blog | werkgroep caraïbische letteren
Posts tagged with: Pos Margaretta

A trip down memory lane: Shadows in Suriname by Margaretta Pos

door Michiel van Kempen


Een magische trip down memory lane: dat was voor mij Shadows in Suriname van de Australische auteur Margaretta Pos. Voor wie het niet weet: Margaretta Pos, journaliste in ruste, is de oudste dochter van schrijver Hugo Pos, kind uit zijn eerste huwelijk, toen hij zelf in het Verre Oosten werkzaam was bij de berechting van oorlogsmisdadigers na de Tweede Wereldoorlog. read on…

Shadows in Suriname by Margaretta Pos

Some places stay in the shadows. Suriname is such a place. Located on the northeast shoulder of South America, this once rich, now poor, former Dutch plantation colony is little known. Its people are a complex mix, descended since the 17th century from African slaves, Dutch Christians, Portuguese Jews, indentured Asians, and indigenous Amerindians. read on…

Racism: A History

“Africans are items for trade”. Dat zegt James Walvin, hoogleraar geschiedenis aan de universiteit van York in de serie ‘Racism – A History’. Is de economie ook de drijfveer achter racisme? De driedelige BBC-serie onderzoekt de oorsprong en gevolgen van racisme wereldwijd door de eeuwen heen. Vanaf woensdag 27 februari, wekelijks op Holland Doc 24.  

Aflevering 1: The Colour of Money   De eerste aflevering onderzoekt de opvattingen over menselijke verschillen in de geschriften van de belangrijkste filosofen en historici uit de geschiedenis: van Aristoteles tot Immanuel Kant. Welke gevolgen heeft het Oude Testament gehad voor de ontwikkeling van het idee van ‘ras’ in Europa? Het programma toont ook de oorsprong van racisme in de geschiedenis van de slavernij en de vestiging van Europa’s eerste kolonies in Amerika.      

Aflevering 2: Fatal Impact   De aflevering ‘Fatal Impact’ concentreert zich op racisme als wetenschap. Gezien als een geloofwaardig wetenschappelijk concept om theorieën aan te verbinden, uitgevonden in de 19e eeuw. Met dergelijk pseudo-wetenschap werd ondertussen de weg vrijgemaakt voor het principe van ‘raciale hygiëne’, een van de ideeën die zouden dienen om genocide in de 20e eeuw te rechtvaardigen, met name de Holocaust.      

Aflevering 3: A Savage Legacy   De derde en laatste aflevering onderzoekt de gevolgen van racisme in de 20e eeuw. Met aandacht voor de raciale slachtingen in Belgisch Congo, maar ook voor de geïnstitutionaliseerde vormen van racisme zoals uitgedrukt in de apartheid van Zuid-Afrika en de rassenscheiding op scholen en bij sociale voorzieningen in Amerika. En wat is er veranderd vandaag de dag?      

Uitzending aflevering 1:
Wo 27 feb 2013 – 20.26 uur
Do 28 feb 2013 – 08.52 uur
Vr 1 mrt 2013 – 17.00 uur

Margaretta Pos uit Hobart schrijft ons over de bovenste afbeelding van een schilderij: The image beneath the heading of this post about a BBC series, has a  caption beneath: “Africans are items for trade.” They are not  Africans, they are Tasmanian Aborigines. This is an Australian
colonial oil painting by Benjamin Duterrau, called The Conciliation. It was painted circa 1840 and hangs in the Tasmanian Museum and Art  Gallery in Hobart. (Indeed, if you look carefully, you can see a  kangaroo in the painting).

Duterrau was born in London of Huguenot descent. He arrived in Van Dieman’s Land, as Tasmania was then called, in 1832 aged 65, and spent  the next ten years depicting Aborigines. His most famous painting is  The Conciliation.

