The Netherlands despite being a small country,
lacking in natural resources, was able in the 17th Century to
become the centre for European overseas trade, including the
trade in human beings. This 'Dutch Miracle' was a product of
numerous innovations in navigation, manufacturing and finance,
which allowed for slaves and slave produce to be transported
at greater capacity and at lower cost. The first recorded trader
sold 20 Africans to the colony of Virginia in North America
in 1619, but the Dutch trade only really took off in response
to labour shortage in the newly conquered sugar plantations
of Northern Brazil in 1630. Wars with Portugal (1620-1655) left
the Dutch in control of many of the slave depots on the West
African coast, centred on modern Ghana, which by 1650 had dispatched
30,000 slaves to Brazil alone. After the return of the Brazilian
colonies to Portugal in 1654, the Dutch traders were able to
draw upon their network of forts to supply other European powers,
dominating the supply to Spain until the 1690s. However the
near constant warfare the Netherlands were waged in with other
European nations, such as Spain, France and Britain, by Imperial
Spain, did eventually sap its strength, and Dutch involvement
in the trade declined in the 18th Century, and effectively ceased
in 1795. When the final abolition of the trade and institution
of slavery formally occurred in 1863, Dutch agents had brought
540,000 Africans to the Americas and cast the spectre of slavery
east, from the Cape of Good Hope to the Indonesian archipelago.
The Dutch-Portuguese Wars
Between 1620 and 1655 the Netherlands
and Portugal were at war, a struggle that became increasingly dictated
by the needs of the slave trade. The Dutch were late comers to Africa,
and their attempts to establish trading posts inevitably led to confrontation
with the Portuguese. The Dutch were initially chasing African gold,
but after they captured the sugar plantations in northern Brazil,
they turned to slavery to help realise its full potential. Plans made
to conquer the Portugeuse headquarters on the gold coast, São
Jorge da Mina, to ensure a steady flow of slaves, were successful
and it fell in 1637. The newly renamed Elmina, proved disappointing,
but it drove them on to Angola, and the island depot of São
Tomé, and gave Dutch slavers a taste of the profit had at the
expense of human beings. When Brazil fell in 1654 the trade continued
at a pace, with colonies like Curacou emerging as vast slave markets
open to the whole Caribbean.
Amsterdam was the capital
of the Holland, the largest and most important of the Seven Provinces
that comprised the Netherlands. The city was already prosperous, but
when the southern city of Antwerp fell to the Spanish in 1585, it
benefited from a stream of enterprising merchants and wealthy refugees.
By the mid 1600s it was the most important trading centre in the world,
providing a vital supporting role to Caribbean slavery.
West-Indisch Huis (West Indies House, see photo below) in the centre
of Amsterdam was the former headquarters of the Dutch West-Indische
Compagnie (West India Company or WIC), which was probably the
largest single slave trader in history. The company was chartered
in 1621, and provided with a monopoly on the African slave trade
that lasted until 1730. This building was occupied from 1621-1647,
a period which saw the first of 30,000 slaves arriving in Dutch
Brazil, arranged through the WIC.
The slave routes required bulk warehousing and transportation for
slave produce once it arrived back in the 'Old World', and Amsterdam
developed accordingly. Its historic centre retains many of the original
tall, narrow and deep warehouses that as part of the colonial boom
once bulged with sugar, cotton and tobacco.
In the 17th Century most traded commodities passed through Amsterdam's
canals and rested in its warehouses before being traded on. The
Commodity Exchange (Beurs, pictured below) was built from
1608-1613 with this fact in mind, becoming so influential that merchants
came from all over Europe to set their prices, and to speculate
on the goods newly arrived from the Caribbean. These prices would
in turn help shape the demand for bonded labour in the various sectors
of the slave economy.
Amsterdam ranks as a European capital of slavery. While its mills
processed almost all the sugar from the Portuguese colonies, its
financiers bankrolled the Danish, Swedish and Brandenburg slave
trade, and in turn Scandinavian and German sailors made up half
its slaving crews. As home to the world's most sophisticated banking
and insurance system, it was the natural home for the expensive
and potentially risky business of slaving, and for this reason alone
as many as 10,000 vessels were associated with the port.
The17th Century has been widely described as the Netherlands' 'Golden
Age.' The period saw the flowering of the arts and sciences. The
average Dutchman was wealthier than his counterparts in any other
country in the world and lived in a relatively tolerant country.
