The Old Normal?
As this semester comes to end, I find myself reflecting on the research I have done during my time at the VU. I spend a large part of my time reading sailing letters in the Brieven als Buit. The Brieven als Buit is a digitized archive of sailing letters that were captured from Dutch ships during the Third and Fourth Anglo Dutch Wars. Amongst the topics regularly discussed in these letters are mundane news, family updates, war, and disease.
Although not at all related to my dissertation, reading these letters gives me some insight into dealing with the current coronavirus pandemic. The emphasis on sickness and diseases figures prominently in the Brieven als Buit. I would like to share such a passage from a sailing letter written in 1780. Ephraïm Lebeke was a seafarer and wrote to his mother reflecting upon his experience travelling the seas: “We had, during the time to Berbice, no deaths; but on the home journey plenty of the ships’ crew became sick and, to great sorrow, died; the sailor Hieronimus Wouters… our master Jacobus Rotteviele and my mate Francois Stoffels… have now, with the deceased Captain Richert, four dead.”
The current challenges pale in comparison to events which transpired in the past
Ephraïm’s letter is not unique. Such sentiments are normal parts of the lives of seafarers, their lovers, and their families. The Brieven als Buit are filled with letters in which families reveal their terminally ill nature and say their final goodbyes. Indeed, arguably no historian has better captured the sheer depths of human misery which diseases on ships could cause as Marcus Rediker in his The Slave Ship: A Human History.
My research has helped put things in perspective. The numerous letters I come across evokes reflection toward my own ancestral history as diseases were the main cause of mortality among the Aztecs. My studies remind me that all of our ancestors faced worse and as bad as the current situation is, the current challenges pale in comparison to events which transpired in the past - whether that’s my history or the histories of those whose ancestors survived the Black Plague. I feel fortunate to have briefly belonged to a type of ‘naive’ generation who believed such epidemics were firmly part of the past.