Charles Boissevain (1842-1927) NP VIIb 67


Grand-master of the Dutch journalism in ‘Drafna’

On the Meentweg in Naarden stood until the Second World War a large Swiss house with the Norwegian name Drafna. The house dates from 1860 and initially served as summer residence and adjoining country estate for one of the large Dutch industrialists. Later on the house was permanently occupied by private individuals. It ended its history in 1941 as dilapidated schoolbuilding from a once renowned theosophical high school. During the war years a shoe polish manufacturer had the wooden building demolished and he rebuild a stone villa on the same spot with the same name. Since 1948 that house belongs to owners of one of the Netherlands biggest clothing concerns.


In this article we will talk about the journalist Charles Boissevain (1842-1927), also a resident at Drafna. Five years ago the author and columnist H.J.A. Hofland called this man ‘the journalist of the century’, but he added that journalists don’t write ‘of the century’ but rather ‘of the evening’, because the next day already their work is used to wrap up fish bones. Boissevain lived in the former Drafna for more than thirty years, from 1896 until his death. In 1911 his oldest son, young Charles, established the country estate Bergerac, which was also situated on the Meentweg. A bit further along, the De Duinen estate is located, with a house with the same name which was built in 1912, where Boissevains oldest daughter Mary lived, who was at that time married to the banker Cornelis van Eeghen. During that time the house Heerlijkheid was established right opposite Drafna by the Den Tex-Boissevain couple, cousins of Charles. Boissevains galore in the most beautiful path in Naarden, which was still called Oude Valkeveenscheweg in those days. Who those prominent people were with their French surname, is to be found in the municipal archives in Amsterdam. There you can consult the elaborate Boissevain archive under accessnumber 394. The following story is derived from this to a large extent.

The name was actually Bouyssavy. That is, this is what Lucas, one of the remote forefathers called himself when, in the 17 th century, he was a winegrower in Dordogne, East of Bergerac. This Lucas, a courageous and devout man, had to flee to Bordeaux, due to religious persecution. There he hid on board a ship full of wine barrels, at least that’s how the story goes, and landed around 1691 in Amsterdam. Thus the Dutch Boissevains descend from a family of Huguenot refugees. ‘Hunted down like a deer’, so wrote Charles about his ancestor Lucas, who managed to make a living for himself in Amsterdam by teaching French and by drawing. He died at only 44 years of age. His travel-mad son Jérémie (1702-1762), who’s wanderings took him all the way into Persia, later became ‘father’ of the Walloon orphanage. Another son, Gideon Jérémie (1741-1802), had some good fortune in trading, which made him able to obtain the social status that the family had always had in the olden days back in France. Daniël (1772-1834), the grandfather of the Charles in this story, was the third of eleven children of named Gideon Jérémie. By now he called himself Boissevain and also went into the trading business. And so did his son, the father of our Charles.

For his father, also a Gideon Jérémie (1796-1875), Charles held an enormous respect. He was shipowner by profession and lived on the Herengracht. The shipping trade naturally took a central place within the Boissevain family. “How I remember from my childhood”, Charles once wrote, “the importance of the powerful wind for seafaring Holland! In the mornings my father’s first job was to look out of the window in the garden room at the rooster on top of the Westertower to see where the wind came from. The ‘Nederland & Oranje’, the ‘Bestevaer’ and the ‘A. Falck’ were already held up for several weeks in Nieuwediep (Den Helder, red.), waiting for a favourable Eastwind, but see, the wind kept on blowing from the West, to great despair of the shipowners and the captains. What a nice bunch of people they were, these captains of fifty years ago! Those on my father’s ships usually came from Katwijk, from posh families, whos familyheads from father to son were captains of the Amsterdam Merchant Ships. I can still see them in front of me, the Duyvenbodes and the Van der Plassen, broad strong men, faithful, unimpeachably honest, as my father witnessed again and again. They brought the poetry of the sea into our livingroom when they came in for a cuppa after a safe return. Then they brought presents, one of which I have saved to this day, an Indian proa with sails and rowers completely made out of cloves. Pots of ginger, canaries from the Canary Islands, knickknacks from Java, they brought the smell of the East into our house on the Heerengracht. No wonder that I love the sea so much!”

Charles’ mother was Maria van Heukelom (1801-1866), the daughter of an important banker. At her wedding in June 1830, she received Dutch shares worth 40.000 guilders from her father, which shows that this family wasn’t short. Through the Van Heukeloms the family knew Mr Van Rossum on Zandbergen in Naarden and therefore it is nice to quote the following from Gideon Jérémie’s journal from Saturday 14 September 1839: “At 8 o’clock with Papa van Heukelom, & Jan & Margo (also Van Heukeloms, editor) went with the car & the Tilbury to Zandbergen above Naarden to Mr. I.P. van Rossum, walked around the place and the Zanderij, and looked at a young tree nursery. Had a light meal in the open. Went with Mr van Rossum carriage to the summerhouse of Mr Huidecoper (the pavilion), which cost f 75/m. Great views from the balcony: one can see Amsterdam, Hoorn, Harderwijk, Amersfoort and Utrecht. Got back to the city at 7.45 and had dinner, the weather was good.” There was admiration for Charles’ father in 1832, when he preferred Amsterdam to a much safer stay in the country, during the notorious cholera-epidemic. Almost everyone with money and friends elsewhere sought an untainted stay on sandy soil. The wealthy shipowner Boissevain on the contrary went to visit the sick! On the Prinsengracht he organised the use of an empty house and established headquarters there from where to combat the epidemic. He recuted personnel for the transport and care of the sick and mingled under the cholera patients himself. A courageous father thus, who, as he himself declared, was spared by our good Lord. He received a medal for this from the city of Amsterdam. This medal of honour was worth more to the family than several knighthoods.

