Portrait of Lysbeth, A Review

Portrait of Lysbeth, A Review

Rama Santa Mansa, Portrait of Lysbeth – A Gothic Novella. Lingeer Press, 2024, 154 pp., €9.99 (Kindle)

In March 2024, Sierra Leonean-born American writer and PhD Candidate at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, Rama Santa Mansa, re-introduced Lysbeth to the world with the publication of her gothic novella Portrait of Lysbeth by Lingeer Press. I deliberately use the word "re-introduced" because Lysbeth was first introduced to the public in two separate seventeenth-century archival records. In both documents, Lysbeth Anthonijsen’s voice is represented by narratives imposed on her by the voices of powers who decided how she should be remembered. In 2009, however, Susanah Shaw Romney, in her well-researched journal article “Intimate Network and Children’s Survival in New Netherland in the Seventeenth Century”, attempted a reconstruction and interpretation of Lysbeth Anthonijsen’s life story alongside other ‘orphan’ children in seventeenth-century New Netherland within the limits of the archives. Her article concludes by raising looming questions about Lysbeth’s future; questions about which the archives remain silent.

It is probably this silence that inspired Mansa to write a historical novel based on this seventeenth-century woman of New Amsterdam. Mansa adopts a novel approach to telling the story of Lysbeth. Rather than follow what the archives want us to believe about Lysbeth, Mansa writes an alternative history for a woman whom her oppressors and initial biographers would rather posterity remember as a thief and arsonist.

Head of a Black woman with a lace kerchief hat, Wenceslaus Hollar, 1645. Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library.

In Portrait of Lysbeth, Mansa gives a voice, face, and agency to Lysbeth. Through her imaginative story, the author sheds light on wider issues of the time and place Lysbeth lived.

The story is set in 1676 in New York, a former Dutch colony (known as New Netherland) later seized by the English. Lysbeth Luanda, a second-generation free-born African woman of Kongolese-Soninké ancestry, is recommended by her Magister, Doctor Avraham Henriques, to the New York’s High Sheriff for a coroner’s assignment to investigate the murder of three women in Sleepy Hollow, an isolated Dutch village in the English colony of New York. Despite the High Sheriff’s initial refusal to appoint an African woman to such a job, he eventually gives in.

An important literary device employed by Mansa in writing her novella is her use of several flashbacks through which readers are shown past events, thereby giving depth to the character of Lysbeth and others in the book. As a gothic novella, there is a prevailing atmosphere of mystery, terror, suspense, and the supernatural.

Portrait of Lysbeth is divided into four parts and explores several themes, with each one having a potential for further discussion. They include slavery, bonded service, apprenticeship, freedom, racism, poverty, power relations, kinship, white privilege, misogynoir, African cultures, memory and spirituality, Christianity, interracial romance, maternal wisdom, colonial origins of the city of New York, genocide, treatment of Orphans, fictive kinship, the role of animals and nature, time and temporalities, in addition to many others. Some of these themes stand alone, while others overlap.

By describing how Lysbeth’s mother arrived in New Netherland from Senegambia aboard a Spanish slave ship heading for Cuba only to be captured by a Dutch privateer, Mansa refers to what historians have already revealed about the means by which the Dutch acquired slaves for New Amsterdam (p. 32). Lysbeth’s father had been trafficked from Luanda as a young boy. Both individuals met in New Netherland (p. 32). In another instance, the author narrates how the Governor of New Netherland had envisioned his colony as a slave depot for all British and French America (p. 27).

Another type of unfreedom that Mansa reveals in her book, which was, in many cases, particular to free-born children in New Netherland who had lost their parents, was the possibility of becoming a ward of the Orphan Chamber. “This civic organisation was responsible for and had the authority to settle parents’ estates, appoint guardians for the children to whom they were bonded” (p. 26). Lysbeth was such a ward, for her bonded service lasted five years.

The subject of freedom is also brilliantly addressed by the author. In her novella, Mansa demonstrates the various ways the enslaved in New Netherland could have acquired freedom. Lybeth’s mother slipped into freedom on arrival in the colony because “she was too sickly to be sold” (p. 32). For others, it involved possessing freedom certificates, for which a group of formerly enslaved people once petitioned William Kieft. Surprisingly, the freedom certificates were granted (p. 33). What is especially interesting from the perspective of asymmetrical dependency research, and for the progression of the author’s narrative, is the ‘half-freedom’ that, in practice, was granted by these certificates (p. 33). The freedom that was granted was ‘half-freedom’ because the newly ‘unslaved’ African community lived in poverty; some worked the same jobs as their enslaved counterparts and had a low social status; very importantly, too, they had no collective wealth to call their own (p. 33). For scholars of slavery, asymmetrical dependency, and freedom, it is significant to understand the limits that were placed on freedom in the contexts envisioned by the novella. It is not enough to admit that freedom certificates or manumission automatically granted freedom to the enslaved; we must also explore the lived experiences that followed upon legal emancipation The writer also demonstrates how the community of ‘unslaved ’ Africans disturbed the social structure of the colony because of the social contradictions that emerged from their new-found freedom (p. 27).

Moving away from content, it is important to point out the author’s brilliance and courage in weaving a convincing fictional story out of historical sources. As mentioned in her acknowledgements, Mansa had to read over a thousand pages of secondary sources to write this book. Another point worth mentioning and which constitutes a challenge to historical fiction readers is how to demarcate between factual and fictional events and people. While the writer does not tell us which events or people are factual and which are not, as a historian, I would affirm that the general thrust of most events and the experiences that form the basis of most of the characters that feature in her book can be corroborated within historical sources. This is why, to avoid doubt, particularly to readers who are not aware of such histories and may not want to break the flow of reading to engage in intermittent research, a glossary of true events and people should have been included at the end of the book.

Before concluding, I would like to say that I really enjoyed reading Portrait of Lysbeth. It was well written and interesting while also introducing me to events of which I was previously unaware, such as the colonial origins of New York City. Secondly, despite being a work of historical fiction, I appreciate the author’s ability and ingenuity to breathe life into a forgotten life. To echo Mansa, indeed, Lybeth’s life mattered (p. 123).