The Coffee Trader

The Coffee Trader is a good book for you, a friend told me and sent me a second hand version by post. My friend was right. What a story about trade in 1659 Amsterdam, where cultures and religions vary and new ways of doing business occur in the markets. David Liss is a writer who knows the word research: he depicts the 17th century with many details of context and history. A great book!

The Coffee Trader tells about Miguel Lienzo, a Jew who lived in Portugal as a converso – a Jew converted to Catholicism – like many other Jews. However the conversos in Portugal were still facing discrimination and many had to fear for their life. So he flew to Amsterdam, at that time a safe haven for Jews. Jews in Amsterdam could practice their religion and be active in trade – although there were plenty of rules between Jews and non-Jews. That in itself is a story so interesting that it is worth to read the book for it. You’ll learn how different communities found a way to live together in a religiously and culturally divided city and have relative peace and justice; at that time, unique in Europe.

Also it is intriguing how converted Portuguese Jews rebuilt their ‘identity’ in Amsterdam. A well organised structure supported those who knew little or nothing about that identity. I particularly liked the description of a woman’s position, Miguel’s brother’s wife Hannah who was brought up in ignorance, thinking she was a Catholic and unable to read or write. In Amsterdam, she is suddenly a Jew, supposed to adhere to a religion and a people that she had learned to despice. She is not walking on that path automatically.

New for me was also the idea of a Mahamad, an 17th century authority in Amsterdam that dealt with all matters for Jews: religiously, politically and legally. Together with rich Portuguese tradesmen they supported the poor Jews, so that the Dutch in Amsterdam would not complain about a burden on their back that came with the Portuguese refugees. However, when tudescos, Jews from eastern countries like Poland arrive in Amsterdam, that attitude is less generous. Most of the tudescos are poor. Although they faced very severe persecution in eastern Europe, the Mahamad takes measures to make their life difficult in the hope that they will choose other destinations than Amsterdam. There are really surprising details about the historical context in The Coffee Trader – and by the way nothing that could not be seen today…

the coffee trader

Miguel lives in an era where tradesmen can easily become very rich or the opposite: loose everything they have. This period in Holland is called the Golden Age and brought a lot of wealth but it was risky. Miguel lost almost everything in the trade of sugar and now wants to try his fortune in a brandnew product: coffee. He wants to acquire the monopoly over this new drink that he estimates to be very promising. His strategy is breathtaking. And so is his playing field. There are so much rumours and hidden agendas around the trade market of Amsterdam that the story is a dazzling experience for the reader. It is really difficult to remember all that’s happening or has been said or might be possible. And that was exactly the reality for tradesmen in 1659 Amsterdam. How can they make their daily decisions without an excellent memory and the right focus?!

Many ethical questions come with the way business was done amid rumours and hidden agendas. Intriguing is the fact that in the end, the hidden agendas Miguel expected were exagerated. Half of them can be interpreted as misunderstandings or even imagination. An interesting lesson learned – but still, when bankruptcy is around the corner for tradesmen who do not watch their backs in the all or nothing market of 1659 Amsterdam, maybe inevitable.

handelaar in koffie

Even though The Coffee Trader appeared already in 2000, this book is of great interest also in 2020. In the light of history, these 20 years do not matter at all. Go read it if you love Amsterdam, if you love trade, if you love history, if you love Jews and the Dutch, if you love risk taking and of course: if you love coffee!
The Coffee Trader exists in Dutch under the title Handelaar in koffie.

You may also like these blogs:
Anne Frank House
Minorities in Gaziantep
Jewish Museum Warsaw context

Westfries Museum Hoorn

westfries museum hoorn

I often went to the beautiful city of Hoorn but I never visited the Westfries Museum Hoorn. That was a mistake! When I finally took the step to visit last week, I saw how beautiful it is, both the ancient building and the collection; I should have gone there before… Learn about the Dutch Golden Age, the 17th century when the Netherlands were a brandnew state, full of ambition in wartorn Europe. Enjoy the attractive presentations!

westfries museum hoorn

Westfries Museum Hoorn is like the Frisians are: it won’t easily show from the outside what is in it. I was never aware that behind the walls of the indeed beautiful ancient building, a wealth of antiquities awaits the visitors. Rooms are decorated like they were in the 17th century. The picture to the left shows a wood carving in a chimney (oak), of men catching a whale: a wonderful picture. This is in the ‘tavern’, a real nice room where you can imagine how people sat together for eating and drinking.

westfries museum hoorn

17th paintings are everywhere. The museum has got magnificent pieces and they have a lot of them. Moreover it is far less busy than museums in Amsterdam so you have all the time you like to watch them in peace and silence.
It is incredible how this 17th century ‘beginning’ country The Netherlands that was threatened from all sides, both by real ennemies like England and Spain, and by natural ennemies such as sea and rivers, built up an imperium with little means, by joining forces together and showing guts and re-thinking trade. It made cities like Hoorn thrive abundantly. Look at this wonderful painting Hoorn View by Hendrick Vroom in 1622 – admire the colours, the details…

westfries museum hoorn
westfries museum hoorn

Another painting I particularly liked is the Kitchen maid who cleanes fish in front of farm with dog by Egbert Lievenzs. van der Poel (1621-1664). It is so different from the paintings of all the important guys (Westfries Museum Hoorn has many in this kind). Ordinary life with ordinary people can be as interesting or even more than the endless row of portraits on all the other walls.

