Between 1819 and 1844 Dutch navy officer Marcus Wels (1794-1865) took his album amicorum, or autograph book, with him on his travels overseas. The album is now in the possession of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague. It gives us an insight into the dynamic life of a naval officer at the beginning of the 19th century.
It is the 5th of February, 1831. A shrill, cold north-westerly wind is blowing over the river Scheldt near Antwerp and commanding officer Jan van Speijk has trouble maneuvering his ship away from the shore. Van Speijk has been stationed in the harbor of Antwerp since September 1830 with his gun-boat Zr. Ms. No. 2, fighting revolutionaries who want to separate Belgium from the recently unified United Kingdom of the Netherlands. Van Speijk cannot prevent his ship from being blown against the embankment and Belgian rebels jump aboard. In the gunpowder room of his ship, he signs his own death warrant and that of his crew, by lighting a burning cigar to a fuse and blowing up the whole ship.
Not far from the disastrous scene lieutenant Marcus Wels (1794-1865) is sailing on board the frigate Zr. Mrs. Euridice, a small battleship of the Dutch navy. Like the Zr. Ms. No. 2, The Euridice is part of the Dutch war fleet in Antwerp from 1830-1831.
The self-sacrifice of Van Speijk in the harbor of Antwerp caused great admiration in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. As a commanding officer, Jan van Speijk already had a fierce reputation before his illustrious death. It is therefore no surprise that his name can be found in the album amicorum of Marcus Wels.
Wels started to collect signatures when he was 25 years old and at the beginning of his career as a naval officer. He took his album on his sea voyages and many of his colleagues wrote a contribution in the booklet.
The curious contribution of Van Speijk in the album amicorum by Marcus Wels not only stands out because of his reputation but also because of the lack of any text, date or place. Van Speijk only inscribed the page with the text ‘Uwe Gehoorzame Dienaar J.C.J. van Speijk ‘[Your Faithful Servant, J.C.J. van Speijk].
Didn’t the impatient Jan van Speijk have the time or inclination to write a personal contribution for a colleague? Did he want to avoid the chore by quickly writing his signature? Or was this scribble the start and was he planning to add text later?
None of the above. If one investigates the paper and the signature closely, one notices that the contribution of Van Speijk has been written on different paper, paper which was mostly used for letter writing. In all likelihood, Marcus Wels managed to get his hands on a message Van Speijk had sent to the frigate Zr. Mrs. Euridice. Sometime after the heroic death of Van Speijk, Wels decided to cut out his signature and add Van Speijk’s illustrious name to his own album amicorum. The paper even has the folds which indicate its former use as a letter. This would also explain the lack of a personal contribution. Because of his celebrity status, Van Speijk’s personal effects were much sought after and Marcus Wels’ album suddenly became a treasured possession.
It is more than likely that Marcus Wels showed his album amicorum to his family and told stories about his life as a naval officer and his adventurous trips to Suriname and the Mediterranean. One can image that the sheet of paper with the signature of Jan van Speijk gave rise to an epic story about that stubborn patriotic commander in the harbor of Antwerp in 1830. It remains unclear, however, if Marcus Wels actually knew or ever met Jan van Speijk personally.
KB | National Library of the Netherlands
The blog post is a part of the Rise of Literacy project, where we take you on an exploration of literacy in Europe thanks to the digital preservation of precious textual works from collections across the continent.
Featured image: a page from an album of Marcus Wels with an illustration of a two-master at sea, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, CC0