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The discovery, nature, and implications of a Papiamentu text fragment from 1783 (1)

by Bart Jacobs (Leiden University) & Marijke J. van der Wal (Leiden University)

In this paper, we discuss the recent discovery of four letters written in 1783, one of which is written fully in Papiamentu, the other three comprising Papiamentu fragments. The data in these constitute one of the earliest written attestations of Papiamentu.

Curacao vlakte van hato haseth2

Curaçao, vlakte van Hato. Foto © Carel de Haseth


We first provide a brief overview of the earliest attestations of Papiamentu and then present the Letters as Loot research programme, to which we owe the discovery of the 1783 letters. Following this, the article discusses the contents of the letters and the socio-historical context in which they were written. To close, we discuss the value of this new source for Papiamentu studies.

1. Early references to and written attestations of Papiamentu
Controversial as the place of birth of Papiamentu may be, discussing whether the language developed in situ or was imported from elsewhere, scholars agree on particular historical-linguistic aspects, such as the view that the language established itself as a communication vehicle on Curaçao in the second half of the 17th century and had become the dominant speech and mother tongue among the slaves and freed slaves by the beginning of the 18th century (e.g. Kouwenberg & Muysken 1995:205; Bartens 1996:274). These assumptions are supported by several testimonies. In 1704, for instance, the German Father Alexius Schabel mentioned in his travelogue that the ‘slaves of Curaçao speak broken Spanish’ (cf. e.g. van Wijk 1958:169; Bartens 1996:248). A few decades later, in 1732, a Father Caysedo reported that, in addition to Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch, the people of Curaçao spoke ‘el idioma del país’ [‘the language of the country’] (in Hartog 1968:157). A legal deposition of 1737 mentions the use of the ‘creolse taal’ [‘creole language’] by Afro-Curaçaoans (Rupert 2012:214).


Palm escher_palm

Escher – Palm

The first explicit mention of the glossonym Papiamentu (or variants thereof) is found in a most interesting document dated 1747 and discussed in detail in Kramer (2008). The document describes the court hearing that took place in New Port (Rhode Island) in 1747, i.e. towards the end of the War of the Austrian Succession (1739-1748). The court hearing was held in order to shed light on the seizure in the same year of the Dutch ship the Jonge Johannes by an English privateer (cf. §2). The English, exceptionally at peace with the Dutch at the time (cf. Table 3), had erroneously assumed the ship to belong to Spain, a misunderstanding that appears to have been created by the fact that members of the ship’s crew spoke a language resembling Spanish. At the court hearing, a member of the ship’s crew was able to convince the court that the ship was in fact sailing under the Dutch flag and that the language spoken on board the ship was not Spanish but Papiamentu. The relevant passage of the hearing is provided below (from Kramer 2008:101):

Q(uestio)n: What Language did the People on board the Sloop Speak.
An(swer): Dutch, Spanish, and Poppemento, but chiefly Poppemento.
Q(uestio)n: Whether they commonly talk Poppemento in Curaçao.
An(swer): Yes.
Q(uestio)n: Whether you have any knowledge of any Cocoa being sent home to Curaçao in another Vessel.
An(swer): No.
Q(uestio)n: Can you speak Dutch.
An(swer): No.

Subsequent references to the use on Curaçao of ‘Papiamento’, ‘Papimento’, ‘Papiments’, and ‘Papiamentice’ are found in reports and letters by several independent observers (two clergymen, a lieutenant and two former governors of Curacao. Table 1 summarizes the earliest references to Papiamentu that we know of (cf. Hartog 1968:157; especially Rupert 2012:217, 241 and references therein).


REF: Jacobs, Bart & Marijke J. van der Wal. 2015. “The discovery, nature, and implications of a Papiamentu text fragment from 1783”. Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages. 30:1, 44-62.


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