For his mother too Charles had infinite admiration. She spoke her languages and was very well-read. She considered Goethe’s quote that youth is susceptible to the utmost happiness, to be of great importance. Charles’ childhood partly took place in the countryhouse ‘Duinvliet’ between Overveen and Aerdenhout, where the family -so they themselves say- spent the most fantastic summers, halfway through the nineteenth century. At an advanced age Charles, who had a very adventurous nature, glorified the rowing trips there, the horserides and the reading of ‘Ivanhoe, The Heir of Redclyffe’ under a big oak tree. ‘A magic story from the land of dreams’ he called the book. During those days he once stayed with his grandfather Van Heukelom at Leeuwenhooft in Haarlemmer Hout. On a Sunday in May he drove with him to Heemstede in a brake. In the church there he saw Nicolaas Beets on the pulpit. He was very moved by how touching and yet simple he delivered a sermon. In his parental house Charles also often met men of high standing in art and literature. After he finished school he felt himself drawn to literature and his naturally perceptive mind directed him as a matter of course to journalism.

In 1865 already, Boissevain was then only 23 years of age, he wrote his first articles under the pseudonym ‘Fantasio’ in the leading Algemeen Handelsblad. They were the so-called ‘Irish Letters’, which, not only because of the contents but also because of the form in which they were put attracted a lot of attention. His youthful and fresh views on things quickly became a refreshing oasis in the then oh so dry and dull contents of the daily papers. It is therefore not surprising that very soon he became a member of the editorial staff of the paper. Charles became foreign correspondent and on one of his trips he met the Irish Emily MacDonnell, who would later become his wife. ‘A Scotts woman by name and descent’, said Potgieter the writer, who was a friend of Boissevain, when he introduced Emily to his confrère Busken Huet. In 1885 Charles Boissevain became chief editor of the Algemeen Handelsblad and two years later he started his own column ‘Van Dag tot Dag’. With this he introduced the “editor’s notes” in Dutch journalism. In his more than 4300 columns, which belong to the most popular reading matters of his time, he has been able to fully develop his own personal talent. There are not many subject that he hasn’t covered. Famous were his polemics with the Reformed politician Abraham Kuyper, and his support for the South-African Boers in their rise against the British.

Ons Amsterdam’ (1996 part. 10) described Charles Boissevain as follows: ‘Charles was a liberal through and through. Free entrepreneurship was more important to him than anything, but he strongly condemned the ‘Orange fury’ against the socialists in 1887. The conviction and expulsion of the Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus in France in 1894 he found a disgrace, and in 1898 he was the first Dutchman to interview Emile Zola, novelist and Dreyfus’ wellspoken defender. On the other hand he condemned socialisme that was on the rise.’ This was to the dismay of the left-wing journalist Henri Wiessing, chief editor of De Groene Amsterdammer from 1907 until 1915, who characterized Charles as ‘the self-satisfied chief-liberal of those days’ who ‘on the basis of an accurate but second-rate writers talent and a greedy mind without any hesitation pushed himself and his entire family to the foreground’.

Initially Charles Boissevain lived with his wife, eleven children and the English nanny Polly Barker on the Herengracht no 332. His renowned brother Jan, who established the Stoomvaart Maatschappij Nederland, lived a few houses down the road. When he was 54 years old, Boissevain bought Drafna and then Naarden became the residence of this famous Dutchman who was already nicknamed ‘the Pope of national journalism’. He incidently did not like that typification. Around the turn of the century the people from Naarden saw him riding to the train station every morning in a carriage pulled by a white cob. Later on he often travelled that distance in a three-wheeler.

Although he once, at Drafna in a play, made fun of the farmers in the Gooi for not knowing how to pronounce his name, since his move to Naarden he cherished a special love for the Gooi. Nature meant everything to him. He could write very passionately about trees and flowers, about the Dutch dunes and the sea, the beach, about a snowstorm and about nightly walks over the Gooi moors, where he was blown away by the light of the moon and the beauty of the starry sky. ‘Why March’, he thus wrote, ‘is called the spring month, I have only come to realize since I live in the country, here in the Gooi. For she is called spring month, because our poetic language is not born in the city, but first and foremost because she is filled with the feelings, thoughts and images of those that live on the land and cultivate it and for whom March is the time for sowing.’ In the summer of 1906 he wrote: ‘Last night for the first time this year since I have been at Drafna, some nightingales sang for me in the maple-tree alley, in the lee of the pineforest’.