The subject of it was Methodist preacher George Augustus Robinson’s mission to persuade surviving Aborigines to leave Tasmania for  Flinders Island in Bass Strait. The picture is of Robinson in the centre of a group of Aborigines, with two dogs and a kangaroo together  to suggest harmony. (There were no dingos in Tasmania, as on mainland  Australia). The removal of the Aborigines was a disaster – most died on Flinders Island and the settlement was abandoned.

I don’t know how this painting came to represent the African slave  trade, but I hope you will add a rider to the post to correct it.

Margaretta Pos – Galibi

The open boat drifted in to shore under cover of darkness and slipping over the side, we waded onto the beach in French Guiana. I didn’t have a visa, or even my Australian passport with me, so I was entering French territory in South America illegally but I didn’t think about it.

I was thinking about my father.

It was June, when the sea turtles make their annual pilgrimage to the equatorial region to lay their eggs and we went ashore silently for fear of disturbing them. We had crossed the Marowijne River from Galibi, in Suriname, at its vast mouth into the Atlantic Ocean. It took an hour in one of the big, motorised canoes that ply the river, with the boatman cutting the engine for a quiet landing. There were no life jackets. Not that it really mattered, I told myself, because of the possibility of piranhas lurking beneath the surface of the water. Even scarier was the thought of one of my father’s stories, of being in a canoe when a huge, plate-sized tarantula materialised from under an empty seat.

My father, Hugo Pos, had visited Galibi in 1975 when in Paramaribo for the former Dutch colony’s independence celebrations. Finding it overwhelming, he left the capital for Albina, a small town on the Marowijne where he’d enjoyed family holidays before leaving his homeland for Holland. It was the perfect place to escape from the hullabaloo, and about which he was to write: Albina was, as I had known it always, peaceful, sunny, imperturbable, with just a little life happening by the riverbanks, where Indian and Bush Negro boatmen moored or prepared for a new journey along the river.

He couldn’t relax however, and engaged an Indian boatman for an expedition to Galibi, planning to spend the night there on a coconut plantation. Once highly productive, he found it badly run down but was welcomed politely, if unenthusiastically, by the couple living in the manager’s house – Marinus and Louise – who offered him a drink.

He raised his glass to the country’s independence and his hosts gave him a strange look: ‘The Indians,’ Marinus started to say, but nothing followed. Talkative they were not. I had to guess what they wanted to say. It could be that their words had no meaning, that the emptiness of their existence in this decaying plantation had also settled on their use of words. Again Marinus started. ‘The Indians,’ but again he stopped. Did he want to say that between the Indians and the recent declaration of independence there was an unbridgeable chasm? … My ears were still ringing with the big words and speeches I had heard in Paramaribo. It was all nation building, national brotherhood, and nation above all.

Three decades later, I knew the future had not fulfilled its promise of national brotherhood, but I was focussed on my father’s story and my initial destination of Albina. It was the wet season and we jolted along the pot-holed, waterlogged dirt road in a battered old mini bus until we reached our lunch stop, when it teemed with rain and delayed our departure. One of the others on the same expedition pulled out a paperback. To my astonishment it was a copy of one of my father’s books, De Ongewisse Tijd- Uncertain Times – and in it was his story about Galibi.

“I’m his daughter,” I said.

I explained that I was born in Tasmania during his short-lived, post World War II marriage to my Australian mother. In turn, my fellow traveller was astonished and we embraced, delighted by the coincidence of our journey together in the author’s footsteps.

There is a photo of my father on the back cover, taken in Albina. On the front, there’s a photo of a rusting, tin shanty next to a billboard: Bienvenue au Suriname. Welcome to Suriname … but for anyone crossing the river from French Guiana, it’s a dispiriting scene.The photos were taken in 1997 when Hugo returned to Albina after an absence of more than twenty years, after the civil war that had killed the early promise of nationhood. It was after this trip that he wrote the Galibi story, in which he said: There is nothing left of Albina. The village will be rebuilt eventually, but the picturesque waterfront will not be there.

