Thursday, February 21, 2013

Women at Sea: "An Extremely Manly Woman"

For over 300 years, the lady we will speak of today was revered as, for lack of a better analogy, the Jeanne d'Arc of Holland. She was, according to contemporary if anonymous accounts, a key player in the city of Haarlem's defense against its Spanish overlords. During the siege of the town that began in the winter of 1572 and would drag on until July of 1573, Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaar fought the Spanish with the spirit of a lion. Or so it was said until a particular Victorian minded historian got a hold of her story and brought the idea of a fighting matron into question.

Kenau Hasselaar was evidently born in the city she held dear some time in 1526. Her parents, Simon Hasselaar and Grietje Koen, ran a brewery and Kenau grew up learning a great deal about business at her mother's knee. It would doubtless be to that Victorian historian's great chagrin that we are now aware of the facts about middle class women in 16th century Haarlem. Most were partners in their husband's businesses, or ran their own outright as Kenau would. Their business acumen was stellar and Dutch women gained a reputation on both sides of the Atlantic for driving a hard bargain, so to say.

Kenau grew up tough and smart. She was married at 18 to a shipwright and wood seller named Nanning Borst. It appears that Kenau jumped right in to the ship building business while also continuing to deal in grain, the best of which she funneled to her parents' brewery, no doubt at wholesale. The Borsts were blessed with four children, all of whom had reached maturity by the time Nanning died in 1562.

Kenau along with her youngest child and only son, Gerbrand, continued to run the lucrative shipbuilding business. There is also some hint that Kenau may have been involved in the usually illegal, often piratical and always profitable logwood trade. Although the documentation is sketchy, if true, this would have made Kenau the next best thing to a pirate in her own right.

When the Spanish, who were already occupying the Low Countries, decided they were fed up with the free-thinking and free-speaking Dutch, Frederick of Toledo, the son of the powerful Duke of Alva, descended on Haarlem with 12,000 men. Frederick's intention was to lay siege to the wealthy port city and thereby cut off supply routes to the interior of the country. He imagined the siege would last no more than seven days; in fact it would stretch out to a full seven months.

Inside the city, things were not as bad as they might have been. Haarlem, with its various water ways, was almost impossible to isolate. Provisions and arms came into the city across the Harlemmermeer lake and, despite the vast superiority of Spanish numbers, the 4,000 or so fighting men of Haarlem stubbornly refused to give in to tyrants.

Meanwhile Kenau, now in her forties and, according to one contemporary, "an extremely manly woman", was not about to sit by and let the heretics destroy her city. She rallied some 300 able bodied women - those with children that could be left at home and who were not pregnant, nursing, infirm or too aged to be of much use - and marched to the city walls with pike and sword in hand. From the moment she and her "batallion of Amazons", as historian Vicki Leon refers to them, set right to work. They shored up breaches in the walls, carried earth to build new ramparts, nursed the wounded and sick, carried water both for drinking and to swab the city's cannon, and cheered on those who seemed to falter in their resolve. All in all, their tireless efforts proved very worth while to their city and their cause.

To some degree, all that sweat and struggle was for naught. The city surrendered to the Spanish of July 13, 1573. While it appears that no women were put to death, perhaps in part because of a general ransom paid by the city to Frederick, the entire city garrison and 40 of Haarlem's burghers were executed. According to Robin Cross and Rosalind Miles in their book Warrior Women, there were so many men to kill that the executions took more than a week to complete. When the Spanish executioners grew too weary to lift their swords, they tied their victims back to back and threw them into the Spaame river to drown.

Kenau, whose nephew was briefly held by the Spanish but later released, continued her shipbuilding business. She traveled a good bit after the fall of Haarlem, which is documented by sales receipts for things she bought and sold. Was this a purposeful way of avoiding punishment for her defiance during the siege? No historian I can find has said so, but one has to wonder.

Some time after 1585, Kenau bought a ship and apparently departed upon it bound for Norway. The ship was carrying wood, and possibly some of that precious and contraband logwood, but was lost at sea. When the ship returned to Haarlem under the command and ownership of a captain named Lieven Hansz, Kenau's no doubt savvy daughters cried foul. They took Hansz to court as a possible thief and murderer. Hansz claimed he bought the ship at the port of Flensburg where the port official was selling deserted ships. Hansz's theory, which the court seemed to buy, was that Kenau must have been attacked by pirates and murdered with her crew.

Regardless of the actual circumstances of Kenau Hasselaar's death, she remained a national hero for centuries. She was celebrated at each centennial of the siege of Haarlem in etchings, paintings and song. Ships were named after her, statues erected and her given name, Kenau, became part of the Dutch language; its meaning denoted a feisty, unconquerable woman.

And then along came Dr. C. Ekama who, in 1872, disputed not only Kenau's role during the siege but that of any other woman. His argument centered around the lack of documentation of women dying in battle or, in particular, being executed with the burghers. There is very little to his theory aside from this and, it must be said, his obvious 19th century take on the place and capability of women in general.

Kenau's actual contributions during the siege may never truly be known, but the rewriting of her history is an old and sad story. Our recent ancestors, at least in the West, decided that we should not know the whole truth about our distant past. But we are digging up those truths one at time, and the story of Kenau Hasselaar, that extremely manly woman, and her bravery is worth knowing.

Header: An etching of Kenau Haselaar by an anonymous artist from the 17th century via Wikimedia


Timmy! said...

My theory is that the beer might have also helped to make her so brave and strong, Pauline.

I also find Hansz's story to be pretty suspicious, to say the least.

Pauline said...

Yes! It was the beer! The dang Dutch beer!

Yeah; I kept hearing Bruce Willis say "Hans" in my head every time I read that guy's name...

Undine said...

It's a pity such a warrior came to (evidently) such a dismal end, but I have no doubt she went down fighting!

Pauline said...

That's exactly what I imagine too, Undine. A woman like that is virtually unsinkable.