An incredible connection
2020-01-15 | By Anuja Tipnis-Randive
“Like many internationals who move around, I felt somehow misplaced,” says Janine Beukes-Almeida, a volunteer at ACCESS. “Like I had forgotten where I belonged. That was until I moved to the Netherlands and began researching my family history.”
Beginning the search
“Growing up I heard stories about my family having German roots. As a white South African, I always knew I was an immigrant, but had no real idea where we were historically from,” says Janine, who grew up in South Africa and lived in Mozambique, Portugal and the UK before moving to the Netherlands in 2013. “My family had no interest in our past, and no one knew of any connection to the Netherlands. There was another story, though, that my father’s grandmother was Scottish, a piano-player, and had married a gold miner in Johannesburg.”
Inspired by that story and also by her son’s school project, Janine began looking into her family’s history. “What I discovered was so surprising and gave me an amazing connection to the Netherlands.”
Janine found the website familysearch.org and “spent that whole first weekend investigating. The deeper I dug into the past, the more it revealed itself. It was fascinating.” She uncovered ancestors from France, Germany, India, and Golden Age Netherlands, which led, finally and extraordinarily, to a student of Rembrandt.
Her investigations revealed other surprises, such as a family connection to a female Tamil slave. “To begin with, my family wouldn’t believe we were descended from slaves,” says Janine. What’s more the woman had been deported to South Africa from India as the first female VOC (Dutch East India Company) prisoner after being convicted of the murder of her lover. “I’m sure she must have had a reason for what she did,” says Janine. “But the murder report is horrific.”
Janine is fascinated by the connections between global and historical events and her family’s past. “You start to see patterns,” she says. “How occurrences in our family match things happening around the world. How populations flow for example. I also found one of my great-grandparents had been killed by the Spanish Flu in 1918, which was devastating in South Africa.”
To her family, Janine began being known as ‘the historian,’ and as her interest got deeper she joined a network of fellow enthusiasts online. She recommends investigating family histories as “it teaches you so much about life,” but cautions “we tell newcomers to our online groups, make sure you have plenty of free time. You’ll need it.”
Tracing roots back means checking through records of births, marriages and deaths, leading to surprising and unexpected discoveries. “The moment I first saw Oude Kerk in a birth record, I couldn’t believe it, it was only six kilometres from where I was sitting,” she says. Reading the 400-year-old record gave her a “bizarre feeling.”
Born in Amsterdam in 1619, Jan Victors was believed to be a student of Rembrandt van Rijn, and it is clear from his paintings that he was influenced by the great master. Jan Victors is Janine’s grandfather, 12 or 13 times generations back.
With help from Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum Janine investigated further. “They helped me a great deal,” she says, “showed me Jan’s paintings and related works from their collection, which helped me find more information about who he was and his life in Amsterdam.” Initial artistic success had allowed Victors to move from Amsterdam’s Rokin to a house he bought in the Kalverstraat. “Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to find that house,” says Janine.
However, in 1676 Victors was forced to abandon painting when, like many painters in Amsterdam, he fell onto bad times. Victors took a position as ziekentrooster (comforter of the sick), a professional nurse and cleric, with the VOC and left the Netherlands. “There was no way he could contact his parents and siblings after he left,” says Janine, “it is unimaginable in today’s world to leave your family behind knowing you’ll never be able to see them again.” However, she sees a completed circle of migration across centuries, “my family moved to the Netherlands for work, whereas Jan left to find work.” Victors’ final journey was to the Dutch East Indies in 1683, where he died from ‘unspecific causes.’ He left three children living on the Cape of Good Hope in Africa. Despite his sad ending, Janine has mixed emotions, as Victors started her roots in South Africa and also connects her back to the Netherlands. Janine has even traced the ship on which another of her ancestors left Amsterdam, and more remarkably a gable stone on a house in the city centre features a painting of it. “I love to just go and look at it,” she says. Another of Janine’s ancestors, a VOC employee and immigrant to South Africa, Jan Conrad Visser, was so unhappy in the Cape of Good Hope that he tried to stow away back home to the Netherlands, but was caught.
A sense of belonging
“After learning about my past connection to the city, I feel like I belong here,” says Janine. “Every time I visit where my ancestor lived, I feel strangely at home, as if I have found my place in the world. I’m truly at peace knowing who I am and where I come from.”
“You read about how people used to suffer, the hardships that caused them to leave everything behind and go to another country for survival and it blows your mind,” she says. Ironically, the only ancestor Janine has not been able to find anything about is the piano-playing Scottish great-grandmother. But she’s still looking.
About the author
Anuja Tipnis-Randive, originally from India, has lived in Amsterdam for four years.