westfries museum hoorn

Now I show you some other pieces that attracted my attention. It is only a selection, to give you an impression of what to expect and indeed I was deeply impressed. Enjoy the variety of what the Westfries Museum Hoorn has to offer!

westfries museum hoorn

The best piece for book lovers: chronicles of Hoorn, published in 1740. Telling the begin and the growth of Hoorn, and in particular the events (the ‘troubles’) until the year 1630. Written by Theodorus Velius, a doctor and a well know chronicler who wrote this in 1704. You can find the tekst of the first pages (in Dutch) on this site. The 1740 version has annotations by another expert, what a joy. Imagine how they produced this, in a time that a book was printed page by page!

westfries museum hoorn

Cutting art, art produced by cutting with scissors; it was difficult to photograph because of the glass reflection as you can see but hopefully you can get a good impression. De Faem was made by Gilles van Vliet, a vinegar maker and wine merchant in Rotterdam 1686. This was only his hobby! But his work had a certain fame because of his ‘excellent curieuse pieces’. Absolutely amazing work and you wonder where someone finds the patience for this art…

Down in the cellar, a lovely niche is reserved for this wooden Maria statue. It dates from 1450 – 1500, is made out of oak, the crown is made of gold with silverthread, pearls and gemstones. A sign mentions that it is called a ‘Maria in sole’ because she stands on a crescent moon, and she is lit by the sun and the stars, as described in Johannis’ Revelations. The cellar was totally quiet when I was there; it is a good place for meditation and prayer. Two chairs in the little niche facilitate visitors to do so.

westfries museum hoorn

Also in the cellar are these tiles, deriving from a farm in Andijk, not far from Hoorn in Westfriesland, dating from 1700-1730. The whole piece forms a ‘wall heater’ and depicts biblical scenes. There are more ‘wall heaters’ in the cellar as well as other interesting tiles. So do not forget to visit the cellar – if you skipp that part of the museum, you really miss something!

Another underground treasure: this painting that is part of a large piece, a tryptich, the Hoorn Panel of Justice. It used to hang behind the judges at the wall of the court room of the old townhall and shows the assumptions of jurisdiction. Most probably several painters worked on it from 1521 – 1530 and it contains 5 stories. I loved story number 4 (on the photograph), the Verdict of Herkenbald. Herkenbald of Bourbon was very ill in his bed when he ordered that his cousin had to be locked up for assaulting a maid. His order was not followed. Therefor Herkenbald cut the throat of his cousin all by himself. Whew…. I stood there thinking what this meant for the court room and the judges that were sitting in front of this painting in the 16th century… What could be the right interpretation of this story?

westfries museum hoorn

This is one other of those incredible museum pieces. The painting dates from 1589, that is now exactly 430 years ago. And what do they show here? The Westfries Museum Hoorn does not just have the painting, it also has the original box that is depicted in the painting. Isn’t that wonderful? I stood there in surprise and believe me, it matches: the box is exactly the box that was painted 430 years ago. Little is known about the painting, the sign mentions ‘two members of the Saint Joris Guild’ – oil painting on linen. OK, so far what we can know about it. As said knowing is not always the most interesting part.

westfries museum hoorn

Another very interesting piece, the gold plated silver Bossu Goblet: I did not find this beautiful or so but it served as a trophy for Hoorn and that is intriguing. It once belonged to the Spanish admiral Maximilien de Hénin-Liétard, the earl of Bossu. In the eternally ongoing war at that time (the 80 year war) the admiral was defeated in 1573 in a war on the water (or sea) close to Hoorn. The goblet in the hands of the people of Hoorn symbolized the new power of the city of Hoorn (and Enkhuizen, also in Westfriesland) that thrived after this heavy battle against the Spanish that they won. I find it so interesting in the Westfries Museum Hoorn, that every object has a story with historical relevance.

westfries museum hoorn
westfries museum hoorn

A coffin dating from 1658: who knows how many bodies were transported in this coffin? Intriguing that it has been preserved during centuries. The four corners are decorated with silver plate angels. I did not find any further explanation about this piece (feel free to comment below!) such as until when it was used and whether it was for the rich only or also for ordinary people. However, very beautiful…

How often do you see table ware with a hare? Here they are, in different shapes and colours. I loved them! Just for the motive.
But if you like to know more, this is berretino-style faience from Liguria, Italy, 1580 – 1620. It appears that the coloured one is a local copy of the Italian work – quite a succesfull one, imo 🙂

Last but not least, I found this silver miniature, dating from 1751. The name of the maker is Arnoldus VAN GEFFEN – not really family I guess but I rarely hear my family name in this region far ‘above the rivers’ > Geffen is a village below the large Dutch rivers.
So I was happily surprised! Well done Arnoldus, I love your silverwork 🙂

You may also like these Dutch special places:
* Hilde’s House
* Adam Tower
* Anne Frank House
* Archaeological Museum Haarlem

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