A decade later, I am there and Albina is a sprawling shantytown. But he is dead and I cannot tell him.

The market was in full swing with local produce and cheap goods from China, made by the poor for the poor for the benefit of someone else. It was a shock to find ubiquitous Chinese goods flooding into this small town known to few and I was glad to find a stall selling the hats favoured by both Creoles and Bush Negro women – descendants of slaves who escaped into jungle – made from brightly coloured, starched cloth, folded and pinned in an African style. I rejoined my companions wearing a hat and one of our group took a photo of me with my father’s book, before a downpour washed out the starch and the fabric flopped over my eyes, shutting out the squalor of his once beloved retreat.

We went from Albina to Galibi by motorised canoe, arriving at dusk when the mosquitoes were humming a vengeful song. We slathered ourselves in tropical-strength repellent high in toxic diethyleoliame, but it was better than being bitten at Warana Lodge, where we shared small, hot, airless bedrooms, each with two hard, narrow beds.

Dinner was prepared by local villagers and served by Hubert, our Carib Indian guide, who surprised us by saying he had a two-year old daughter in Paris. A French anthropologist had spent a year in the region studying local customs, particularly musical traditions and his daughter, a dancer, had come on a visit and stayed for several months. Hubert had little education, but like many Indians on the Suriname side of the Marowijne who criss-cross the river, he could speak some French and they became friends, then lovers. When she returned to Paris, she had given birth to a child. He planned to visit them; they might marry, he might even stay in France.

Hubert spoke animatedly about his daughter, of how she would be brought up with two cultures. He was tall, lean and handsome and I imagined him falling in love with the dancer and she with him. The child must be beautiful and I asked to see a photograph of her. To my surprise, Hubert fell silent before saying he had none with him. Lying on my bed that night, under a mosquito net with holes in it, I wondered if the child would visit her father’s village when she grew up, just as I was visiting my father’s country. But as I drifted off to sleep, my thoughts returned to my father’s story, to Marinus and Louise, and I wondered about their lives in this remote place.

Remote as it was, Galibi was an Allied intelligence post during World War II. Suriname is rich in bauxite, needed in the United States for the wartime production of planes for the Allies. French Guiana, however, was under the Vichy regime and provided a base for German raiders deployed in the Atlantic to sink the bauxite cargo ships. A few brave men risked their lives in crossing the river, to pass on information gleaned about German shipping movements. One who dared was a fearless, handsome young man called Jean Christophe. What fate eventually befell him, Marinus and Louise told my father, they didn’t know, but when they had a longed for child, they named him Jean Christophe.

The conversation moved on. It was the wrong season, but my father said he hoped to return one day to see the turtles laying their eggs in the sand.

“The warana,” Louise whispered. The sea turtles.

“Jean Christophe.”

Walking up to the house from the river, my father had seen a tombstone in the garden:

Mort pour la defense des tortues

Friend of the turtles

God save his soul

When Louise whispered ‘Jean Christophe,’ he realised the inscription was for their son. Their beloved only child. And at the mention of his name, a torrent of words poured from their lips. They talked animatedly about their son, who grew up with the local Indian children. When he was older, the boy daily crossed the river to French Guiana to go to school in St Laurent and became fluent in French. He developed an intense interest in the natural world and read books in French on the subject which they bought him and which they showed my father with pride, books they themselves were unable to read.

The boy spent many nights with the Indians on the beaches on either side of the mouth of the river. They collected turtle eggs, to eat and to sell, while he tried to protect the eggs, from them and from their dogs. And when the eggs hatched, he tried to help the baby turtles reach the sea, shocked that the mother turtles had so carelessly abandoned their eggs. Tragically, he met an unknown fate. It was thought that he swam too far into the ocean while shepherding baby turtles to safety and was killed by sharks. His body was never recovered but fishermen caught some of his luxurious, curly hair in their nets and gave it to his grieving parents, who buried it beneath the headstone.

