Research Note: Preliminary Evidence on European Mennonites and the Slave Trade

By Driedger, Michael | Mennonite Quarterly Review, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Research Note: Preliminary Evidence on European Mennonites and the Slave Trade


Driedger, Michael, Mennonite Quarterly Review


In researching the general history of the Hamburg-Altona Mennonite congregation, I discovered that members of a prominent Mennonite family may have been involved in the slave trade during the Napoleonic era. The evidence is not conclusive, but it is difficult to ignore.

The evidence has been available for several decades, but key elements are divided between two sources. According to historian Hans Pohl, the first Hamburg-based ship known to have participated in the slave trade in South America was the Witte Voss (White Fox). In spring 1801 the ship landed in Buenos Aires in the Viceroyalty of La Plata, where its crew sold African slaves and bought animal skins and other local products. (1) Pohl does not list the name of the ship's owner. To find this information one has to consult another secondary source by the historian Walter Kresse. Kresse has compiled a detailed list of Hamburg's merchant ships, their owners and their main destinations, but he does not list their cargoes. From his work we learn that between 1798 and 1804 the Witte Voss made four trips from Hamburg to the Viceroyalty of La Plata. We also learn that from 1787 until 1806 the ship's owner was Berend Roosen I (1705-1788) and his heirs. (2) From the beginning of the seventeenth century to the end of the nineteenth century the Roosen family, the largest single ship owner in Hamburg during the Napoleonic era, (3) was one of the cornerstones of the Hamburg-Altona Mennonite congregation.

There is room for caution. Business practices in maritime commerce were complex. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was not unusual for a dozen or more individual firms to send cargo to a common port on any given ship. Moreover, it was also not unusual for more than one firm to own shares in any given ship. So it is impossible to draw certain conclusions about apparent Mennonite slave trading activity without first knowing more about who was in charge of the ship and its cargoes. To the best of my knowledge, a Roosen family business archive has not survived. Therefore, probably the only reliable way to find out more about the Witte Voss and its cargo in 1801 is to examine documents kept by Hamburg's port authorities. (4)

Although a thorough evaluation of these sources with this research problem in mind remains to be made, some relevant details about the firm and its organization are found in the secondary literature. Berend Roosen was unique among Hamburg's eighteenth-century ship owners for the tight personal control he kept over his merchant fleet. …

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