Steba Rijna and Leander Goeloe. An island-transcending history of an enslaved family.


A remarkable discovery in the digitized Colonial Archive preserved at the Archivo Nacional Aruba reveals a request for the return of two enslaved individuals who are located on Aruba. In a letter dated May 8, 1861, it is mentioned that “the mason Steba and his son Leander” were expected on Bonaire.[1] This mention is noteworthy, as colonial archives typically only mention the mother’s name of enslaved individuals. There were no fathers; only “freeborn or manumitted” individuals could be legally registered, and enslaved fathers had no opportunity to acknowledge their child. This is also the case with Leander, of whom we only know the mother’s name, namely Elizabeth Goeloe. The identity of Steba Rijna as the father remains unknown. A discovery revealing a father-son relationship in this instance is of invaluable importance as it sheds light on the fragmented and complex history of family relations within slave households. 

Technological advancements in digital heritage provide a solution for researching the myriads of family relationships within the former colony. With a few search queries and mouse clicks, we can trace the names of individuals and within minutes find their documented lives in the archives. By employing Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR), made possible in part by Transkribus, an AI tool for unlocking historical documents, and offering the results of this application (digital transcription) as full-text searchable items via a search engine on a platform such as, it becomes easier to establish connections between people.[2] 

And thus, by reading between the lines, we can reconstruct even more life stories. However, finding information is not an easy task. The archives of the former colony Curaçao and its Subordinate Islands Bonaire and Aruba are not bounded like the islands are by their coastal waters but dispersed across multiple (archive) institutions within the Kingdom. The ancient power dynamics are (sometimes) still palpable, as evidenced by the access to information and the resources available for conducting research on its contents. The motivations of institutions to conduct research are also not always transparent, nor are the interests that research institutions have.[3] This makes researching the people who lived on the islands at that time not always straightforward. Especially since the islands and the institutions were inextricably linked. As a result, people frequently traveled between the islands, often for trade, but also for labor exchange, and it appears that (forced) labor migration was a common occurrence within the former colony. 

For example, the number of individuals in government ownership in Aruba regularly changed. In 1858, we encounter a list with eight names, at which time two enslaved individuals are being sent to Curaçao, namely Hendrik (mother: Hendrina Goeloe), and Lourens (mother: Sablina Janga).[4] Historically, the number of individuals in government ownership in Aruba was lower than on Bonaire. This difference can be explained by the fact that a much larger number of enslaved individuals were needed on Bonaire due to the work in the salt pans managed by the administration.[5] In contrast, the low number of individuals in government ownership in Aruba was largely determined by the limited success of government plantations.[6] 

Two years later, in 1860, we find a “List of Government Slaves on Aruba, on the 1st of July 1860.“[7] These lists contain the names of all enslaved individuals in government ownership in Aruba. In this 1860 list, there are nine names, with the given names of the enslaved individuals in the first column, the mothers’ names in the second column, and their ages in years and months. Compared to the 1858 list, three new individuals are listed. Steba, aged 42 years and 10 months, mother Sebel Reijna; Leander, aged 10 years and 11 months, mother Elizabeth Goeloe; and Carolus, aged 16 years and 1 month, mother Juana Goeloe (he was manumitted on Curaçao on January 31, 1862).[8] These three individuals all arrived on Aruba on June 28, 1860, two days before the compilation of the list. 

The stay of Steba and Leander on Aruba is short-lived; they are no longer listed on the monster list on January 1, 1861. According to a source from the Finance Administration in 1860, Steba has a large family, which is why it is requested that he stay in Aruba for a maximum of 3 to 4 months.[9] However, their return to Bonaire was short-lived as well. A few months later, there is another mention in a letter book of the Finance Administrator that Steba and his son Leander had to return to Bonaire, this time to assist in the repair of the Commandant’s House there.[10] A closer look at the monster lists of Aruba sheds light on the matter: they are again in Aruba on April 1, 1861, having arrived on March 7, 1861. They leave within 3 months to return to Bonaire; they are not listed on the monster list of July 1, 1861. What we know, therefore, is that Steba is a mason, that he has a large family on Bonaire, and that he is sent to work in Aruba twice for a few months each time. Leander accompanies him on both stays on Aruba and is employed as an assistant boy. 

Why was a bricklayer needed in Aruba? In the previously consulted register of letters, we find an interesting piece. On June 1, 1860, the following letter was sent:  

“Notification that the Administration is attempting to provide for the need for workers here, namely a bricklayer and a carpenter, either from Bonaire or by hiring on Curaçao.”[12] 

This request is not isolated; as early as 1857, the governor of Aruba made a request to the Governor on Curaçao for the repair of government buildings. For example, we read that “[…] there are no buildings of bricks raised here, but only of earth, clay, woven twigs supplemented with small stones, such were the buildings of old, and so also my house and the government buildings.“[13] Hence, a committee was established in 1859 to oversee the many works.[14] Of interest is that the chairman of this committee, B. van der Veen Quant, a member of the Peace Court who later would also act as testamentary executor for the estate of the late Jan Vos Specht. In that role, he would oversee the manumission of a carpenter in Aruba, namely Adriaan Picus [15] (the grandfather of the later Merdado “Dada” Picus). 