Life at Drafna with the children and grand children in the midst of beautiful surrounding nature became the most important thing in the latter part of Charles Boissevain’s life. Many letters, plays, menus and photos are proof of the great and often festive atmosphere that dominated at Drafna. There Charles also wrote his ‘Zonnige uren’, papers which he wrote when ‘the sun looked down his inkpot’ and when he felt pleased about moments of the lovely and beautiful things which can make people feel better and give them hope. The book was dedicated to his grandchildren who, as Charles said “force us to stay youthful and happy; childrens hands iron out the wrinkles in our frowning foreheads.’ Charles was a great child-lover. He believed very strongly in the power that lies in the great intimate family, in domestic happiness.

In 1912 the journalist Jan Feith paid him a visit at Drafna for an interview. ‘It was the day of his 70th birthday’, so wrote Jan Feith, ‘28 October 1912, autumn in full swing, a rejoicingly beautiful and colourful day in Holland, beautiful Gooi at its best. There he lived, just outside of Naarden facing the side of the calm Zuiderzee, on the rough Gooiside, in his idylic countryhouse made out of wood, the big garden as a park, undulating and forested. By the bend in the Huizerweg, along the manicured hedge, the sloping Irish-inspired lawn, in between the wide driveway, leading towards the chalet-style residence. Next to it was the completely smoothe shallow pond, now full of autumn leaves; the pineforest adjacent to that; and a rustic bridge over a little gorge. And behind the half Swiss half Norwegian house, between the spread out trees, the expansive view over the low, north facing meadows, closed of at the end by a rusty brown wall of the Valkenveensche forests. And then behind that the Sea, - “seawind, cleansed by the smell of pines!” as Charles Boissevain once referred to his own retreat.’

Charles Boissevain remained chief editor of the Algemeen Handelsblad until 1908. In that year his son Alfred Gideon (1870-1922) took over the reins, to the utter dismay of the editorial staff. Besides his journalistic works Charles wrote several books, among which was ‘Onze Voortrekkers’ written at ‘Drafna’ in 1906. This, by Algemeen Handelsblad printed piece of nearly 500 pages, tells of the history of some of Charles’ ancestors and ends with some of his own personal memories. The book was not published for public distribution only exclusively for members of the family and friends. In those circles they worshipped him. Drafna pre-eminently became familyhouse, where children and grandchildren loved to come, where granddaddy Charles tremendously enjoyed their company and fully devoted his energy to sing ‘Hop Marjannetje’ and ‘Schuitje varen, theetje drinken’ with the little ones.

Charles remained at Drafna until his death in May 1927. His final years were not easy. Six months before he died one of the editors of the Algemeen Handelsblad paid him another visit in the big room at Drafna, which overlooked the pond. The nearly 85-year old Charles entered the room supported by a nurse. The light that had so often shone through his inkpot he could harldy see anymore. For those who knew how much he loved to read, observe and write, this was a sad sight. But his mind was still sound and his interest in the Algemeen Handelsblad remained.

Very gently Charles Boissevain’s life cam to an end. As the sun, that slowly slides behind the horizon in the golden beauty of the Gooi’, as was written after his death on May 5th. Once when Charles Boissevain visited the grave of one of his sisters who had also entered her eternal sleep in May, he said: ‘There is no better month to part with the living, than the month of May, when everything renews, when all revives and resurrects once again to carry the new fruit. That symbol of eternal rebirth we celebrate, when we see our loved ones go before us.’ Charles Boissevain was burried at the Jan Tabak burial ground on midday onTuesday. At the exact moment that the sad procession, which consisted of many people from his large family and all the domestic staff, left Drafna, a curtain was very slowly pulled away and the woman who had spread light and love in Charles’ life for almost sixty years was seen standing there alone. She had remained in the house and through the window followed heartbroken her husband’s earthly remains. By the cemetery, so we read in the papers from those days, was a big delegation, among whom were journalists, the mayor of Naarden Van Wettum, the president of the Erfgooiers Emil Luden, and many other well known people from the Gooi area, to gather in honour of the famous and well-loved old man. The Bier was carried by his sons, sons-in-law and the older grandsons. Around the grave and against the green hedges were laid wreaths of roses, lilacs, arum lilies and rhododendrons. On the inside, the grave was lined with evergreen branches, white stock and lilacs. One of the Boissevain grandsons referred to all the good and beautiful things that their grandfather had ingrained in them and which could be to their advantage in their lives. Charles jr. remembered the close relationship that existed between the father and all his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And when the Naarden bell tolled her broad funeral sounds far across the fields, everybody sang as valedictory song his favourite hymn from the songbook of the English Church:

Sun of my soul,

Thou saviour dear It is not night,

if Thou be near.

Henk Schaftenaar, Naarden

Mr H. Schaftenaar is editor of ‘De Omroeper’, the historical magazine for the township of Naarden. The article above is written by him and published in volume 17, no. 3.