Master Janssen: Message from the Morning Man
by Kojo Yankson
26th October 2015
The Dutch East India Company was the world’s first global corporation. it was also the first company in the world to float shares. Established in the early 1600s, the company built and sailed ships between, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Europe trading in spices. The company was so powerful in those days, that it was almost a nation unto itself. It could declare war, set its own laws and even print its own money.
As a multinational corporation, the Dutch East India Company recruited the finest sailors to captain their ships and protect the crew and valuable cargo from pirates. One such skilled sailor was Master Aris Janssen from Schans. He was the captain of the Neptunnis, one of the ships in the company’s mighty fleet. The Neptunnis charted a course around the West African coastline, starting from the island of Cape Verde, and stopping in Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and the Gold Coast. At every stop, the Neptunnis would trade its cargo spice for ivory or gold or salted meat, making profit with every transaction.
Master Aris’ favourite port was Komenda in the Gold Coast. He was well known there by the locals and had even fallen in love with a local woman named Aya. Every time he finished his seasonal trade tour, he would berth the Neptunnis at Komenda and spend months at a time among the warm-hearted people who had taken him as one of their own.
Sometime in the second decade of the 17th century – perhaps 1618 thereabouts – Master Aris was in Cape Verde when he received a message from his superiors ordering him to proceed to the Elmina fort and pick up his first ever consignment of a brand new product targeted at the American market – slaves. He was decidedly uncomfortable with this order and decided to ignore it. For three years, Aris continued to trade in spices and ivory, while his frustrated and increasingly angry superiors sent him message after ignored message, directing him to pick up slaves from various African ports.
Eventually, the Dutch India Trading Company put a bounty on his head. The white-haired sailor paid off every member of his crew, abandoned the Neptunnis and hitched a ride on another ship to Komenda, where his loving Aya awaited him. He would rather lose his job than captain a slave ship.
It is likely that Aya would have been at the port that day, looking out for the arrival of her lover. It is therefore possible that she witnessed his arrest by officials of the Dutch East India company as soon as he set foot ashore. These are unconfirmed guesses, but one thing we know for sure is that Master Aris Janssen was never seen in the Gold Coast again – not by Aya, and not by his two half-caste sons who everyone called Nyankson.
This is the rather tragic story of one of the numerous Janssens from Holland who records show to have spent some time in Ghana during the Dutch occupation. This Janssen is likely to be my ancestor, from whom I got my name Yankson. More research is needed to confirm this beyond a doubt, but everything I learnt from my time in the archives at the Dutch National Maritime Museum points to Master Aris being my ancestor. Personally, I like the idea of being related to a Dutchman who was against slavery even before it began, and who gave up his comforts, his conveniences and ultimately, his liberty, and maybe even his life for what he believed in.
It’s a story we can all derive strength and motivation from. As our society is revealed to be more corrupt than we ever imagined, we desperately need Ghanaians who will stand for what is right, no matter the cost. We need Ghanaians who will refuse to bribe policemen no matter the inconvenience they may be put through. We need Ghanaians who will refuse to pay Goro Boys to do the work that we are already paying civil servants to do at our ministries and agencies. We need Ghanaians who will not bribe judges for pre-fabricated judgement, and allow justice to be served even if it is against them. We need Ghanaians who will not give or receive illicit payments just to temporarily have their own way while our nation continues to lose its way.
My friends, I have missed you all dearly. My annual holiday has taken me to faraway places where I have seen many fascinating things which I will share with you throughout the week. A number of my experiences involved people – including children – who chose to suffer personal inconvenience for the greater good of society. This is ultimately the secret behind any great civilisation, and we MUST make it the secret behind ours too.
Right is right and wrong is wrong. It’s time to pick a side and defend it to the death.
My name is Kojo Yankson, and if the blood of Master Aris flows through me, then I must stand for what is right, no matter the cost.
GOOD MORNING, GHANAFO!