This progress was achieved in part at an appalling human cost, and
several of era's great advances helped tighten the noose around
the African continent.
Amsterdam's Town Hall is perhaps the most significant building
from this period, built from 1648-65 and by design the most ambitious
and indeed the largest home to any city government in Europe.
The elaborate freeze on the western façade (see below) depicts
the basis of Amsterdam's wealth. The female personification of the
city reaches out for the treasures of Europe (on the left), Asia
(on the right), America (far right) and Africa (far left). A cargo
ship is shown bring this bounty to the port, the centre of the world,
and above the statue of Atlas makes the nation's claim to carrying
the world on it shoulders. The Golden Age was the high water mark
of Dutch influence, its power and culture a product of these patterns
The ports of Vlissingen and Middleburg in the south-western State
of Zeeland became dependent on the slave trade to an unparalleled
degree, beating even Amsterdam as the main departure point for slavers.
Ships from Zeeland made 672 journeys to Africa, transporting 278,476
people into a life of slavery, compared to the 173 recorded voyages
from Amsterdam, carrying 73,476. The two ports were practically
slaving communities, and official reports indicated that by 1750
the only significant commercial activity in Vlissingen was the slave
trade. This marked quite a transformation for the province, which
in 1596 had steadfastly rejected the opening of a slave market in
Middleburg, on the basis that Dutch law did not countenance slavery.
The momentum that drove slavery brought on a transformation in attitudes
within the area, and saw Middleburg (see map below) become host
to the largest independent slaving company in the Netherlands. The
Middleburg Commercial Company (MCC) transported 31,095 Africans
to the Americas between 1732 and 1803, of whom 27,344 survived the
crossing. This period map of Middleburg shows the familiar network
of canals and docks that marked it out as an efficient and prolific
Dutch innovation transformed shipbuilding. The Netherlands had
to import almost all of its wood from abroad, and to save money
found ways of making fast and efficient ships from cheap materials.
The Fluyt or 'fly boat' was one such design, based on low
quality wood and easily pre fabricated parts, and requiring a much
smaller crew than the ships of foreign competitors. This ship became
a familiar site throughout Europe, Africa and the Caribbean, and
its vast cargo hold and shallow draft made it ideally suited for
slave voyages. The nation's talent for shipbuilding encouraged countries
across the continent to either borrow Dutch designs, or simply commission
fleets to be constructed in Dutch ports. Thanks to vessels like
the Fluyt come 1670 the Netherlands had more ships than England,
France, Germany, Portugal, Spain and Scotland put together, boasting
the most 'efficient' slave ships afloat.
The Dutch captured the British colony of Suriname during the Second
Anglo-Dutch War(1667), and under the WIC it was developed as a plantation
slave society. It was a primary destination for the Dutch slave
trade, yet unusually it never experienced a general slave rebellion.
The regime was one of extreme and deliberate brutality, even by
the standards of the time. Mortality was so high that although 300,000
slaves were imported between 1668 and 1823, the ravaged population
was never able to grow beyond a figure of 50,000. 'Maroonage' emerged
as the main method of resistence. Fugitive slaves, 'Maroons' fled
inland, and formed permanent communities. There is nothing unusual
about this in any slave society, except for its scope. The Suriname
Maroons numbered between 25-47 thousand in the 18th and 19th Centuries,
and engaged the Dutch in over 50 years of gureilla warfare. The
resistance proved so strong that the colonial government acknowlged
their virtual independence in the 1760s. The Scottish-Dutch soldier
John Gabriel Stedman witnessed the oppression of the slaves during
a campaign against the maroons in 1774. His book a Narrative
of a Five Years Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam,
with vivid illustrations by William Blake and Francesco Bartolozzi
was taken to heart by abolitionists, through Stedman's real sympathies
are thought to have been with reform rather than abolition.
The domestic slave Coffy led a rebellion in the Dutch Colony of
Berbice (now British Guyana) in February 1763. An outbreak of yellow
fever had left the white slave owners weakened and vulnerable, and
the slaves saw a chance to rise. Taking arms, they almost succeeded
in their first aim of driving all whites from the colony. Coffy
had opted for peaceful coexistence with the former slave masters,
and planned to broker a treaty with the authorities like the maroons
of Surinam. He fell out with his fellow rebel leaders and committed
suicide three months into the rebellion, but his followers continued
fighting Dutch forces until April 1764.