“He must have been a wonderful boy,” my father said to his parents. “May I see a photograph of him?”

They fell silent. The atmosphere was so highly charged that with a gesture of regret, my father left the house and spent the night on the beach where mosquitoes feasted upon him. Penance, he thought, as he wondered why they were so upset. He had wanted to see a photo of the boy to bring him to life. He came to the conclusion that for them, to produce a photo of their son would have the opposite effect; it would not be an affirmation of life but proof of his death.

When my father returned to Galibi in 1997, Marinus and Louise were dead. Walking around the grounds he noticed the tombstone for their son was gone and asked the elderly Creole woman living in the derelict house what had happened to it. She was astonished: Their son? Where did you get that idea! They had no son. In a flash, he realised that in their loneliness, they had invented a son, an extraordinary, special, unique child. And he understood that in asking to see his image, he was the unintentional cause of his death.

I imagine that Marinus and Louise, after my visit, because of a simple question, were confronted with the unreality of his existence and removed the tombstone, and maybe even threw it into the river. This was a completely different kind of death, so complete that it dragged away the whole of Marinus and Louise’s past existence. For them, there was no more Jean Christophe, life with him was over; so was theirs. I, who was the cause of his death, am now the only person who can make his life continue … not with a memorial headstone, but as a presence, on the beaches of Galibi, with the turtles.

When he finally saw the turtles, which he did on this visit, he refrained from taking any photographs. He couldn’t. It would be sacrilege, he thought, given what had happened. Instead, he wrote a story, in which to bring Jean Christophe to life.

Without the burden of Jean Christophe’s ghost, I took a lot of photographs.

The turtles were laying their eggs on the French side of the Marowijne and we rose early to get there before dawn. It was cool and clear and we passed the twinkling lights of St Laurent that seemed to reflect the wondrously starlit sky. Arriving at our destination, we waded ashore and waited. Suddenly, a huge leatherback turtle rose out of the water and with rowing motions of her front legs, laboured up the beach and began digging in the sand. After the effort exerted in making a hole, the turtle went into a trance before laying her eggs. Coming out of it, she covered the hole with sand, again with the strange rowing motion, and headed back into the Atlantic. As the dawn shimmered over us, dozens of turtles heaved themselves out of the water and up the beach, repeating the same ancient ritual.

To my horror, a pack of village dogs burst onto the beach, barking in excitement whenever they found a nest, digging frantically and devouring the eggs. At the same time, a party of French scientists suddenly appeared from a village just out of sight. They ignored the dogs, erected a transportable pulley system and when a turtle went into a trance nearby, they moved swiftly. A needle was inserted into her to withdraw a phial of blood for research, she was measured; the flap in front of her pouch was opened and the eggs, and there were dozens, were removed by a scientist lying on the beach behind her. The lifting device was then placed over her, a harness fitted and she was winched into the air. The scales recorded 435.6 kilos. Lowered to the ground, she came out of her trance and returned immediately to the sea.


One of group had a questionnaire in case of meeting eco tourists on the beach, of which we were the only ones, and he approached me. He was young, earnest and handsome, twenty years old, with thick, curly hair. Studying at the Sorbonne, he had volunteered for the project and had fallen in love with the turtles. Such extraordinary, prehistoric creatures, contemporaries of the dinosaur, he told me passionately. Endangered ancient mariners roaming the seas; he wanted to do what he could to help them, to save them for generations to come.

The questionnaire was straightforward. Name? Where did I come from? How old? Where did I hear about the nesting beaches? How had I got there? Had my guide told me flashlights were prohibited? That I couldn’t touch the turtles? There were other questions in the same vein and I answered them all, enamoured by his passion, wanting to help him but glad he hadn’t asked if I had a visa.

“Thank you,” he said.

I asked his name.

He gave me a dazzling smile.

“Jean Christophe.”


