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Searching for the young Black man in the portrait of William III

Part II: The challenges of recovering erased identities and disregarded lives

Date: 24 May 2024

Author: Dr. Mishka Sinha and Camilla de Koning

In our first post in this two-part series exploring our search for the young Black man at the heart of Untold Lives, we explored the legacies of forgotten people at court, and the history of the painting in which this unnamed young man appears behind William III.

The next step in our research was to look at sources and pictures on William III's life before he arrived in England, and his first court, to attempt to discover more about this young man, and why he might have been painted with the King.

William III’s first court

William III was born in 1650 as Willem Hendrik, Prince of Orange. His first court was therefore formed in the Dutch Republic – in what is now The Netherlands. William received his education partly or wholly at the University of Leiden from 1659, and it is there that the first record of a Black presence in his court can be found. Young William’s education was described in an illustrated pamphlet, and in one of the illustrations he is shown with a young Black boy holding his book.

This pamphlet was the first of many paintings and prints that would depict William with a Black person who seemed to be in a role of service. It is possible however that the young Black boy in the illustration was a member not of William’s household or entourage, but associated with one of his tutors at Leiden. It is certain, however, that the boy in the pamphlet was not the same young Black man who appeared in our painting, since that was made some 20 or 30 years later.

A portrait of William III, shown at three-quarter-length, in armour and holding a baton in his right hand; behind him a young Black man holds his helmet

Image: William III (1650-1702) with a page c.1670-1832. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2024

The boy in the pamphlet was unnamed, and the existing records of William's Dutch court at that time do not specifically mention a Black member of the court. This does not mean that there were no Black people at William’s court, just that any clear archival references to them have not survived. Perhaps if he was recorded, we cannot find him because he was not described in the records as being Black. One of the hardest challenges of finding out about Black people in European courts and aristocratic households is that their displacement and forcible transportation dispossessed them not only of their families, homes, possessions, and freedom, but also of their names and identities: they were there in plain sight but made to disappear from the historical record, rendering them almost invisible to subsequent generations.

To add to the difficulties of identification, people working in lower ranks in the Dutch royal household often had common names, such as Jan, the Dutch equivalent of the English name 'John'. For historians, such a name — with no other references or sources to help narrow down the possibilities of who the name might have belonged to — is rather worse than looking for a needle in a haystack.

An exhibition space with a elaborate, embroidered gold chair in the centre of a large display case. A painting of William III with an unknown young man hangs on the wall

Image: The painting of William III with a young Black man in the Legacies room of Untold Lives: A Palace at Work. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2024 

Jan van Dam

There is only one definitely identifiable Black person, or person 'of colour', in the written records of William’s Dutch household: a young man called Jan Dam, also described as 'de Moor'. In Dutch 'de Moor' had a similar meaning and etymology to the English word 'Moor'. Originally used to describe people of, or from, the multiple Islamic nations spanning the wide area from the Iberian Peninsula to western Asia, from the 16th and 17th centuries onward, the association began to change and Moor was used in Europe increasingly to refer to those with darker skin, especially people from Africa.

Jan van Dam, 'the moor' at the court of William of Orange, is the only one described as such in the household accounts. But Jan (van) Dam did not remain in William's household for long. He attended a church in the Hague and his intention of being baptised was noted in the church minutes in 1669. There, he is described as 'The Moor of the Prince of Orange', but after this he seems to disappear and never resurfaces in the Dutch archives again or, if he does, he is no longer identified by the same name.

William’s connections with empire and the trade in enslaved people

Before he married Mary (later Mary II) in 1677, William worked ambitiously on his career. He was not royalty in the Dutch Republic, but 'Stadholder' (a political leader and executive officer of a Dutch province) of provinces in the Netherlands. As Stadholder, William involved himself in international politics and commercial enterprises, and this in turn meant he was closely connected with the expanding Dutch trade in enslaved people and Dutch colonialism in West Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

William participated actively in this trade in enslaved people by buying thousands of stocks in various trading companies such as the Dutch West India Company. The colony of Suriname was even offered to him as private property by the government of the province of Zeeland in the west Netherlands, although William did not think the prospect profitable and refused the offer.

William's connections with colonialism were represented in at least one painting in the years before he became King in Britain. In 1669, he was appointed 'First Noble' of Zeeland and, to commemorate the occasion, painted with a Black attendant. By aligning himself with the interests of Zeeland, William aligned himself with a province that heavily depended on, and invested in, the transatlantic trade in enslaved people. Representing William with a real or symbolically placed Black person in a painting was therefore most likely intended to emphasise this connection.

It was a trend that would continue after William's marriage to Mary, and during their years as joint monarchs of England, Scotland and Ireland. Mary was represented in etchings with a young Black boy at least twice, and William in various prints and paintings on at least eight other occasions. Yet the records of their Dutch and British courts do not mention any Black people, apart from Jan (van) Dam, nor does anything we have found so far mention anyone at any time whom we can identify and establish in the records as being or having been enslaved.

William and Mary only sat for portraits a handful of times (although this was also true of other monarchs of the period, including Mary’s sister, Queen Anne). Mary died in 1694, only five years after becoming Queen. William had sat for several portraits in the Netherlands before he became King, when more portraits were made of him but, like Mary, he died quite soon after their accession to the throne, in 1702. After their official state portraits were made from life in 1690, most paintings and prints of William and Mary were created by artists based on previous works by others.

Engraving of William III as Prince of Orange. Three quarter length with wig, lace cravat, armour, sash and ermine mantle. He is attended by a young Black man carrying a helmet and another figure with a horse.

Image: WILHEM HENRICK be der Gratie Gods Prince van Orangie c.1670-89, by Romeyn de Hooghe. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2024

A life study?

The young man standing next to William continues to elude our efforts to find out more about him. Yet, although the research we have done so far does not yet shed light on him as an individual, it reminds us that people of different ethnicities, and from all over the world, were part of the British and European courts in the 17th and 18th centuries. The ongoing research on the young Black man in the painting is still incomplete, but the process continues to teach us about how to reckon with histories of those to whom history has not yet done justice. What we know we do not know helps push us forward to try new ways in the future of illuminating what the past has cast in shadow.

Discover Untold Lives at Kensington Palace

Untold Lives

Until 27 October 2024

A new exhibition at Kensington Palace, uncovering the forgotten stories of those who worked at the royal palaces over 300 years ago.

More from our blog

Searching for the Young Black Man in the Portrait of William III, Part I

17 May 2024

A young Black man dressed in blue and gold holding a helmet stands beside William III in a portrait that is a focal point of our exhibition: Untold Lives: A Palace at Work. Who was he? Where did he live and when? Why is he in the painting with William III? And how can historians unravel the mystery surrounding him?

'Below Stairs' in Sickness, Death and Old Age

29 February 2024

What happened to those who worked in the royal palaces when they fell ill, grew old, or when they died, leaving loved ones behind?

The Boy on the Staircase: Peter 'the Wild Boy' from Hanover

11 March 2024

In 1726 the arrival of a 'wild youth' in the Great Drawing Room of St James's Palace caused a London sensation. A boy in his early teens had been found in German woods 'wild, naked… and knowing nobody'. Brought to England, he was nicknamed Peter 'the wild boy'.

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