”The course of things in life is confounding.”
~From the autobiography of Maria ter Meetelen
Many 18th century women had lives of high adventure. Unfortunately, few of them left written records of their exploits, so they soon became forgotten. One exception to this is a Dutch woman whose own writings saved her from this fate, turning her into a fascinating historical footnote.
Maria ter Meetelen was born in Amsterdam on June 20, 1704. Her Catholic family was extremely poor, leaving her to spend her childhood as a “street kid” in the Dutch slums. From the time she was 13, she was alone in the world, and left to fend for herself. The experience clearly hardened her and fostered the spirit of bold independence she was to show throughout her life.
In 1721, she decided to hit the road. She cut her hair, donned male clothing, and, masquerading as a young man, set off to see what the world could offer her. She spent a few years wandering through France and Spain. In the latter country, she enlisted as a dragoon, but her army career ended quickly and abruptly when, as she later wrote with admirable understatement, “it came out that I was not the person I was registered as.”
After being kicked out the army, Maria lived as a nun until 1728, when she married a sailor named Claes van der Meer. The couple decided to return to their native Netherlands, and in the summer of 1731, sailed from Cadiz to what they assumed would be their home country.
There was a very nasty surprise in store for them. Off the coast of Portugal, their ship was attacked by Barbary pirates, who had little trouble taking the small group of passengers and crew prisoner. Maria and her fellow hostages were taken to the imperial city of Meknes, Morocco. Maria’s husband died of a fever shortly after their arrival, which made her position all the more precarious. “I was young and beautiful, according to the people of that country,” she later wrote, which left her vulnerable to being forced to join the harem of the sultan, Moulay Abdullah.
One day, Maria was brought to the sultan’s palace. It was, from her viewpoint, a decidedly exotic sight. “I found myself in front of the sultan in his room, where he was lying with fifty of his women, each more beautiful than the last. They were dressed like goddesses and extraordinarily stunning. Each had an instrument and they were playing and singing.” The sultan’s four senior wives were seated opposite him, adorned with gold, silver, and pearls. They wore gold gem-encrusted crowns and their fingers glowed with gold rings.
The sultan himself, alas, was a much less appealing sight. Maria wrote, “He had his head resting on the knees of one of his wives, his feet on the knees of another; a third was behind him and the fourth in front, and they were caressing him.” The disgusted Maria found him the ultimate in dissipation.
Unfortunately for her, the sultan was immediately charmed by his Dutch prisoner. On the spot, he ordered her to convert to Islam and become part of his harem. She refused, and was led away by one of the wives, who warned her of the consequences should she continue to defy the sultan. She would suffer horrible tortures before being burned alive.
Maria had a brainwave. She told the sultan’s wives that there was simply no way she could join the harem--she was pregnant. Fortunately, the women were sympathetic to her plight. Bravely, they went to the sultan to speak on her behalf. Eventually, he was persuaded to allow her to marry her unborn child’s father.
As that man was as fictitious as her pregnancy, this obviously would take some doing. Maria picked out one of her fellow Dutch prisoners, one Pieter Janszoon, explained the terrible danger she was in, and begged him to come to her rescue.
Janszoon’s family and friends had managed to raise a ransom for his release, so he was naturally reluctant to give up his chance for freedom just to wed a virtual stranger. However, Maria--who must have been a master persuader--finally convinced him to go along with the gag, and they were married by a local Catholic priest.
The lives of the European captives were not enviable. Maria recalled, “They were obliged to work extremely hard, in blistering sunshine, digging, working the quarries, and receiving in recompense a tiny roll of bread, and sometimes nothing at all.” However, the newly-married couple had enough ingenuity to do relatively well for themselves. Although Islam forbade alcohol, it was permitted to the Christian captives. Maria and her husband set up a bar in the stable of the slave quarters, selling enough booze to give themselves enough of an income to maintain a certain independence. Additionally, Maria had managed to befriend the sultan’s wives, which gave her a status and protection not granted to her fellow prisoners. She and her husband eventually had eight children.
In 1743, the Dutch government negotiated a ransom agreement with the sultan. After twelve years, Maria and Pieter were finally free. They and their two surviving children returned to the Netherlands, where they settled in the town of Medemblik. Unfortunately, such uncharacteristic domestic tranquillity was not fated to last. After two years, Pieter joined a voyage to the East Indies, where he died in 1750. In 1748, Maria published her memoirs, “The Curious and Amazing Adventures of Maria ter Meetelen; Twelve Years a Slave.” Although the book is now relatively little-known, historians consider it to be among the most valuable narratives of life as a European slave.
Maria’s troubles were not over. Not long after she received news of Pieter’s death, her last two children also passed away, leaving her once again alone. As had been the case in her youth, she sought to rebuild her life elsewhere. In 1751, she emigrated to South Africa.
We will never know how this last adventure worked out, because Maria ter Meetelen subsequently permanently disappeared from the historical record.