When I was home again in Hobart, I had my photos printed and spread them all out on a table.Albina. Galibi. Hubert. The group. The river. The beach. The turtles. The French scientists. The bucket of turtle eggs.

Suddenly, my heart skipped a beat.

There before me was a series of a young man, standing beside a turtle, bending over her and crouching protectively beside her as she laid her eggs in the sand.

It was Jean Christophe.

There are three more photos in the sequence.In one, he is crawling beside the turtle as she lumbers back towards the water. In the next, he is swimming beside her. And in the final picture, there is just the sea. He is gone.


Hugo Pos, De Ongewisse Tijd (Uncertain Times), In de Knipscheer Publishers, Haarlem, The Netherlands, 1999. The short story, ‘De Stranden van Galibi’ (The Beaches of Galibi), translated from Dutch into English by Goshwin Pos.

Margaretta Pos – Letters

It was my eighth birthday and my mother was reading the first letter I received from my father. I was in bed with her and my elder brother and sisters from her first marriage, and squirming with embarrassment, I dived under the bedclothes.

My congratulations with your eighth birthday. I do hope that it will be a fine day, as splendid as it was when you were celebrating your first birthday. Ask your mother about it; you were having a nice little party and you looked exactly as a princess ought to look. It is a pity that Dutch Guiana is so far from Tasmania, otherwise I could make a little trip and come to your birthday. Anyhow, love to you, your mother, Roy, Angela and Dimity, and a kiss from your Daddy.

I have eighteen letters from my father, Hugo Pos, written between my eighth and seventeenth birthdays. Some were from Paramaribo in South America where he lived, but most were posted elsewhere, from The Hague, St Maarten, New York, Miami, Curacao. There are postcards too, from Jamaica, Milan, Rome and the Lascaux caves in France. I loved the one from Jamaica, of Fire Eating Pete, an exotic figure in brightly coloured clothes, a maraca in either hand, blowing rings of fire out of his mouth as he danced on the beach. The message on the back says my father wasn’t visiting Jamaica, that his plane had stopped there for twenty minutes. Like anyone away from home, he sent postcards to his family – including his distant daughter.

The first postcard arrived when I was a toddler. My father was in Amsterdam; I was in England with my mother. They were in the process of getting divorced, after which my mother and I returned to Tasmania and he to Dutch Guiana, as Suriname was then called. The postcard was ‘The Dreamer’ in the Rijksmuseum, Maes’ painting of a beautiful, contemplative young woman. He wrote on the back: I have not been to the museum lately but this card serves only to remind you of my existence, efforts and hopes. Love Hugo. It was addressed to me, but I was only two and perhaps the message was for my mother. I remember him once telling me that you should never write anything that can’t be read by others, but you can write in such a way that only the person for whom it is intended will understand what it is you want to say.

Postcards aside, letters were rare until I was about twelve, by when I had started writing to him and thereafter he wrote more often. I remember writing the first letter, starting ‘Dear Daddy’ because I thought I should even if it seemed very strange. In one letter from The Hague, he said his mother had just celebrated her 79th birthday in Paramaribo, and he asked for a recent photograph. As she is your grandmother, I should like to show her your picture. And I myself am quite curious too, to know and find out what my Australian daughter looks like. Please, send me one! My mother sent some photos and a letter arrived from St Maarten in the Netherlands Antilles, saying he felt a little embarrassed when he saw them because I looked so different from the small child he remembered. We sent some more and he wrote again, saying it would be impossible for me to understand how much he enjoyed them.

My father remarried soon after the divorce, my mother some years later. Time passed and she wasn’t sure how many children he had, so I wrote to ask him. The post was delivered to our country home three times a week and we collected it from a box on the farm gatepost about a kilometre from the house. I remember the day a letter arrived with photographs of three children. And I remember being surprised: all my Australian brothers and sisters were fair, but I had black hair like my father. While the youngest of this unknown family in Dutch Guiana was fair, the elder two had my black hair. Staring at the photos, I could see the stamp of my father’s genes on us.