In 1623 the WIC were granted permission to establish the province
of New Netherland in North America. The Dutch were largely unwilling
to become settlers (thanks in part to their relatively comfortable
position at home), and the colony developed with large numbers of
European workers, particularly from England, Germany and what is
now Belgium. The shortage inevitably led the colonists to turn to
the slave trade, and in 1625 the first group of 11 African males
arrived on Manhattan Island at fort New Amsterdam (now New York).
The WIC pinned its hopes on the New Netherland after the loss of
Brazil in 1654, and shipments markedly increased. By the 1660s the
company was the largest single slave owner in New Amsterdam, forcing
their 'property' to build roads, houses and defences. The large
wooden perimeter wall they constructed has long since disappeared,
but the American financial district 'Wall Street' takes its name
and location from these slave craftsmen.
With large numbers of white migrants already working the fields,
the demand for slaves came largely from the rapidly urbanising townships.
The system was light compared to the extremes of the plantations,
and skilled slaves were able to exploit the labour shortage to achieve
more freedom. Many had already been specialists in Caribbean colonies,
and veterans were able to achieve a state of 'half-freedom' in return
for payment to the WIC. This suited the authorities, who were quite
happy not to have to clothe and feed the half slaves themselves,
but more than prepared to demand their work when they needed them.
Because of this relaxed arrangement slaves were more easily assimilated
into the colonial culture than elsewhere, but still they preserved
and adapted many rituals originating in West Africa. The annual
Festival of 'Pinkster' (the Dutch word for Pentecost) blended African
and Christian traditions to celebrate the coming of the spring.
It was a rare holiday for slaves, an opportunity for African music,
dance and storytelling, but also for mockery, as the crowds would
mimic the European manners of their masters and elect a king for
The province of New Netherland was captured by Britain in 1664, its
slaves having laid the foundations for settlements that would emerge
as great cities: New York (New Amstersdam), Philadelphia (Fort Beversrede)
and New Jersey (Fort Nassau).
The Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie,
or VOC) was set up in 1602 to trade with Asia, and became the world's
most powerful company over the 17th Century. It fed an insatiable
European demand for spices, textiles and porcelain, and developed
trading posts from throughout Asia, including Japan, China, Iran,
India, and Indonesia, again frequently at the expense of the Portugese.
It was not directly involved in the transatlantic slave routes (the
West India Company's monopoly), but it did own large numbers of
slaves. The company's regional headquarters in Batavia (now Jakarta)
and Colombo (in Sri Lanka) had about a thousand slaves, mainly from
the bay of Bengal. Chinese, Indian and European traders provided
most of the VOCs bonded labour, but occasionally it organised its
own voyages to the East African island of Madagascar for slave raids.
The voyage to Asia usually headed around the African coast, and
VOC established a refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope to
supply these crews. In 1652 a group under Jan van Riebeeck established
the Cape Colony at Table Bay, near Table Mountain in modern South
Africa. The VOC were anxious to keep the local Khoi and San
populations on friendly terms, and in a matter of weeks van Riebeeck
requested slave labour. The administrator favoured Angolans, but
the rival WIC made it clear that West Africa and its population
was its prize, so the VOC turned east. Slave expeditions left Cape
Town for Madagascar and Mozambique, but most headed for Asia, particularly
to the Indian coast, Sumatra, Java, the Celebes, Ternate and Timor.
The Castle of Good Hope is the oldest surviving building in South
Africa, and was built and used to occupy slaves from 1666 onwards.
VOC slaves sometimes retained a version of their original names (usually
with spelling errors by company clerks), but surnames were regularly
changed to indicate the country of origin. Hence names like Lisbeth
van Bengelen (Lisbeth of Bengal), and Abraham van Batavia, the first
slave in South Africa, who was taken from the VOC headquarters. Subsequent
generations would bear the name Van de Kaap, 'of the Cape.'
The VOC commissioned a Slave Lodge in 1679 to house around 600
of its slaves, who were forced to share the building with prisoners
and the mentally ill. The tree that stood outside the lodge was
thought to have been the sight where people from across Africa and
Asia were sold into a life of slavery, and a small section of it
has been preserved. It is unlikely that this 'Slave Tree' was ever
home to a slave market, and some even doubt the remains of the tree
are genuine, but it remains a potent symbol. The city of Cape Town
planted a new tree in its place in 2002 as a mark of remembrance.