slithered into the house through nooks and crannies. The wooden floors, once polished and shiny and manufactured from the hardest wood from Scandinavia, were pale and tired and buckled from the moisture inside the house. The ceilings peeled and the window panes were weathered to such a degree that one could barely look in or out.
Groups of high school students had trespassed and had wandered through the cavernous rooms, listening to the echo of their maturing voices. A young couple had carved a heart in the beautiful, ornate stairway and two squatters had lived in the drafty rooms during a balmy winter in the 1980s. As a reminder of their stay, they had spray-painted “Down with Beatrix and Parliament” on the wall of the living room (the “salon” in Bosman’s time).
For a moment, Monumentenzorg, the Dutch organization which preserves old buildings, had contemplated fixing up the place as the mansion had been designed by Johannes Wispel. He was famous for his Palladian architecture which he had picked up and refined in Italy. Some even called Wispel the Inigo Jones of the Low Lands. But Monumentenzorg finally declined, and the mayor in town used his veto when he learned the original resident and builder of the house was no one less than Willem Bosman, the slave trader: Wispel or no Wispel, nothing needed to be preserved, or so the mayor argued, of a house that was built with slave money.
The myopia of this decision was typical for the Dutch mentality at the time: no one denied that the Dutch had filled their ships with spices at the other end of the world, but the fact that some of those same ships had carried thousands of slaves, stacked (yes, stacked because they were considered a commodity, not people) in their holds, no one needed to dwell on. A slave house as a monument? The mayor feared fat headlines in the papers. No, he did not want that taint on his record, so for all he cared they could trash the place, flatten it and leave no trace of that cursed piece of Dutch history and evidence in his backyard.
But who was Willem Bosman exactly? Bosman was a slave trader, who, with a poor sense in taste, had called his trophy house Little Elmina after Elmina, the Portuguese slave castle and fort on the West Coast of Africa, where thousands of slaves, chained to each other, were forced through the so-called Door of No Return, to work on plantations in the Caribbean and North and South America. The original Elmina had been built in 1482 and in 1637, the Dutch had captured it, driving out the Portuguese. The Dutch would remain there until 1814. The fort still exists, rising up out of the coast of what is now Ghana. This used to be the Gold Coast but should have been called the Slave Coast, for more slaves than gold would be retrieved from the interior. And even though Elmina still stands as the oldest European building south of the Sahara, and serves as a place of pilgrimage for many African-Americans, Little Elmina had to be demolished to leave the pages of the Dutch slave trade partially unwritten.
The demolition crew walked around the house, wrestling with high weeds just as Bosman had wrestled with the jungle of Ghana on the trips he had made inland. Just like Bosman, the demolition guys were looking for things of value. Inside, the mahogany doors looked like they might be salvaged but on closer inspection, they had so much dry rot that one touch with a screw driver made them pulverize as if the wood consisted of ground coffee beans. The ivory door knobs, on the other hand, were beautiful and intact and Bob, the contractor and boss, was surprised that these hidden gems had not been plundered yet from the historic house. Bob admired the wooden staircase which depicted palm trees and ships but the small holes in this exotic landscape revealed that the staircase, too, could no longer be salvaged.
Upstairs there was more of the same: an old porcelain bedpan was collecting autumn leaves and dead moths as if it were composting the past. Here and there the rain had come through the roof with a torrential force. A large, gilded mirror over the chimney was sooty and moldy and the glass showed several cracks. One could barely call it a mirror, even though it reflected the silhouettes of the men who were in front of it.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall,” joked Jan.
“Who is the ugliest mother fucker of them all?” finished Pieter as he pushed Jan in his back.
Bob ignored the usual banter of his men and asked his son, Robert, for a ladder. When Robert barely moved, Bob explained: “The mirror’s cracked but the frame is just dirty. A thorough clean-up and you can sell the beast to an antiques dealer. It’s pretty: look at the craftsmanship.”
When the ladder arrived, Bob placed it against the wall, next to the mirror and climbed up. The mirror was high and heavy, so Bob ordered Robert and Jan to stand in front of it to maybe catch it, as he tried to loosen it from the wall from up above. Bob did this carefully at first but then asked for a crowbar and with a groan, almost human, the mirror jumped off the wall crashing onto Robert and Jan, who did not expect this at all. The mirror’s remaining glass snapped into a thousand pieces, and on the wall, where the mirror had been for all these years, there was a rectangle of bright, red damask. While Robert and Jan crawled out from beneath the mirror with pieces of glass sticking in their hair and on their overalls, Pieter scratched behind his ear with a construction pencil and said: “Right, so that kind of wallpaper you don’t see at Gamma’s anymore! Classy joint, this house!”
While Bob descended and the men looked at the wall again there was more reason for surprise, for inside the red damask rectangle there was a little mahogany door.
“He-llo!” Robert yelled with excitement.
“Bingo!” Jan said while plucking pieces of glass out of his hair, “So that’s where he hid the booty!”
The men became excited, as if they were little boys, who, upon playing in the woods, found a secret and hidden path.
In the little door, there was a key hole and right above it an ivory knob, much like the door knobs in the house.
“Jan, Robert,” ordered Bob, “See if there’s anything behind that mirror, like the key.” Bob then went up the ladder again and tried to force the little door open with a flat screwdriver.
“Shit,” Bob said, frustrated. “Sealed shut.”
But it was an extraordinary day, or rather, years later, they would tell and retell this story every time these men got together because it was as if the little door (or “safe” as Jan called it) wanted to be discovered, tired from all the years of silent neglect.
Bob thought of calling their lock smith but the guy was in Amsterdam, and he was impatient, no, burning with curiosity. At that moment Arthur walked in. He held something glistening in his palm. It was a key: a very old one, you could see that from a mile away. The men came closer and started whispering as if they were afraid of being overheard. “Man, that thing is old: look at those letters.”
“It’s… it’s a W and a B…”
“Willem Bosman, the fucker who lived here…”
Downstairs, Arthur had been going through the old, musty kitchen. With his gloved hands he had been going past the kitchen shelves… nothing… just the decomposed and dried-up remains of a rat. Dust and dirt had made him sneeze. The old iron plate with a depiction of Lady Justitia inside the kitchen hearth was salvageable and when Arthur moved it away effortlessly, his eye caught something shiny on the ground, behind the plate. The morning sun, which had broken through the cloud cover, was forcing her beams through the dirty kitchen windows and hit the shiny object as if to illuminate the find. The key shone as if it had just been polished by a dedicated scullery maid.
“Give it to me,” said Bob and grabbed the thing out of Arthur’s hand, then climbed up the ladder with the energy of a boy. With a ceremonious gesture Bob put the key in the lock. He tried to turn it, but it wouldn’t turn.
“Dang,” Bob sighed. Jan suggested the lock smith.
“How about some oil?” Pieter reached up with a small bottle and Bob sprayed the lock and key.
The key began to turn. A hush entered the room. The only audible sound, except for the mice in the walls and the wind in the chimney was the squeaking of the lock. And then there was a loud metallic pop… for a moment, Bob thought he had ruined the lock and turned the key too far, but no, the door jumped open with almost as much energy as the mirror had been launched off the wall. Bob gazed inside – he saw something white but he was nervous and had trouble concentrating.
“Flashlight,” he ordered businesslike, as if he were a surgeon. Arthur pulled a flashlight out of his belt and when Bob shone the light inside, he saw a skull. The upper half of the skull looked like it had been axed off and inside the skull there were three quills. Bob pulled the skull with quills toward him and the men stepped back in reverence of the victim of so many centuries ago. Was it an African skull? Jan took the skull with hesitation, glad he was still wearing his gloves. The men laughed nervously.
Bob looked inside once more and seemed disappointed but right at the moment where he was about to turn around, he lost his balance so, while holding the ladder with his left hand, he grabbed with his right hand at the hole in the wall whereupon the men heard a sound of sliding wooden panels. Bob looked inside, this time back in balance, and saw the safe had a hidden layer which was now exposed. At the bottom he saw vellum – old manuscript pages which had been carefully wrapped up with rope.
“Jesus Creepers,” Bob whispered.
“What? Dad, what do you see?” Robert asked.
“That guy left us a manuscript…”
“Holy shit,” Arthur said. Arthur had done Dutch Studies in college but had realized in time that a career in construction brought in more dough than being a Dutch teacher at the local high school. “Don’t tell me,” he said, “That it’s the lost play of Joost van den Vondel or the secret correspondence of Hugo de Groot when he was locked up in Loevestein.”
“Who the hell is De Groot and what is Loevestein?” Pieter teased.
“Fucking Neanderthal,” Arthur grunted.
“Shut up, you two,” Robert said; like the small boy he once was, he was mesmerized by the treasure they had just found. Bob grabbed inside and while Robert held the ladder for support, Bob descended with a manuscript as big as a phone book under his arm. Once he was on the ground, he blew away some dust and then read the title.
“Diary…” Arthur translated.
Bob stared at the old handwriting. “Written by…”
“If Bob had only brought his reading glasses…” Jan said as he put the old skull and quills on the worn floor.
Bob tried again: “Written by…it’s him, it’s him: Willem Bosman!”