Growing up in a big family – in her third marriage my mother had four more children – I couldn’t imagine any other life, nor did I hanker for one. I had no idea why my parents had separated and I wasn’t curious. Whenever the subject of my father came up, my mother always said nice things about him – that he was very clever, a lawyer who wrote poetry and plays – while my grandmother said she had liked him because he made her laugh. My grandmother had a great sense of humour and when she was really amused would rock with infectious laughter, so this was high praise. When she died, my father wrote to say how much he had enjoyed her company. Tell your mother I was really deeply touched when I received the news.

While I was always eager to get his letters, I didn’t miss my father. Like Fire Eating Pete he was a figure from another world and it wasn’t one in which I had any real interest. My world revolved around my mother, stepfather, my brothers and sisters, around relatives and family friends. My cousin Felicity had a faraway father too, if not so foreign as mine since he was English, and it didn’t seem strange to have a parent living in South America. Decades later, after my father died in Amsterdam while I sat at his bedside with his Dutch family, Felicity was at the airport to meet me when I came home. Her father had died in England not long before and she understood what it was like to come home but to feel alone.

My life was centred on my home at Nile in Tasmania, summer beach holidays at my grandmother’s old cottage at Falmouth on the east coast and boarding school; first as a weekly boarder in Launceston and then as a full-boarder in Melbourne on the Australian mainland. I didn’t like school but nothing awful happened to me although I was often in trouble and frequently homesick. Toorak College was a private girls school with daygirls and boarders. On Sundays we went to nearby churches, either Church of England, which I attended, or Presbyterian, while one girl went to a Roman Catholic Church with a Catholic member of staff. It wasn’t a church school but a Latin grace was said before meals, while there were hymns and Bible readings at assembly every school-day morning.

There was nothing exceptional in this for the time but looking back, the boarding house was Dickensian. We slept in dormitories open to the weather on one side, with canvas blinds to pull down when it rained and canvas bedspreads to keep our beds dry. We weren’t allowed hot water bottles in winter, which could be bitter, although bed socks were permitted. It was only an hour by plane between Tasmania and Melbourne and I was able to go home in the school holidays – unlike my father. When he was fourteen, his parents sent him on the three-week sea voyage from Paramaribo to Holland to go to school, and then to Leiden University, the oldest university in The Netherlands, to study law. It was seven years before he returned home. During this time his mother visited him, and his older brother, twice, but he didn’t see his father again until he was twenty-one. When I saw my father again, after an absence of fifteen years, I had no memory of him at all.

Everyone I knew was of white, British, Protestant descent and I rarely saw anyone different. I don’t think I saw an Aborigine, I don’t remember seeing anyone Indian or African, I didn’t know any Jews and didn’t know my father was one. The only Asians I came across were at the Chung Gon green grocer in Launceston, although the family was second and third generation Australian, and at the Kan Hoy café where very occasionally we had sweet and sour pork. We rarely had pork at home, or beef; chicken was a treat, usually as a roast for Sunday lunch, geese were for special occasions such as Christmas Day, while we ate mutton almost daily. We had a flock of old sheep my stepfather called the Killers and these were slaughtered, hung and quartered on the property – the workmen getting a quarter every week. Far from hating mutton, I regret now that butchers stock only lamb, which I find tasteless by comparison.

We had fowls, geese, ducks – the last were more like pets and we couldn’t eat them – fruit trees and a vegetable garden, with milk, cream and butter from our cows. We had fish sometimes, which we caught, and occasionally eels that were hooked by deadlines left overnight in the river. Our wool growing property was on a plain with mountains to the east and west; it was and is a beautiful landscape and I would go for long rides on my horse. It sounds idyllic but there were tensions: my mother had eight children over twenty years with three different fathers and while we weren’t poor there were financial strains and my stepfather was an alcoholic. My mother didn’t have an easy time but I wasn’t troubled; I felt cherished and enjoyed living in the country and being in the middle of a big family.

