Roelof van Gelder, is a Dutch historian, former editor of NRC Handelsblad and a specialist in the field of Dutch cultural history and maritime history. In 2018 he published: Dichter in the Jungle (A Poet in the Jungle), the biography of the officer in the Scots Brigade John Gabriel Stedman (1742-1797). Stedman is best known for his book: A Narrative of a Five Year’s Expedition against the revoltes negroes of Surinam (London 1796). This book is renowned for its many engravings, partly made by William Blake.
Roelof van Gelder’s book was awarded the Libris History Prize 2018.
Question: What motivated you to write this biography?
Van Gelder: I have always been interested in Dutch overseas history, in the East and West Indies. Ego documents have also always intrigued me, i.e. letters, diaries, memoirs of people from the past. I’ve published a lot about that and that’s how Stedman came into view. In a London antiquarian bookshop I once bought a remarkable book about Stedman from 1962. It described his life fragmentarily on the basis of his diaries, childhood memories and a few letters. This is how my two areas of interest came together. And when I went looking for a real biography of Stedman, it turned out not to exist. Then I thought: I’ll write that myself.
Question: How did you work?
Van Gelder: Stedman’s diaries and also the original manuscript of his famous book A Narrative turned out to be in an American library and to have been digitized. So I was able to get started at home. Further research in the Surinamese archives and in the archives of the cities where he lived added much to this.
Question: What’s new in your book?
Van Gelder: First off, this is the first full biography about Stedman. There was a fictionalized biography and you had the aforementioned antiquarian book. You also had the introduction to the publication of the first draft of Stedman’s book by the anthropologist couple Richard and Sally Price.
Second, my book goes into much more detail on many aspects of Stedman’s life than the above books do, drawing on many more sources. As a result, his childhood years, his life in the Scots Brigade and his attitude towards slavery are better portrayed.
Question: How was that?
Van Gelder: Stedman was exceptional because he had a deep interest in all aspects of Suriname. That is why he wrote about history, geography, flora and fauna and of course about the different population groups, including the slaves. At first he knew nothing about it, but gradually he began to see through that odious system. He knew slaves personally and was friendly with them, also learned their language. He entered into an intimate relationship with a young slave, Joanna, with whom he had a son. I think he disapproved completely of the slavery system, but he couldn’t just write that down. He had become an officer in the British army when he wrote his book. And abolition was then suspicious, revolutionary and anti-government.
Question: How do you judge his life?
Van Gelder: He started his life as an ensign in the Scots Brigade and developed there as a rake, a fighter, an adventurer and a practical joker who was always in trouble with money. In his Surinamese years (1772-1777) he repented and back in the Netherlands he started a more civilized life. He married a Dutch woman and in 1784 he left for England, now in the service of the British army. There he turned out to be a semi-intellectual who incorporated many quotes from famous authors in his book.
Question: Was his life successful?
Van Gelder: Stedman had two great ambitions: he wanted to get a high rank in the British army and become a famous writer. He succeeded in both ambitions, but at the last minute of his life. A year before his death, in 1796, he became a lieutenant colonel and in the same year his book was published.
My book is a great success in the Netherlands; it was awarded the Libris History Prize 2018. I hope an English publisher is interested in an English edition. After all, Stedman’s life is also English and Scottish history.
Roelof van Gelder: Dichter in de jungle. John Gabriel Stedman (1742-1797) (Amsterdam 2018); 380 pages, illustrated, published by: AtlasContact.