With Qualifiersperpetuaan [Singular, Dutch]
Textiles, Modifiers, and Values
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Perpetuanen are a finely woven and durable woolen twill fabric, composed of mixed combed and carded wool. Etymologically its name stems from the English word perpetual, in all likelihood hinting at the textile’s durability. The majority of perpetuanen were dyed in a single color, predominantly blue or green. Cécile Fromont’s statement that “blue colored cloth was the most popular import to central Africa” is supported by our findings.  Our data shows that out of 119,381 perpetuanen, half are a shade of blue, circa 35% are a shade of green, and circa 10% are a combination of blue and green. The remainder are purple, red, yellow, or white; the latter can presumably be interpreted as undyed. In size, perpetuanen seem to have ranged between 12 and 22 ell per piece, with 14 ell being the standard. In 1707, the ship Elmina destined for its namesake city in Ghana transported 50 perpetuanen supplied by the Dutch merchant Jesse van Bunschoten. They were listed as “perpetuanen of the old kind of 2 to 23 ell long” (perpetuanen van de oude soort van 2 a 23 el langh), ‘old’ perhaps a previous standard length, or another as-yet undefined quality. Modifiers such as small and narrow or big and wide are used interchangeably and do not help to further determine measurements.
Prices per piece range from 12 stuivers to 24 guilders, a wide range perhaps reflecting the quality of the weave and/or dye.  Archival evidence suggests, for instance, that a green perpetuaan was slightly more expensive than blue. When comparing our WIC data with that of the VOC, a clear disparity between the average price per piece can be noticed. The cost of perpetuanen traded to Africa by the WIC range between 4.77 and 5.83 guilders per piece, whereas those traded by the VOC to Asia are valued on average between 18.50 and 33.35 guilders per piece; nearly 3 to 4 times more expensive. The smaller price variations within each dataset seem to indicate a difference in measurements: small and narrow versus big and wide.
Perpetuanen originated in southwest England, where in about 1618, the English textile manufacturer, Benedict Webb, claimed that he invented them around 1583. Whether or not he did, their production became a particular specialty of the city of Exeter and thousands were exported via the ports of Plymouth, Dartmouth, Bristol and Topsham to the Mediterranean lands, Latin America, Asia and Africa.  After white pinion (or noil-weft) serges are converted into perpetuanen by being hot-pressed—giving them, according to Kerridge, a “lustrous, glossy finish”—they would usually be sold to be piece-dyed either in London or in Europe.  The first recorded mention of a hot-press in the Netherlands is the privilege granted by the city of Leiden to Philip Brugman on 23 September 1617 for his invention of a machine to press woolens.  Other cities soon followed with serges being converted into perpetuanen in Amsterdam by 1618, in Haarlem and Delft by 1633, and in Harlingen by 1654.  The two main locations of production, England versus Holland, are also reflected in a contemporary Danish swatch book that lists both “Hollandsche store Perpetuaner” and “Engelsche store Perpetuaner.” Within our dataset, perpetuanen are never identified as English, but there are instances of “Scottish saai or perpetuanen” (Schotse zaijen off perpetuanen), suggesting that they may have been traded via Scotland. Perpetuanen are just one example of numerous woolen-based cloths that were exported by the VOC and the WIC to Asia and Africa. During the 17th century, perpetuanen were also being produced in a number of French towns, including Beauvais, Nîmes, Montpellier, Castres, where they were known as serges imperials.  In 27 years, England’s Royal African Company (RAC) reportedly sent more than 170,000 perpetuanen to Africa.  Our data similarly shows that between 1700 and 1724, the WIC shipped at least 117,981 perpetuanen to the former Gold Coast (Ghana), the former Slave Coast (Benin), Angola, and Mauritania. The VOC in comparison only shipped about 1400 perpetuanen via Batavia to local markets in Japan, Java, Maluku (former Spice Islands), Southwest Malaysia, Thailand (former Siam), and Yemen. Like the English, the Dutch focused primarily on African markets for their perpetuanen trade.
For numerous WIC data entries, a separate cost per piece is listed for “dying, pressing, toiletten (Dutch)” (verwen, parsen en toilletten), indicating that these perpetuanen were produced in the Low Countries rather than in England. Godefried van Tongeren, for instance, paid 20 stuivers a piece to dye 160 perpetuanen blue, 30 stuivers a piece to dye another 160 green-white, 10 stuivers for hot-pressing and an additional 6.5 stuivers for toiletten. The 17th-century Dutch verb toiletten refers to the practice of wrapping with a cloth (in een ‘toilet’ inpakken—‘to wrap in a toilet’) with a toilet being “a piece of cloth, originally cotton, that was wrapped around new cloths or newly completed garments to protect them.”  Perpetuanen were thus first hot-pressed, then piece-dyed and subsequently wrapped in another piece of textile.