One day a Chinese girl from Singapore arrived at school as a boarder and this was the first time I got to know anyone from a foreign culture. We were asked to help her settle in and told she might have difficulty adjusting; for example, she might not know how to make her bed. It was true – but only because she had servants who made it for her at home. Fluent in English, she was a sophisticated girl the like of whom I had never met and she must have wondered why her parents were paying a lot of money to send her to such a primitive place. In my last year, a second Chinese girl arrived. Several years later, a new boarding house was built with central heating and today all the boarders are from Asian countries, the Chinese New Year is celebrated and at weekends, the girls are encouraged to cook dishes from their home countries and invite their Australian school friends to dine with them.

In one of his letters my father wondered how I would like his country where he was Attorney General and where his family had lived for generations as my mother’s had in Tasmania. Given I knew only people of British origin, with the exception of the two Chinese girls, his was an unimaginable world. I am living in Paramaribo, the capital, where about 100,000 people live. You’ll find here all races; the original Red Indians, Negroes, the former slaves, whites, Javanese from the island of Java, Indians from India, Chinese and the most remarkable mixtures you can imagine. It is very interesting and if, later on, you might be interested in ethnology, sociology or anthropology, you’ll find here a wonderful working field.

Until my last year at school I hugged a big secret to myself – my father’s existence.

After their divorce my mother had resumed her previous married name, Gatenby, which I assumed and kept after she married for a third time. Her first husband was killed in 1942 in World War II in action against the Japanese in Timor and although he couldn’t have been my father because I was born in 1946, no one ever questioned it at school. Of course, it was no secret in Tasmania but the truth didn’t cross Bass Strait, over which I flew to school in Melbourne, and if a letter from my father arrived at home during term time, my mother would take it out of the envelope and send it to me under cover of one of her weekly letters.

I once confided in a school friend that my father wasn’t who she thought he was, that he was alive, and that he was a Dutchman. In my final year – after it was decided that I would visit him when I left school – I revealed the truth. No-one was more surprised than the girl in whom I had confided.

“I thought you said your father was a dustman,” she exclaimed.

I realised then that it was a measure of her friendship that she had kept my ghastly secret.

My father’s letters gave me glimpses of other worlds when his work took him away from Dutch Guiana. On one occasion, when returning to Paramaribo from Holland, he was delighted that his cargo ship was approaching Guadeloupe and Martinique in the French Antilles. He was glad to have left the cold European winter behind, having stayed longer than he had intended because he had been offered a temporary position as a judge in a Netherlands Appeal Court amongst, he said, very old and learned gentlemen, who were very friendly but not very gay. And then, just a couple of days before I left Holland, I delivered a lecture at my old university of Leiden, where I once studied as a law student. There were still a few of my old professors left and I was quite thrilled to see them sitting in the audience.

After a conference about the cultural relationship between the Netherlands and former colonies, there was a letter from St Maarten. I didn’t know anyone who had been to the Caribbean and I had never heard of St Maarten but it was, he wrote, one of the nicest islands in the region with a sea that is green and blue and carries a cool breeze over the beaches. St Maarten is one of the so-called Leeward Islands and has a Netherlands and a French part. To make it more intricate, the people all speak English, in the way the West Indians speak it, slow and rolling their words.

In Washington to attend an Interpol congress, he wrote about the American presidential election between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Until now foreign affairs were never a real issue for the election of a president, people were more interested in local problems and did not bother much about political questions. But now all they are talking about is Russia and China and Cuba and Latin America. It was really fun in a way. I also noticed that men are not wearing loud ties any longer; the American nation gets serious it seems.

