The Free Negress Elisabeth
This semi-biographical novel is set in Dutch Surinam during the early 17th century, a land as exotic, brutal and utterly insane as any other slave society of the time. By accident of birth, Elisabeth is born free, with a wealthy white Dutch benefactor, who is also a de facto uncle. Uniquely, she is raised, educated and adored like a white child. Intelligent and acquisitive, she creates an import business which becomes the eventual source of legendary wealth. Although jealousy, prejudice and hatred are relentless facts of her life, what she wants more than anything is social acceptance—and the legal right to marry her white lover.
The story is meticulously researched and abundantly footnoted. The author cites much original material which had been, in succeeding centuries, swept under the (White) rug. Despite the dedication to the subject and to history, the characterization didn’t always satisfy, perhaps due to difficulties with translation. I also wished, even if it had to be fictionalized, to know more about Elisabeth’s business, and to see her more often at work upon it. While I’d recommend this to anyone interested the period or in European/Dutch colonial history, I found the larger issues raised by the story—race, religion, gender, and the inefficiency and universal degradation that afflicts a slave-owning society—to be more interesting than the characters.