Little information is known on their usage in a Dutch, Asian or African context. According to The Fairchild Books Dictionary of Textiles, perpetuanen were used primarily as bedcovers, coat linings, draperies, and underpetticoats.  As a durable, but finely woven woolen fabric, they would have added an additional layer of protection against cold Dutch weather. Secondary sources tell us that while woolen cloths were used primarily in Asia in horse and elephant saddles and bridles, tents, and house furnishings, perpetuanen seem to have been primarily used “among ‘the meaner sort of people’ for making caps, coats and covering cloths to sleep in during the rains.”  Our VOC data thus far seems to confirm that there was only limited demand in Asia for Dutch perpetuanen. In contrast, vast quantities were shipped to Africa. According to Alpern, women in Whydah (former Slave Coast) wove woolen cloth from unraveled says and perpetuanen, which were subsequently shipped by the English to Barbados. Unable to produce linen, wool, or silk due to a lack of flax, suitable sheep, or requisite moth larvae, and because of the limited range of local dyes, Alpern argues that these women were prompted to unravel imported fabrics in order to obtain colored threads.  In 1602, the Dutch trader and explorer Pieter de Marees also described how Africans would “buy many red, blue, yellow and green rupinsche Cloths, which they tie around their bodies as Belts in order to hang their things on them, such as Knives, Purses, Daggers and so on.”  Alpern suggests that Marees might have used the unknown term rupinsche in lieu of perpetuanen.  Perhaps the colorful red sash (above, left) wrapped around the waist of a Kongo ambassador portrayed by the Dutch artist Albert Eckhout in an oil painting on paper might represent such an imported perpetuaan? 
Talitha Maria G. Schepers
Cécile Fromont, ‘Common Threads: Cloth, Colour, and the Slave Trade in Early Mondern Kongo and Angola’, Art History, 41: 838-867, here 853. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8365.12400
Kerridge comments on the deteriorating quality of English perpetuanen over time, resulting in an attempt to regulate the perpetuanen industry by royal charter in 1619. Eric Kerridge, Textile manufactures in early modern England (Manchester University Press, 1985), 119.
Webb also claimed to have invented Spanish medleys, another carded wool fabric. Kerridge notes that in 1613 two judges declared that “perpetuanoes and serges were at the first an invencion of the westerne partes.” Kerridge 1985, 38-40, 118-120, 219, 235, 237.
Kerridge 1985, 118, 173.
Marius Buning, ‘Between Imitation and Invention. Inventor Privileges and Technological Progress in the Early Dutch Republic (c. 1585–1625)’, Intellectual History Review, Special Issue: The Nature of Invention, ed. by Alexander Marr and Vera Keller, 24:3 (2014), 4.
Kerridge 1985, 242.
K. N. Chaudhuri, The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company, 1660-1760 (Cambridge University Press, 1978), 242.
Stanley B. Alpern, ‘What Africans Got for Their Slaves: A Master List of European Trade Goods’, History in Africa, 22 (1995), 9-10.
See the entry for toilet in the Historische woordenboeken Nederlands en Fries available online through the Instituut voor de Nederlandse taal: [https://gtb.ivdnt.org/iWDB/search?actie=article&wdb=WNT&id=M069066.re.2&lemma=toiletten&domein=0&conc=true; Last Accessed: 02 October 2022].
Ajoy K. Sarkar, Phyllis G. Tortora, Ingrid Johnson (eds.), The Fairchild Books Dictionary of Textiles, 9th edition, (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021), 352.
Chaudhuri 1978, 221-223, 228, quote 223; Kerridge 1985, 224
Alpern 1995, 10, 34.
Pieter de Marees, Description and Historical Account of the Gold Kingdom of Guinea (1602), transl. from the Dutch and ed. by Albert van Dantzig and Adam Jones (Oxford University Press, 1987), 39, 52.
Alpern 1995, 9; K. Ratelband (ed.), Vijf dagregisters van het kasteel São Jorge da Mina (Elmina) aan de Goudkust (1645-1647) (The Hague, 1953), 385-387, here cvii.
Cécile Fromont, The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 111-112, 116. For her analysis of this work on paper also see ‘Common Threads’, 853-860.