Sometimes we are looking for inventory for the Black Hat Gallery and find interesting items which are not suitable for our gallery. During one of our searches we found an auction listing for a porcelain box. When we had a closer look at the photo, we saw the names Suriname and Paramaribo written in a beautiful long hand, which piqued our interest.The text in French says “A Son Excellence Monsieur van der Meer, Gouverneur Général de La Colonie de Suriname, Colonel de Cavallerie aus Service de Messeigrs Les Etat Généraux de Hollande et de Westfrise etc., etc, etc, à Paramaribo.”
This translates as “To his Excellency Mr. van der Meer, governor-general of the Colony of Suriname, Colonel of the Cavalry in service to the States General of Holland and West Frisia”.
There is more writing on the inside lid of the box: “Presenté par Son très-humble et très-obeissant serviteur Michel Gabriel Fredersdorff”.
This translates as “Presented by His most humble and very obedient servant Michel Gabriel Fredersdorff”.
The underside of the box is decorated as a letter with a red seal and the nr. 1.Surinam (or Suriname in Dutch) is a country in northern South America. It borders French Guiana to the east, Guyana to the west, Brazil to the south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the north. Surinam was first colonized by the British, and captured by the Dutch in 1667, who governed it as Surinam until 1954. In the 18th century, Surinam was a colony of the Republic of the United Dutch Provinces, but was run by the Surinam Society (Societé du Surinam or Sociëteit van Suriname). This was a private company, founded by the city of Amsterdam, the Dutch West Indies Company (West-Indische Compagnie or WIC) and the Van Sommelsdijck merchant family. Although each party had one vote in the Society, in practice most of the board was connected to Amsterdam’s patrician elite.The Surinam Society negotiated the sale of Surinamese products, especially sugar and coffee, but also the slave trade, on which the WIC had an official monopoly. Enslaved Africans were shipped to Surinam and then sold in the local slave market. Many were set to work on the sugar plantations, of which there were more than 500 in 1750. It is noted that there were efforts made in the late 1740s to attract more people from Western Europe to work and live in Surinam. Mr. Michel Gabriel Fredersdorff acquired a parcel of land situated on the Crommewijne River through a ‘warrand’ during 1748 and established a plantation with the name of Berlin or Berlijn. He actually never travelled to Surinam and his local business would have been handled by an administrator to act in his name.The States General of Holland and West Frisia was effectively the government of the United Dutch Provinces during the 18th Century. This authority appointed the governor-general of Surinam. The latter was assisted by a political council in which the wealthiest plantation owners were represented.Mr. Pieter Albert van der Meer was appointed as Governor-general of Surinam on March 6, 1754 and arrived in Surinam during October 1754. His daily Governor journal from that time can be accessed in the Dutch National Archives. This is a businesslike description of the daily happenings in Surinam. In 21st century eyes, it is a harrowing narration of the arrival of ships transporting slaves, slave markets, the purchase of slaves, military expeditions to recapture fugitive slaves and the attacks of fugitive slaves on plantations.The journal also contains more mundane information such as the names of arriving ships, captains and passengers as well as departures as well as the loading of cargoes. It recorded the death of locals and issues regarding the army and hospital. When an unknown ship appears in sight and then disappeared, the Governor feared a possible war with a foreign nation only to show his relief when noting down the name of the ship having arrived in Paramaribo.Only a few times does the Governor’s journal show a fleeting glimpse of the personality of Governor van der Meer. At one time he writes in the journal that he would be able to do more work if he was left alone for a few minutes. At another point in the Governor’s journal he writes “Het is onmogelijk voor een Gouverneur om alles in‘t hoofd te kunnen hebben”
(which translates as “it is impossible for a Governor to remember everything”) which suggests that he had had a trying day. He suffered his first bout of illness in February 1755 and from then on his health deteriorated until he died on Tuesday, August 24, 1756.Given the above, we can date the snuff box between 1754 and 1756.It should be noted that Governor van der Meer was also a plantation owner himself as he reportedly owned a plantation called Meersorgh.Moreover, before leaving from the Netherlands for Surinam, he was appointed as an administrator on July 4, 1754, for the plantations Nieuw Levant, La Recontre, Nieuw Mocha and Tijrhone according to a notaries act preserved within the Amsterdam city archives. These plantations were owned by Count Stephanus Laurentius Neale. The latter was an extremely rich man who was nicknamed the “richest of the rich” in Surinam, having made a large fortune there growing coffee. The latter had a close connection with the Prussian court after he was invited by the Prussian king Frederick II (later known as Frederick the Great) to run his business from Prussia. In 1750, Mr. Neale had been made a count by the king as a reward for his move to Berlin.It is very likely that Count Neale knew Mr. Michel Gabriel Fredersdorff as the latter was a highly important person at the Prussian court being a close confidante of Frederick the Great as well as his secret chamberlain/valet/treasurer and master of Frederick’s spy ring. As such it is very possible that he introduced Mr. Fredersdorff to his administrator Governor van der Meer to further his business interests in the colony.Mr. Michel Gabriel Fredersdorff met the future Frederick II, when the latter was still in prison for having attempted to run off with his lover Hans Hermann von Katte. Mr. Fredersdorff was four years older than crown prince Frederick and served in the army at that time.When Frederick moved to Rheinsberg Palace with his wife in 1736, he made Fredersdorff his valet. When he ascended to the throne in 1740, he furthermore made him his private treasurer and, within less than a month, gave him the estate of Zernikow as a present. Later he also made him director of the royal theatre. During the summer months the king moved to the Sanssouci palace, where Mr. Fredersdorff’s bedroom adjoined his own, which is still shown today. Voltaire speculated in his writing about the exact nature of their relationship, where it was also commented on by others such as the royal gardens director Heinrich Ludwig Manger.Mr. Fredersdorff reportedly was a talented amateur flautist like the king. Johan Sebastian Bach dedicated a flute sonata in E major (BW1035) to Mr. Fredersdorff, when he visited the court in Potsdam where Bach’s son had been appointed principal harpsichordist to the king.Mr. Fredersdorff was also active in business and established a silk worm farm at his Zernikow estate, owned 2 breweries and owned a merchant ship named Goose, which sailed in the Baltic.In 1753, he married Ms. Marie Elisabeth Daum, daughter of Godfried Adolph Daum, a very rich merchant banker and owner of a gun factory. The latter had provided Frederick secretly with credit when the latter was crown prince and received large orders for the production of guns during Frederick’s wars.There is room for further research as to which factory actually manufactured the snuffbox. We noted a snuffbox in the Victoria & Albert museum which is of a similar letter form. We approached the Meissen factory’s archives, but they indicated that there are no porcelain marks on the box which would allow them to identify the box.Nevertheless this little snuffbox which only measures about 7cm x 5cm by 1.8 cm is a poignant little reminder of the Netherland’s colonial past.