Once upon a time in the 17th century, the Netherlands was the largest slaving nation in the world. But dealing with that past has become a dilemma. Like other former slaving nations, Netherlands, as a country, has found it difficult to apologise for slavery, but its Council of Churches thinks otherwise; in June this year, the Church formally apologised for its role in slavery. Our correspondent Femi Akomolafe was in the country in July to cover the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery by the Dutch, and sent us this report.
On 1 July 2013, the Netherlands marked 150 years of “formally” abolishing slavery in 1863. Actually, it took another 10 years before the slaves began to enjoy their freedom. Therefore, many descendants of the slaves consider 1873, not 1863, as the date of abolition. In contrast, England proclaimed abolition in 1834, France in 1848, and the USA in 1865. So, the Netherlands was one of the last countries to abolish the abhorrent crime. Students of history will also remember that in Africa, the Dutch were also the last to decolonise in South Africa.
That notwithstanding, the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery was marked with ceremonial fanfair at the National Slavery Monument at the Oosterpark in the east of the commercial capital, Amsterdam. The Dutch king, Alexander III, and Queen Máxima were among the significant figures that graced the occasion.
The Netherlands, one of the smallest countries in northern Europe, was among the most enthusiastic of slave nations, but how to deal with this past is now a dilemma. As the historian, J. W. Schulte Nordholt, informs us in his seminal work, The People that Walk in Darkness: “The Dutch share in the slave-trade was large: in fact, in the 17th century, it was the largest. The Dutch West India Company had various settlements on the African coast, and millions of slaves were ferried from there, especially during the time of the Dutch occupation of Brazil. In 12 years (between 1637 and 1648), they transported no less than 23,163 slaves from Elmina and Loanda, for an amount of 6,714,423 guilders and 60 cents [the Dutch were very precise!]. They bought slaves from the Congo for 40 to 50 guilders and sold them in Brazil for 200 to 800 guilders. Certainly a worthwhile business.”
Here is how Nordholt describes a scene from the slave trade: “I stopped the carriage at the water-side, to behold a group of human beings, who had strongly attracted my attention… They were a drove of newly imported Negroes, men and women, with a few children, who were just landed from on board a Guinea ship that lay at anchor in the roads, to be sold for slaves.
“The whole party was such a set of scarcely animated automatons, such a resurrection of skin and bones, as forcibly reminded me of the last trumpet. These objects appeared at that moment to be risen from the grave, or escaped from Surgeons’ Hall; and I confess I can give no better description of them, than by comparing them to walking skeletons covered with a piece of tanned leather.”
The Dutch were not only leading participants in the transatlantic slave trade, they were also the cruellest among the slave masters! As we read from Marcus Garvey and the Vision of Africa, edited by the African-American historian and Egyptologist, John Henrik Clarke: “The Dutch had established themselves in Berbice in 1624. During the years 1624 to 1763 they were the cruellest of slave masters. The Dutch slave code was much harsher than the Spanish code. The savagery of the Dutch code is shown by one provision of calculated cruelty: the burning alive of mutinous slaves over a slow fire. The Dutch had no institution comparable to the Spanish audiencia, a tribunal which included four judges. The ruthlessness of the Dutch created the situation that came to a climax in the Berbice slave rebellion.”
Sadly, but not surprisingly, slavery remains a taboo subject in the Netherlands, a country that profited so enormously from it! Like most Europeans, the Dutch enjoy only those aspects of history that celebrate themselves. As such, many Dutch people go through school and life learning absolutely nothing about the vast crime that contributed so much to the wealth they now enjoy. And it seems that all that Dutch hagiographers busy themselves with today is to trumpet the concoctions of African chiefs gathering and selling their people to God-fearing traders from Europe. Missing in the “blame the victim” narratives are accounts of the letter that the Congolese king, Affonso I, wrote to King John of Portugal in 1526, condemning the enslavement of his people.
Also missing are the exploits of Madam Tinubu, a slave-trader who became an ardent abolitionist after discovering the true nature of the horrendous trade. Largely, Dutch commentators would like to pretend that they never heard of figures like Queen Njingha Mbandi of Ndongo (in modern Angola) who fought gallantly to drive the Portuguese slavers out of her realm. They also feign ignorance of the various battles King Agaja Trudo of Dahomey fought to keep the slavers away from his kingdom and stopped them from building their slave forts.
Mention is also not made of the internecine wars the Europeans instigated in Africa to fuel their despicable trade. Of course, European historians do not tell how these powerful African kings were subdued, when the European slaving nations supplied better guns to the rivals of the kings in order to overwhelm them.
Also missing in the narratives is the obvious contradiction of why the Europeans needed guns, gun-boats, and other instruments of violence and war if they were genuinely interested in conducting honourable trade in Africa.
Incredible as it may seem, the Christian church which today drips with brotherly love and all that, was at the forefront of the abhorrent trade in human flesh, and received much of its inglorious wealth from this unholy trade. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued a papal bull, Dum Diversas, which granted the Portuguese King Afonse V the right to reduce any “Saracens, pagans, and any other unbelievers” to hereditary slavery, thus legitimising the incipient trade in slaves.
This bull was further extended in another papal bull, Romanus Pontifex, of 1455. Thirty-eight years later, in 1493, Pope Alexander VI, through another papal bull, Inter Caetera, extended these rights to Spain to cover the New World (the Americas and parts of the Pacific).
In this milieu, it was no surprise that even relatively enlightened Christians like St. Thomas Aquinas opined that: “Although the subjection of one person to another (servitus) was not part of the primary intention of the natural law, it was appropriate and socially useful in a world impaired by original sin.”
Taking their cue from the Pontiffs, Christian theologians zealously published texts to justify the odious trade. As a result, few slave ships sailed without Christian priests on hand to bless them. Today, many Christians will feel discomfited by the fact that the first slave ship that actually took African slaves to the USA was named The Good Ship Jesus, which was lent to the pirate John Hawkins by the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth I.
In the Netherlands, however, things appear to be changing. Whilst Dutch politicians, like their counterparts elsewhere in the West, fear the financial consequences of rendering a formal apology, the country’s Council of Churches, headquartered in Amersfoort, offered a public apology in June this year for the role the church played in the transatlantic slavery.