Guilty as Charged? (Cover Story/Slavery)

By Posthumus, Bram | New African, July-August 2001 | Go to article overview

Guilty as Charged? (Cover Story/Slavery)


Posthumus, Bram, New African


At last, the Dutch are building a monument to slavery in Amsterdam. But is it an attempt to come clean about their past or just a show to cover the sins of the fathers?, asks our Amsterdam correspondent,

The Dutch know all about the usual heroes: Admiral de Ruyter who sailed up the Thames to teach the English a lesson in 1667; the 80-year-war against Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries; and, more recently, the Nazi occupation. And there is the biggest hero of them all, another 17th century naval officer, Piet Heyn. He surprised the Spanish fleet in Havana, Cuba, and rook all their silver. Every Dutch child grows up singing the song written about his heroic deed.

But what about slavery? Dutch history books are, not surprisingly, largely silent about it. Nothing about the fact that the same celebrated Pier Heyn led an unsuccessful campaign in 1624 to take Luanda (Angola) from the Portuguese, at the behest of the Amsterdam-based West India Company.

From the 16th century onwards, Dutch merchant marines called at places like Sao Tome, Loango, Calabar and many other African ports, all the way south to Benguela.

Goree, off Dakar, is a corruption of the Dutch Goede Rede, which means Good Harbour. Elmina, in Ghana, was a Dutch possession until they sold it to the English in 1872. Little, if anything at all is known about the dealings of Dutch diplomats, missionaries and traders with the Asante, the Vili, the BaKongo and others.

The famous 17th century depiction of a Dutch trade delegation prostrating itself before King Alvaro of the BaKongo in Sao Salvador (now Mbanza Congo, the capital of Angola's Zaire province), did not tell us that there were negotiations going on about forging an alliance against the Portuguese and the provision of food and slaves for the faltering Dutch colony in Luanda.

The only colonial enterprise in Africa that Dutch history books find worth mentioning is the Cape, which in itself is a source of great embarrassment because of the ensuing history that eventually led to apartheid.

This oversight is slightly redressed with the advent of that most modern of teachers, the Internet. Using the largest Dutch-language search engine, the entry "Elmina" yields 24 results, 10 of which are relevant for this article. As expected, most search entries come up with the name of the Former Dutch queen, Wilhelmina.

The 'glory' years

For almost four centuries, Dutch ships sailed from Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Middelburg and elsewhere and were a fixed presence up and down the West African coast. Their purpose: trade. And again there is that slice of obfuscated history. For, the slave trade does indeed show up in the Dutch history books, but mostly as something that other people did.

They say the Dutch got involved in the slave trade by accident: some of the Spanish and Portuguese ships they captured carried African slaves, and the first time a ship with this strange human "cargo" anchored in Middelburg, the town fathers, having no clue about what to do with the Africans, set them free.

However, all this changed very quickly when the Dutch got hold of Pernambuco in Brazil in 1620, and realised that no plantation survived without African slaves. Since the Portuguese controlled transatlantic slavery, the only way to secure the economic viability of Pernambuco was to take over that trade -- by force if necessary. Angola was the single largest supplier of slaves -- and so the raids on Luanda were planned and carried our.

"The Dutch presence," says Hugh Thomas in his 1997 tome, The Slave Trade -- the History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870, "was the paramount one in both Africa and the Caribbean in the 1640s. They were in these heady days the dominant world power, Portugal's successor on both sides of the Atlantic, with innumerable possessions in the East too."

Thomas continues: "Dutch merchants in the 1650s still dominated the market of slaves for the West Indies. …

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