Who is Presto?

Presto is the name Europeans gave to an African boy in the Netherlands, who in later life became known as Christiaan van der Vegt. Presto, or Christiaan, was born in West Africa, probably in the country now known as Ghana, or in a neighbouring area. He was born around 1743, and brought to the Netherlands at age 5 or so, by a Dutch West India Company official. here he was given as a present to a Dutch princess and lived at the court for some time. Later he served in the household of the family of a small town mayor, before becoming independent.

Through a variety of public and private records, his descendant Annemieke van der Vegt was able to reconstruct most of Christiaan's life in Europe. Annemieke keeps a blog about her research: "Hoe heette Christiaan?" ("What was Christiaan's name?"). The blog is in Dutch but has an English summary: The story in English.

Annemieke is religiously using the name Christiaan van der Vegt in all her publications, as it was the name her ancestor went by during the time of his life that he was really free. However, in his younger years in the Netherlands he went by the name Presto, possibly given to him because he was a gifted musician, playing the flute. For the purpose of this blog, dealing with the Ghanaian history of Christiaan / Presto, we will be using the earliest known name he went by, in the knowledge that as a boy in West Africa he bore a different name altogether, given to him by his parents.

Why does Presto return to Ghana?

From 2014, I became involved in Annemieke's research, coaching her in doing archival research and lecturing her on the history of Ghana and the Netherlands, the Atlantic slave trade, and the presence of Africans in the Netherlands in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is my profession after all.

During our collaboration it became more and more clear that Presto's story and my own research into the eighteenth-century organisation of the Dutch slave trade were intertwined. Dutch West India Company officials and slave traders working in Ghana whom I have known for decades from my own research, have now entered the life history of Presto, and Annemieke's research. And vice versa, Christiaan van der Vegt, a.k.a. Presto has entered mine.

So by early 2016 it was decided that it would be opportune to bring Presto back to Ghana, in the form of a first visit by Annemieke, with me as her travel guide. Between 9 and 20 August 2016 we will visit Accra, Elmina, Axim, and the surrounding areas, which (may have) played a role in Presto's life. Through discussions, observations, and publication of our experiences in a blog and on social media, we will try to get closer to the earliest years of Presto's life, and the business of young African children being sent to Europe in the eighteenth century, as a by-product of the Atlantic slave trade.

Annemieke will keep a blog in Dutch, I will keep one in English. We will both approach the visit from our own perspective: Annemieke telling her personal story, while I will give academic context, with both historiographical and methodological comments on the research process and an analysis of our findings.

Michel R. Doortmont