Visibility, Respectability, and Privacy: Black and White in 17th Century Amsterdam

Privacy involves the ability of regulating access to oneself: this is the working definition that I have been using in my historical research when I focus on bodily integrity, especially when my interest is a question of sexual, reproductive, or bodily privacy more in general. I am inspired by Margulis (1977 and 2003), whose contributions focus on sociological research questions, as well as on other authors’ contingent definitions of privacy for purposes of research in other disciplines (for example: Hughes, 2012).

For me, this working definition has been useful for historical studies because I need to attend to the fact that the concept of privacy, as we know today with its resonance as a human right, did not exist yet in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, the periods I focus on. Which does not at all mean that people then didn’t need privacy! While it is rare for me to find explicit mentions of privacy as such in my historical sources, I can most definitely find evidence of people—of all echelons of society—struggling and striving to regulate access to themselves in whatever way they could.

This brings me to more recent research questions that emerged from my research on the Sephardic Jewish community of early modern Amsterdam, the Portuguese Nation. How was the issue of visibility related to practices of privacy for a community like them?

Arriving in the city after fleeing anti-Jewish oppression and persecution in the Iberian Peninsula, the members of the Portuguese Nation were very interested in blending in among the rest of Amsterdam… in being present in the city as respectable denizens, even visibly so (some of them even managed to buy their citizenship rights), but not as a persecuted religious minority. As a community, they had scant interest in calling attention to themselves as different… at least not different in the wrong ways.

Some of the community members were very affluent; there were many merchants among them. They had servants, and some of the servants were African or of African descent. Now, I am trying to dig primary sources that could show explicit traces of the status of these servants. The Portuguese Nation seems to avoid using the word for slave in their notarial records and other archives after the second decade of the seventeenth century, possibly because of “the Dutch and Amsterdam authorities’ wish that slavery and slaves would be absent from Dutch soil, possibly to avoid controversy about the ambivalent status of slaves.” (Hondius 2011, p. 380)

In the Dutch Republic, slavery was not explicitly legal, but not explicitly illegal, either. It seems law about this was quite messy, there didn’t seem to exist any unified, straight forward body of legislation that stated that nobody was a slave. Local legislation did most of the heavy lifting. Dienke Hondius has a compelling article showing the legal and social practices that shaped the legal status of slavery in the Netherlands, including racializing legal processes that slowly contributed to congealing different privileges according to skin color. In that article, she explains that people of color in the Dutch Republic “were named and described by their skin colour as swarten and swartinnen, negros and negerinnen, and their legal status was often uncertain.” (p. 380)

Could it be that the Portuguese Nation was blending in with the local practices when they started to avoid mentioning “escravos,” adapting their language to something more acceptable when describing their servants?

One of my next projects involves exploring this and other questions related to privacy and visibility, and one particular set of community rules is my starting point, the haskamot of “20 de Tamus 5387” (1627). These rules dealt with the conversion and burial rites of “pessoas negras e mulatas” [black and mulatto people] in the Amsterdam Sephardic community. I am interested in asking how the color of someone’s skin shaped people’s practices that determined whether they could be a member of the community.

Detail of a document from 1627 written by the leaders of the Portuguese Nation regulating baptism and burial rites for people of color. Courtesy of the Amsterdam City Archives, licensed CC-BY
Detail of a document from 1627 written by the leaders of the Portuguese Nation regulating conversion and burial rites for people of color. Courtesy of the Amsterdam City Archives, licensed CC-BY

For me, rather than trying to single out the Sephardim of the Portuguese Nation to blame for racism, instead I am interested in examining how they were inserted in a whole system of belief that was in formation, and that ended up contributing to what today we recognize as racism. This system of belief racialized servitude, slowly congealing social practices into law, shaping the idea that white skin was connected to ruling and dark skin to submission. Conversely, I also look for traces where people of color resisted this process.

This is the case of Juliana, described in a notarial document as a “negerinne from Recife who came to Amsterdam with her owner the merchant Eliau Burgos sometime between 1654 and 1656 (Hondius 2011, p. 381). Once in Amsterdam, Juliana refused to follow her master in his desire to move to Barbados, causing him to protest in a notarial record. She was claiming her freedom.

My task now is to verify if, and how, the primary sources available to me relate to this hypothesis that links bodily privacy and visible signs, like skin color. I’ll let you know in a future publication!



Hondius, Dienke. 2011. ‘Access to the Netherlands of Enslaved and Free Black Africans: Exploring Legal and Social Historical Practices in the Sixteenth-Nineteenth Centuries’. Slavery & Abolition 32 (3): 377–95.

Hughes, Kirsty. 2012. ‘A Behavioural Understanding of Privacy and Its Implications for Privacy Law’. The Modern Law Review 75 (5): 806–36.

Margulis, Stephen T. 1977. ‘Conceptions of Privacy: Current Status and Next Steps’. Journal of Social Issues 33 (3): 5–21.

Margulis, Stephen T. 2003. ‘Privacy as a Social Issue and Behavioral Concept’. Journal of Social Issues 59 (2): 243–61.

‘Regulations from the Mahamad 1627[5387] Prohibiting Baptism of Blacks in the Amsterdam Sephardic Community’. n.d. Accessed 11 June 2020.