University

In the explorer’s footsteps

A century-old cold case

 

Author Fleur van der Bij traced the footsteps of an explorer who disappeared along the Nile. Along the way she wrestled with her sister’s death and suffered a psychosis. ‘I thought I was Schuver.’
By Puck Swarte / Photo by Reyer Boxem / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Juan Maria Schuver

Juan Maria Schuver (1852-1883) was the only child of Catholic coffee and tea merchant Johannes Theodorus Antonius Schuver from Amsterdam. He inherited the family fortune after his father’s death. He used the money to fund several scientific expeditions to Africa. In 1880 he visited the Blue Nile, where he wanted to find a new route to the East-African coast. But in 1883, he mysteriously disappeared. To this day, no one knows how Schuver died. There are theories that he was murdered, but there are also rumours that he joined an anti-colonial rebel movement.
His body has never been found.

In 2006, Fleur van der Bij was pleasantly surprised to discover that not all great explorers were from England or Spain. The Netherlands had its very own explorer: Juan Maria Schuver. Even better: Schuver disappeared under mysterious circumstances somewhere along the Nile. Fleur, who was seeking inspiration for her history master’s thesis, was sure she had found it in Schuver.

Little did she know that Schuver would come to play a defining role in her life.

Even after finishing her thesis – earning a 7 – Fleur couldn’t shake her fascination with Schuver. She decided to travel the Blue and White Nile basins, where he disappeared in 1883. She wanted to write a book based on his travel diary and observations: ‘There is a 125-year gap. I wanted to know what it looked like today. I wanted to show that the cause of today’s problems lay in that period.’

Above all, she was curious about his mysterious death. It was a cold case she had to solve.

No ‘ordinary’ murder

Fleur disagreed with the accepted theory that Schuver’s death was an ‘ordinary’ murder. She preferred the theory that he joined an anti-colonial Islamic rebel movement. ‘But I quickly realised that this was unlikely, since he always wrote about himself as an atheist’, she says. ‘On top of that, the Mahdi were much more radical than I initially thought.’

So what did happen?

To find out, Fleur determined to reach Meshra el Rek, the South Sudanese village where Schuver was last seen. But the road to Meshra el Rek is extremely dangerous. Even 125 years after Schemer’s death clans are still waging war with each other. Her immediate environment also felt unsafe; at one point her guide, with whom she shared a small hut, masturbated openly beside her. She was terrified. Another man pretended to be a police officer of the vice squad and assaulted her. She was rescued, but just in time.

Fleur refused to let her circumstances get to her. ‘I just suppressed everything I saw. Whenever the fear was threatening to take over, I consciously flipped a switch. I made the rational decision to not be afraid. I was so determined to reach my goal.’

‘Don’t cry’

Fleur admits that she is obsessive. Looking back, she thinks she was probably already having mental problems during the trip. The chaos of her situation somehow awoke a long-forgotten trauma. ‘When I was fifteen, my younger sister Ylse was hit by a car.’ Twelve-year-old Ylse was knocked into a ditch, suffered hypothermia, and died.

‘In the small Frisian village I lived in, victim support was unheard of. The accident happened on a Tuesday and I had to go back to school the next Monday. There was no one to talk to about what happened, no counsellor or anything.’

In her book De Nijl in mij (The Nile in me), recently published by Atlas, she describes how her grandmother would tell her: ‘Be brave, don’t cry.’

Fleur never talked about the accident. She didn’t talk about it then or later – until her trip to Sudan. ‘Because I was in a completely new environment, I had an easier time talking about myself. I made friends with my guide’s sister. When she told me about her brother, an army pilot who had been shot down, I suddenly started talking about my sister. Later, I entered into a relationship with someone who had fought in the army and killed people. He had his own traumas, and I had my sister.’

Psychosis

Fleur never solved the case of Schuver’s death, but when she returned to the Netherlands, she started her book anyway. And that’s when things went truly wrong. She began to believe that song lyrics were about her. She saw solutions to the problems of Sudan in pyramid-shaped Lipton tea bags. On her map of the world, the Nile would light up suddenly. When she read that women often disguised themselves as men in order to go exploring, she realised: she was Juan Maria Schuver!

Fleur didn’t know it at the time, but she had become psychotic. Like Carrie from Homeland, she saw connections everywhere, and wrote everything down. ‘I had completely lost touch with reality, but I retained all my skills. They made absolutely no sense, but I approached my theories the way I would any historical problem. I filled entire notebooks. That’s also how I was able to talk about it so well.’

Funnily enough, she sees this as a positive period in her life. ‘I was so incredibly happy. I was a peace goddess, I was Schuver himself. No one understood what I was talking about, but that was okay. I would explain it all in my book. It was a really peaceful time. I honestly thought I had the solution to everything. It all fell apart once I got back in touch with reality.’

Fleur has since been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She thinks the disease was triggered by the fact that she never dealt with her sister’s death.

Secret sister club

Slowly, Fleur allowed herself to remember the good things about her sister: how much they looked alike, how much Ylse wished they had been twins, how they created their own ‘secret sister club’, how much they both loved the film Jurassic Park. This marked the beginning of years of therapy as she processed the trauma.

She moved back to her attic room in Groningen to finish her book. It’s become less of a story about how she travelled in Schuver’s footsteps, and more of a personal tale. The definitive story presents itself to her when she looks at the map of the world above her desk as she writes. There is the Nile, which she followed just as Schuver did. The rapids, the danger, and the dark power of the river are a vivid reminder of her emotional journey. The Nile in me.

‘Schuver took me by the hand and enabled me to come to grips with my own history. My trauma resurfacing could have ended differently. I could have not come back from it at all. But I’m here talking to you because I took that trip with him.’

Nederlands