Querido’s heartfelt cry

In some of his writings the Dutch author Israël Querido (1872-1932) gets very much worked up about woman shylocks operating in the Jordan Quarter in Amsterdam, notably in his novel ‘De Jordaan’ [The Jordan Quarter] and in his autobiographical account ‘Mijn zwerftochten door Jordaan en donker Amsterdam’ [My Wanderings through the Jordan Quarter and Sinister Amsterdam].

Israël Querido is among the Dutch writers who have been given an entry in The New Encyclopædia Britannica. We find him in Volume 9 of the Micropædia. He’s said to have been an author who’s novels ‘provide valuable documentary material’. That’s bull’s eye. Reading Querido is interesting, not because it’s enjoyable in a literary sense, but because he adds to the body of social historical knowledge.

By far, Querido’s most popular novel was The Jordan Quarter, published in 1912. The story takes place in the years around 1900 and is mainly about the woman shopkeeper Neel Scheendert and her second husband Stijn Burk.

The Burk family

During the fishing season, Stijn Burk is a fishmonger. When the fishing season is over, he is a worker in a sugar factory. If there’s something to be done there. If there isn’t, Stijn is out of work, waiting for the fishing season to get started again. Being drunk regularly, Stijn is in the habit of beating his wife Neel.

When we get to know the couple, Neel’s tenth child is on it’s way. Her youngest six children are Stijn’s. The eldest three she got from her first husband, Jan Gronjee, who died of tuberculosis. Gronjee has given her a good life. He worked as a diamond-cutter, earning enough to be able to put money in the savings-bank.

The burial is over. There are a hundred guilders left on Gronjee’s savings-account. Neel pawns her jewelry and sells her furniture. Then she has enough money to open a small shop. Thanks to hard work, things are looking up a bit, but eventualy there’s too much competition for survival. Neel meets Stijn Burk, who gets her pregnant and then marries her. The shop is closed down. Let me quote:

When they got married, Stijn was working at the sugar factory. But only five weeks of the heavy winter time had passed when the work ended. Neel was pregnant and Stijn out of work. They’d left the shop, being out of stock and having run out of credit. Neel and her whole sorry lot put up at the grubbiest of rooms.

The downturn is inevitable; Neel and her family are drawning in a pool of misery. Let me quote again:

She grew bitter at her impoverishment, the rottenness and filth, the kids being hungry, Stijn being drunk. Stijn’s family was no help, although rumors had it that Stijn’s old man kept as much as twenty thousand guilders under his mattress.

After delivery of Stijn’s child she applies for welfare benefits. She is turned down, because of Stijn’s father’s wealth.

Israël Querido, 1910. Source: Els Hoek ed., ‘Theo van Doesburg. Oeuvrecatalogus’ (Bussum: Uitgeverij Thoth, 2000). Attribution: Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

So much hardship, so much pain and suffering. No more keeping shop for Neel, no more purchasing fish for Stijn. Neel is at her wits’ ends when she finally finds someone to the rescue, the woman money-lender Tonie, ‘Hannes Draaideur’s shrewd and brutal wife’. Tonie is willing to help with some money. The interest rate is usurious and the debt-repayments are sky-high. But Stijn can be a fishmonger again and Neel herself is able to set up a shrimp and eel booth.

Having arrived at this point, Querido starts booing the Jordan money-lenders, cunning women intent on squeezing their class fellows dry, usurers with gain-greedy eyes, smacking their lips over the weekly installment and interest payments, as hard as nails threatening with the worst scenario: people’s exclusion from help, when payment is defaulted.

It only takes a short while for Neel and Stijn to go broke on account of the woman Tonie’s usury. The shrimp and eel booth has to be closed down. The family’s thrown back to the gutter. Neel and her husband Stijn have dismal, toiling years ahead of them.

Querido, a participant-observer

Querido’s book is a work of fiction – there’s no doubt about that. But there’s every reason to assume that the author’s digressions on the malpractice of usury in the Jordan Quarter were pretty much in accordance with the facts. Before writing the novel, Querido had spent several years on fieldwork in the area. He’d had his residence there, living – as it were – the life of a Jordan man among the Jordan people. In his autobiographical account My Wanderings through the Jordan Quarter and Sinister Amsterdam (1931) he is looking back on these years of participant observation. In My Wanderings there’s a section on the women-shylocks worthy of consideration. From it we learn that on the usury front things hadn’t changed much since the beginning of the twentieth century.

The usury practices in the Jordan Quarter are among the most hidious things Querido’s ever come across. Let me quote:

The woman money-lender, more than often living around the corner, has a strong hold on her customers. She’s building in safeguards right from the start. Let’s say, a man needs a hundred guilders. That is not the amount he’s gonna get. No, ninety is what he gets. But hundred is what he’s supposed to pay back, in, let’s say, installments of five guilders a week. The weekly interest payment comes to five guilders too. In this way, there’s a profit margin of more than 200 percent. […] Every eighth day payments are due. If the installment obligation can’t be satisfied, extention of payment can be given, but the interest obligation has to be met. Otherwise, the borrower is discraced. If he remains in default, he risks exclusion from all future help.

The scenes Querido witnessed were agonizing:

[…] people wasting away under the murderous pressure, their zest for work vanishing completely; […] preys hunted down, seeing their lives as built around installment and interest.

Usurers’ credit: so easy to get, so hard knocking people to the ground.

A happy ending

Back to Querido’s novel. It more or less has a happy ending. Thanks to the financial support of some of her first husband’s colleagues Neel Burk opens a small shop again. Times are never easy, and every once in a while woman shylock Tonie can smack her lips over the family’s weekly installment and interest payments. But Neel’s shop survives. If he isn’t out of work, Stijn is trying his luck in fishmongering or is stacking bales of sugar at the factory. It’s hard for him to resist the temptation of a drink. At home Neel gets a beating regularly. Business as usual, one might say. Neel delivers her tenth child. There are complications, but all’s well that ends well.

Onderdeel van een paper voorgelegd aan het World Economic History Congress, Utrecht 2009: