A Strong Woman

What female in your family tree has shown remarkable strength (either physical or emotional)? That is the question for the week 10 prompt and who would fit the bill in my line-up of ancestors. A few come to mind and I have already dedicated a blog to my German born grandmother Meta, who ran a soup kitchen from her home in Japan occupied Java, before being taken into camp with her two daughters, - metawrites.blogspot.com.au. For now I want to turn the spotlight on my great-great grandmother Anna Hendrika Knoops, who I've gotten to know a little through the letters I have from her husband and finally a portrait scan I received from my cousin.

Anna Hendrika Knoops and her husband Jan Peelen in their later years.
From Peelen private family archive collection.

Looking at the photo I get the impression that she was the "quiet achiever". A kind, gentle, persona shines through, stoic really, perhaps a little reserved at first, then warm once you got to know her. Which is why I want to highlight her life because  I think so many of our foremothers were just like that; stoic, taking life as it comes, drawing on inner reserves of faith when faced with personal loss and adversity and just keeping on going.

Anna married Jan Peelen, a civil engineer, on 20 May 1858 in Haarlem, The Netherlands. Just six days later they would travel to Cairo, Egypt. Jan had been contracted by the Khedive of Egypt to build an iron smelter. On the eve of their departure, her mother wrote a tender letter of farewell filled with blessings and good wishes. She thought she might never see her daughter again. They had a warm and loving relationship. Anna had been living at home until her marriage, a companion to her mother.

A letter dating from 1856 from Jan Peelen shows that this had been at least a courtship of a couple of years.  In his letter Jan argues his case for marriage referring to characters from the novel Les Voisins ( I don't know by whom, have not so far found it anywhere) which they had both been reading and discussing in previous letters. He makes his case by comparing and contrasting two characters, one charming, impulsive and flamboyant, but not reliable and the other being the exact opposite. Of course Jan is just like the latter, being a good provider and with an even temperament, not given to arguments. Reading between the lines I wonder if there was another suitor on the scene.  A pencil notation in the top right corner of this letter states - became engaged with this.

Six days after their wedding the new couple embarked on the journey to Cairo. Jan writes in a letter home to his parents and in-laws how well they get on and how happy they are with each other. He goes on: "I must admire Anne, who has shown great energy and stamina and I have never heard her complain of being tired no matter how long the day. Only yesterday we had a long day travelling from half past seven in the morning to a quarter to seven in the evening and although the scenery wasn't all that romantic the time just flew"

I have no details of how they travelled but I guess it would have to be by train to the Mediterranean coast, then by ship across the Mediterranean and then down the Nile to Cairo. The Suez Canal had not been built yet. They must have arrived in Cairo sometime in June. It would have been hot.

There are many letters from Jan to his brother Hermanus detailing their life. This was quite a different society for them. Egypt was under French control, Jan worked long days, the climate was hot and dry and Anna only had their maid Daatje for company. Jan and Anna preferred to stay home and enjoy each other's company, but they would attend some of the high society gatherings if they had to and Jan describes them as being a duty more than a pleasure.

Anna's endurance comes to the fore again when Jan in one of the letters home describes how he took her with him on his visit to the construction site on the Nile and to see the Barrages, a big dam being built to regulate the irrigation and flooding of the Nile near Cairo, which was completed in 1862.
The Delta Barrage Bridge across the Nile River at Cairo, Egypt, 1916
 from Australian War Memorial, Public Domain Accession Number J02248

"Last Tuesday I rode with Anne and H on donkeys to the Barrrage of the Nile, partly to see this structure and also to inspect the work being carried out by Van Vlissingen*. We left home at seven in the morning and arrived there at ten o'clock. The distance is some four hours." They toured the construction site with the Dutch foreman and then left at two pm arriving home by six pm. Jan remarks: "Don't you think it courageous of Anne to make such a trip. We were quite stiff and sore upon our return."
*The company in Amsterdam who supplied the machinery for the ironsmelter and through which he was contracted to the Khedive in Egypt.

Anna had a miscarriage sometime in 1858 but on 21 December 1859 she gave birth to their first child, Jan Hendrik Peelen, my great-grandfather. This is how Jan Peelen tells it in his letter home:

"Last night we had a visit from Mr Bourville. I noticed that Anne had a very high colour but due to our visitor she couldn't say what was bothering her. After he left she complained of a strong urge but because we thought we had another 2 weeks to go we went to bed as usual around 11 o'clock. At around two o'clock Anne called me and I went to her and she complained  of pain in her hips and lower body. As I had now become a little wiser because of her miscarriage in the past year, I first called Daatje, who had it still fresh in her mind and around three I wrote a note to Dr Diamante who appeared around 4. The pains got stronger and after some "souffrance" she was delivered around 11 o'clock of a big, chubby boy ...My darling has not betrayed her character on this occasion and stayed brave without crying out and many times she clung to me."

The family stayed in Cairo until late 1860 and then returned to The Netherlands where they lived for the rest of their lives.

Anna and Jan had two more children; Johanna, born 16 February 1862 in Amsterdam and in the following year Geertruida Maria was born on 22 April 1863. Johanna passed away on 18 June 1866 in Haarlem at just four years old and little Geertruida Maria did not even reach her first birthday, passing away on 19 March 1864.

Her feelings about the loss of her two daughters and how she coped can be imagined from Jan's words in his letter home to his brother in response to news from Herman that in the space of two weeks he had lost his little daughter and son:
"Mag God strengthen you in this trial and my you find consolation in the knowledge that they are now certainly better off. Who knows what kind of sadness or misfortune they have been spared in this way. Who could have thought that these two children, so flourishing in good health, so quickly were taken from you,  console yourself though with the thought it is divine will which in this way had its wise purpose and this is surely the only consolation which you may have in your justifiable sadness."

Anna did not do anything remarkable, she was a devoted wife and mother and from her portrait she seems like a pleasant, kind, gentle person, but with an inner strength probably born from a deep faith.
She died on 31 October 1885, aged 55.


Popular posts from this blog

Douwe Johannes Beintema - a well to do farmer

Back to School

A long way from home