Published On: Sun, Jan 29th, 2023

Slavery debate gains momentum in the Netherlands

PHILIPSBURG — The history of slavery is not only a hot topic in the Caribbean. Three Dutch cities – Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht – have already offered apologies and in Dordrecht the e-zine Dordrecht Monumenteel/Dordts Geboren (Dordrecht Monumental/Born in Dordrecht) dedicated a large part of its December issue to the city’s role in the slave trade. In December, Prime Minister Mark Rutte offered apologies on behalf of his government, saying that the slave trade was a crime against humanity.

Dordrecht Monumenteel is a cultural-historic magazine. It researched the city’s role in the slave trade in regional archives in 2022, with cooperation from the magazine’s publisher Augustijnenhof.

“It is harrowing that this issue is completely ignored in our history-books, the editors write in a preface. “Therefore we do not know which price has been paid for our prosperity.”

One thing became clear from the research: everyone in Dordrecht, from the city-manager to those low on the social totem pole, was involved in the affairs of the West-Indian Compagnie (WIC) and the United East-Indian Compagnie (VOC).

The research showed that around 3,000 citizens of Dordrecht worked during the slavery-period on ships of the WIC or the VOC. They were cabin boys, sailors, coopers, carpenters, soldiers or they were otherwise employed.

The real number is probably much higher because the WIC-archives have been lost. Given the city’s limited population at the time, those associated with the slave trade represented a significant part of its inhabitants. In the year 1400 there were just 8,000 people living in the city. These days the number is close to 120,000. Not everybody started working willingly for the slave trading companies: some took the step driven by poverty, while others were shanghaied.

Dordrecht also deported convicted criminals to the infamous Fort Elmina in Ghana where they worked as guards of slaves who were waiting for their transport to South America.

Slave traders from Dordrecht plied most of their business in Suriname, but also in Curacao.

Plantation-owner Pieter Pieterz van der Werff, whose family lived in Dordrecht, wrote on December 19, 1761 in a letter to the Commercie Compagnie about the arrival of a ship from Vlissingen with 260 healthy slaves from the Gold Coast on board.

The Commercie Compagnie, established in Middelburg (MCC), was that largest Dutch slave trading company in the second half of the eighteenth century.

The Van der Werff family was actively involved in the slave trade. Pieter Pietterz van der Werff managed plantations in Suriname between 1749 and 1763. He was the co-owner of a store in Dordrecht called Rozijnkorf that traded colonial merchandise. For many years, the store imported sugar and coffee from plantations in Suriname.

The archives of MCC are among the most complete of their kind about human trafficking. Since 2011 they are Unesco World Heritage. The company was established in 1720. Ten years later, the monopoly of the WIC came to an end and MCC acquired a prominent position in human trafficking, specialized in the trade between Africa and Suriname.

Many members of the De Witt family from Dordrecht were involved in colonial trade and the slave trade. Prime Minister Johann de Witt‘s grandfather was a manager of the WIC and a large shareholder in the VOC Zeeland. His son-in-law Simon van Halewijn owned a large number of plantations in Suriname. This is also where a connection with the slave trade in Curacao comes to light.

Johan’s sister Maria de Witt was married to Diederick Hoeufft and his cousin Gerard Luls was a commissioner for the slave trade in Curacao where he later also became governor. During his term as commissioner, 2,858 slaves arrived in Curacao.

Johan and his brother Cornelis de Witt were lynched in 1672 by an angry mob for their opposition to the Prince of Orange. Jacob Hoeufft Jr. (son of Maria and Diederick) avoided such barbarism, by supporting the prince. He became the mayor of Dordrecht.

The research also shows a strong link between slavery and sexual violence. In January 1761 captain-lieutenant Abraham Albert Schurer raped a slave aboard the vessel Philadelphia. Captain Menkelveld caught him in the act and kicked him off the ship. The archives mention that Schurer returned to the captain’s quarters, where an ugly fight erupted. The subsequent court case dealt mainly with the honor of the rapist and not at all with the impact of the rape on its victim.

The e-zine mentions another link to Curacao. In 1634 the WIC conquered the island and turned it into an important transit port for the slave trade in the Caribbean. Slaves were branded and given a new identity. Around 1660 the sugar-trader Mathijs Beck created the private plantation Savonet where 252 slaves worked at one time. The house of this plantation is now a museum about the history of the Arawaks who settled down in Curacao in the fifteenth century.

The editors of the e-zine are brutal in their conclusions. “Research shows that greed-driven citizens from Dordrecht have used slaves without any objections. They even traded slaves for food and horses. Protestant churches have also played an important role; the Christian faith was often enforced.”

In February 2022 Utrecht’s mayor Sharon Dijksma offered apologies for the city’s role in the slave trade. “An apology for Utrecht’s role in the history of slavery is an important step,” Dijksma said at the time. Utrecht took part in the slave trade in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century. City-managers, ordinary citizens, the Catholic Church, museums and even the university benefited from it.

Linda Nooitmeer, the chairlady of the National Institute Dutch Slavery History and Legacy, proudly accepted Dijksma’s apologies. “Enslaved people were decimated to merchandise,” she noted. “The people did not exist. With apologies they regain some dignity.”

Nooitmeer, who is a descendant of enslaved people, emphasized the importance of awareness. “When there is awareness, there is more knowledge. The next step is reparation. We have to have that debate and we have to correct what is wrong.”


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