My father always began with the date, but never the year and it’s only through references such as to the American election that I can properly date his letters. They are both philosophical and personal, yet with little that is private about his life, work, his parents, his wife or children. Nevertheless, they say much about him. Congratulating me on my sixteenth birthday, he wrote: Apart from the framed photograph of you which I have on my desk, I have to fall back on my old and rather weak memory of what you were really like. For you it will be more difficult. There is a man somewhere in the Guianas, rather thin, rather bald, with glasses and the more or less forlorn look of an intellectual, whose English is not as good as it used to be and who does not like writing. Writing letters I mean … for in those letters you often want to communicate something that is precious to you to the other, the receiver of the letter, and nothing is harder than to express really and truly your inner feelings.

This is typically Hugo, from the humorous picture of himself to the desire to express his inner feelings. I found it a little embarrassing because it was so different from the British tradition in which I was raised, that of keeping one’s feelings to oneself and as a child I was unaware that I was more akin to him in nature than I knew. For the rest of his life he would continue to write letters in this personal but philosophical vein, all of which I kept. When we were together it was different: he would talk with candour, perhaps because I had no role in his daily life.

My father often expressed a wish for us to be able to see each other. Despite being safely anchored in Tasmania with my mother, I also wanted to see him and there are several letters about a reunion, with one suggestion, when I was fourteen, that I might go to school in Holland when he was on leave. I’m not sure what happened, but I didn’t go. In December 1962, however, he wrote to say he was going to Holland for eight months on extended leave the following August, during which time he would seek a permanent appointment as a judge. If successful, he and his family would settle there. Either way, as I was leaving school in December 1963, it would be the perfect opportunity for me to visit him.

I think it will be good for both of us to meet again, after all these years of separation … I have been looking forward to this for many years … I want us to know each other and enjoy each other’s company … to walk and talk and laugh together … We can explore the Low Countries together … the only thing I worry about is that you might have too high an expectation of our life in Holland. It is very simple and probably far more sober than you are used to in Australia.

Reading his letters again after so many years, I am struck by his view of me as the lost child, rather than the distant daughter.

In July1963 he wrote from Curacao. He was on his way to Caracas on a work related trip, from where he would go by Italian boat to the south of France and then take a train to Holland to join his family who had gone ahead. He had paid for my return airline ticket and I was going to join him in February 1964: It will be a great experience. Don’t get nervous about it. Let us meet … an almost lost father and his young daughter from another continent. It is something worthwhile, something to look forward to.

I wasn’t to know that he hadn’t discussed it with his wife. He had written to her when she was already in Holland and told her I was coming to join them. I didn’t know their relationship was volatile and my arrival would cause another fissure, one into which I was going to drop like an innocent abroad.

There was a flurry of letters before I left. In November: It is no use to worry too much about the things to come, it is more or less like a great adventure for both of us. I always wanted to see you again, but Australia being so far away and I not being rich, made it seem almost impossible. In December: This will be an adventurous year for you, to leave the well known background for awhile and to meet your almost unknown father, who feels very old since he – rather suddenly to his idea – became fifty. In February, just before I left: Are you nervous? I am not. Love, a good trip and a happy landing, from your father, Hugo.

Apart from that first postcard, he had signed most of his letters as ‘Daddy’, but my mother had always referred to him as Hugo, and while I thought of him as my father, I didn’t think of him as Daddy. This letter was signed ‘Hugo,’ and from then on I called him Hugo.

He wasn’t alone in being given a new name. I had a nickname, Puffi, by which I had been known by everyone since I was a baby. Two months before we met, he wrote to say that he thought it sounded too childish and suggested he call me Margaretta. I didn’t mind because I had a bigger problem, one he knew nothing about: my surname. For ten years I had gone by another man’s name, but now, I was going to meet him. Who was I? It wasn’t a metaphysical question but a practical one.

The first time I wrote my real name – and sealed my identity – was when I applied for a passport. And with one signature, Puffi Gatenby, aged seventeen, became Margaretta Pos.

  • RSS
  • Facebook
  • Twitter