From the correspondence with the Governor of Curaçao, it is evident that there are many issues in Aruba. Complaints are made about the condition of a dilapidated building (in Oranjestad) with a partially collapsed roof at house number 95, situated between the houses of D. Capriles and Joseph van Jacob Henriquez.[16] Additionally, the roof of the kitchen within the fort needs to be re-covered[17], and a note is drafted regarding the repairs done to Fort Zoutman in 1859.[18] A few months later, in April 1860, repairs need to be carried out on the Governor’s residence on Aruba, which is why the assistance of Steba is requested.[19] 

What Steba did before he came to Aruba, and what he did after he returned to Bonaire, is still unknown. More archives would need to be thoroughly examined for that. The enrichment of historical documents with HTR and the linking of information together will significantly facilitate the search. Yet, we already know that Steba appears again in the archives, this time on Bonaire. He is listed on the monster lists of 1862 and 1863 as a mason. Later, he is also included in the emancipation register and is given (on July 1, 1863) the surname “Rijna,” derived from his mother Sebel Rijna. Similarly, Leander obtains his mother’s second name, “Goeloe,” upon emancipation.[20] Without the previously found letter, these men would have remained separate entities in the emancipation register. By connecting such sources, we can better track individuals in the dataset over time and geographical distances.[21] Through this process, we also discover that in 1860, Elisabeth gave birth to a daughter, Jannetje, her sixth child. 

Regarding the family relationships Steba and Leander might have had after the abolition of slavery, we can partly find them through registers. After gaining freedom in 1863, Leander married Marsera Martha Jacobina on Bonaire in 1872.[22] Together, they had seven children in the village of Rincon. In the civil registry archive, we find Steba for the last time: in 1885, he married Elisabeth Goeloe, Leander’s mother.[23] However, the children continued to carry their mother’s surname, Goeloe, thereafter. 

Though the details of their lives are fragmentary, these archives provide an invaluable source of information about the experiences of individuals within the slavery system and how family relationships transcend the islands. Their story is just one of many waiting to be discovered and told. By studying these individual histories and family relationships over time and geographical distances, we can gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of the slavery past in the former Dutch colonies. 

The children of Elisabeth Goeloe (year of birth): 

Leander (1849) 

Amalia Girigoria (1853) 

Josefina (1855) 

Tweeling: Florencia (1857) en Florentius (1857)  

Jannetje (1860) 

Philipa (1862) 

Born after emancipation: 

Martha Seferina (1864) 

Girigori Victor (1865) 

Francisca (1867) 

Maria de los Almas (1869) 

Willem Frederico (1872) 


Steba Rijna only married Elisabeth Goeloe in 1885. 



Written by Johny van Eerden and Iris van Vlimmeren. 

Johny van Eerden has been working at the Archivo Nacional Aruba since 2022 as a Digital Accessibility employee. He is responsible for implementing handwritten text recognition and manages a significant portion of the digital collection while supporting many partner institutions of He has also contributed to the Database of Enslaved Individuals on Aruba between 1840-1863, developed in collaboration with the Historical Database Suriname and the Caribbean. 

Iris van Vlimmeren was awarded “Young Historian of the Year 2023” and is also affiliated with the Historical Database Suriname and the Caribbean. Currently, she is working on expanding the database for Bonaire, which is expected to be made available online through the website of the National Archives in The Hague by mid-2024. Additionally, she leads the project “From Archive to Classroom,” which aims to deepen awareness of the colonial past in history education. 


3 Jan Bant en Thomas van Gaalen, De koloniale grabbelton? Geraadpleegd op 1 mei 2024:
5 Antoin, B., & Luckhardt, C., Bonaire, een koloniale zoutgeschiedenis (Volendam, 2023). LM Publishers.
6 Alofs, Luc, Slaven zonder plantage. (Kinder-)slavernij en emancipatie op Aruba (Aruba, 2013)
20 Iris van Vlimmeren en Matthias Rosenbaum-Feldbrügge (red.), “Emancipatieregister Bonaire” (nog niet gepubliceerd).
21 Het project “Historische Database Suriname en de Cariben” maakt het mogelijk om deze documenten aan elkaar te koppelen om de levens van mensen in en na slavernij te volgen. De dataset die gebruikt is voor dit artikel omvat de borderellen, monsterlijsten en emancipatieregisters van Bonaire uit 1862 en 1863. Momenteel is deze database in ontwikkeling en zal naar verwachting halverwege 2024 online toegankelijk gemaakt worden via de website van het Nationaal Archief in Den Haag


foto credit

Gezicht op Kralendijk met onder meer de woning van de gezaghebber van het eiland Bonaire [1881-1889], Soublette et Fils.